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Putting out fires: Three ways to prevent employee burnout

Molly Bolding, Research Executive - Corporate Research Forum

At a recent Wellbeing Community event hosted by CRF, it seemed that member organisations were reflecting high levels of burnout across the board.

Between the cost-of-living crisis, the ongoing impact of the pandemic, and rising tensions in the office, burnout is more of a risk than ever – and research suggests that most organisations trying to tackle it are having little to no meaningful success. (Deloitte, 2022)

Moreover, the increase in burnout and work-related stress has led to many resignations, leaving companies ill-equipped to institute new policies or safeguards.

So, what can be done?

The conversation around burnout may be increasingly mainstream, but asking for support as an employee – in the form of additional accommodations, or changes in office behaviour – still carries a stigma. Plus, variations by culture and demographics can dictate the acceptability of taking up support.

As a result, it can be easier for employees to focus on trying to solve their individual needs on their own, but employers have an important role to play in supporting collective wellbeing and normalising asking for help at work.

What does that look like?

Slowing things down
Put a cap on communications. Sometimes, it’s the simple things. For example, if you want to send an email at 9pm, schedule it to send the next morning so that you aren’t disturbing people who prefer not to work after hours or creating an expectation that they will reply no matter the time. You can also ask people to use an email signature which states that there is no expectation that people will reply immediately outside business hours or that other communication methods are available.

Make changes around decision-making processes. At many organisations, the pace of decision-making during the pandemic was overwhelming. Now that the pandemic is coming to an end, teams are slowing down to take a breath and have a conversation. Why not come back in a separate session to make a decision? This gives people space and time to think, and helps them feel less overwhelmed.

Centring support
Train as many Mental Health First Aiders as physical first aiders. Many organisations have begun, or beefed up, a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme since the beginning of the pandemic. One of our members reported a gender imbalance in their initial MHFA recruiting, with more female than male MHFAs, so they have concentrated on gaining balance. Having a diverse group of MHFAs is important – people need to be able to contact someone they feel comfortable with. Other ways of centring support can include offering health and wellbeing apps or access to counselling.

Use a focus group to assess your people’s needs. Another member suggested return-to-office active listening groups. These were forums in which to share any thoughts or anxieties about returning to the office. The organisation found them helpful because they made clear how much people appreciate flexibility, how important it is for mental health, and the risks of trying to enforce a hard return.

Change up the office. The physical design of offices is in flux post-pandemic. One member is redesigning its offices to take into consideration the working styles people have become accustomed to over the course of the pandemic, with pods for quiet time and areas for connection and meeting face-to-face. The idea is to balance collaboration and liaison with quiet time and productivity.

Challenging outdated thinking
Not everyone experiences the office the same. Coming into the office is contributing to burnout for some people, as the social interaction impedes productivity. Plus, neurodiversity means that people have different triggers for burnout. For example, an extrovert might find that they missed the in-person connection and that it energises them; an introvert might feel exhausted by it.

Leaders who like the office will need to be more flexible. Many executives are very comfortable with the traditional office. It may sometimes be a tough conversation to help senior leaders understand that what worked for them in the past is not what is needed going forward. Senior leaders who don’t evolve their thinking put their organisations at risk with respect to attraction and retention.

Give people more choice. The psychological contract at work has changed; thus, giving workers agency and choice is critical. Trusting people and giving them maximum flexibility within guidelines, as a whole or at the discretion of team leaders, has been linked to improvements in engagement and job satisfaction

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