Burnout has been front of mind for years, but the stakes are getting higher. As we enter a season largely characterized by economic precarity, workers across every industry are feeling pressure to perform — and they’re in critical need of support for their mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing.
While outside pressures may be one cause of the challenges and burnout facing the workplace, internal workflows, processes, and expectations can be part of the problem, too. Leaders must understand that there’s no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution that will resolve burnout, said Sarah Skidmore, CEO of Skidmore Consulting, a consulting company that provides leadership training.
“Systemic issues lead to burnout,” Skidmore said. “What leaders can focus on is that area that they have control over and influence over and really spend time working with the team.”
Amidst immense pressure to boost organizational performance, HR leaders and managers must recognize and attend to the causes and impact of burnout. Here are six strategies to manage and address workforce burnout while keeping team performance in mind.
1. Deploy tech to streamline work.
Frustration with daily workday responsibilities can add up over time, and manual tasks can take up a large part of a workweek. According to Smartsheet’s Automation in the Workplace 2017 report, 40% of workers surveyed said they spent at least one-fourth of their week on repetitive tasks, and 59% said they could save six or more hours a week if those tasks were automated. Of those respondents, 78% agreed that automation would let them focus on “interesting and rewarding aspects” of their work.
Automation tools — whether it’s HR tech or customer management solutions — can streamline workers’ days, allowing them to focus more of their time on work that has meaning for them.
“Look at the big picture and look for opportunities to use leverage,” said Terry B. McDougall, executive and career coach and author of Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms. “It could be streamlining processes. It could be finding bottlenecks and going in and fixing that, so you’re not putting out the same fire again and again.”
2. Prioritize weekly one-on-ones.
With heavy workloads that force long working hours, it’s easy to postpone weekly meetings between managers and direct reports. But those one-on-ones are a critical way for leaders to gauge employee sentiment, identify burnout, and boost employee performance. According to a Gallup survey on managerial approaches, employees who regularly meet with their managers are nearly three times more likely to be engaged than those who do not.
One-on-ones provide an opportunity for managers to check in on a direct report’s progress toward their goals and what needs they have to move forward. But, as managers also use these regular meetings to measure a worker’s job stress, they should be cautious, Skidmore said.
“It’s always important to have a pulse on your team and to have an understanding of what’s going on,” she said. “But we also want to be mindful that we are showing empathy as leaders. That we’re not getting too personal. We’re not in a space where folks feel compelled that they must tell us things that they might not want to tell us.”
Joe Mullings, Chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group, a medtech talent acquisition firm, agreed. Managers aren’t psychologists, and employees may be leery of sharing too much for fear of repercussions. Having authentic conversations with employees takes time and practice as a relationship is built over time.
Mullings recommended providing workers with a chance to share frustrations or new ideas by asking questions like these:
- What should we be thinking about?
- If you had one thing we should keep our eye on, what would it be?
- What could be another approach?
“The quality of the engagement is going to be driven directly by the quality of the questions,” he said.
3. Assess engagement with surveys.
Engagement surveys that gauge respondents on their wellbeing, workload, and employee experience are another way to measure risk of burnout across departments or seniority levels. Anonymous surveys are especially useful because employees may feel more comfortable sharing their true feelings.
“It’s a safe way for people to share what’s going on because a lot of times people feel fearful about being honest,” McDougall said. “It’s important for managers and leaders to make it safe for people to state what’s going on because that’s the way that leaders can do anything about it.”
The answers may be telling, but so are the participation rates in surveys. A low number of completed surveys across a team or department, the Harvard Business Review reports, is also a potential warning sign for low engagement or burnout.
4. Train managers to provide support.
Managers matter. As Erica Keswin, workplace strategist and author of Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines into Workplace Magic, recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, investing in managers is a vital way to retain your best workers. In the article, Keswin pointed to a Goodhire survey that polled 3,000 US workers and found that 82% would potentially quit their job because of a bad manager.
“Across the board, managers need to be better trained,” Keswin said in an interview.
Training can help managers note the symptoms of burnout, but also how to speak up in support of their staff. Managers’ ability to document the real-life consequences of an overworked, burned-out workforce is important, explained Ashley Cox, founder and CEO of Human Resources consulting firm SproutHR. Signs of employee burnout can include increased absenteeism, sick days, and tardiness or more errors.
“Part of managing your team is going to bat for them, advocating for them and their needs, and making sure that your work group is performing at their highest level,” she said. “To be able to tie the results into something financial will help you have those conversations with your leadership team.”
5. Uncover what drives your employees.
If there’s anything that workers have made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent Great Resignation, it’s this: They want to have purpose in their work, and they want to grow in their career.
According to a 2022 Gartner survey of more than 3,500 employees, 52% of respondents agreed or strongly agree that the pandemic made them question the purpose of their day-to-day job.
Offering employees a new or different project and alternative tasks or asking them what would help them feel more energized or motivated may help to relieve work-related stress.
Not every worker is motivated by training and development opportunities, Cox notes. Managers must understand what drives each individual on their team. But, for those who seek out growth, cross-training or learning something new can keep them motivated in their work.
“Most people don’t thrive in an environment where they're doing the same exact thing day in and day out with absolutely no changes,” she said. “People like to be challenged. They like to learn new things.”
6. Encourage breaks.
For high-performing teams in a high-pressure environment, workers may be more likely to work through lunch breaks or eschew a walk around the block for another 20 minutes at their desk, and their managers may expect it. But, if you want a productive workforce, discouraging breaks may actually hurt overall performance.
According to a survey by The Energy Project, a consulting and training company, employees who take breaks every 90 minutes say they have a 30% higher level of focus than those who take one or no breaks. One research study found that even short “microbreaks” can help employees recover from morning fatigue and better engage in their work.
And, sometimes, employers may need to pull back on the pressure, extending deadlines or adding more members to a team, to ensure workers can step away. “You have to make sure that you’re caring for your human resources,” McDougall said.
As uncertainty looms amid demands to do more with less, it will be increasingly important to be mindful of your team members’ mental health and the work environment, Keswin said. Companies must be sensitive to the individual needs of their workers as they consider benefits and strategies aimed at reducing workplace burnout.
There’s no quick fix. But, when addressed in the right way, people leaders can make a difference.
“From an HR perspective, the times are hard and you, HR leader, are dealing with a lot. But, at the same time, there’s never been a more exciting, more impactful time to be in this function because everybody is finally realizing how important it is,” Keswin said. “It’s our time to shine.”
Download our ebook, HR's Guide to Driving Business Impact, to discover how you can continue building a culture of high performance while still supporting employees’ personal growth.
Employees who regularly meet with their managers are nearly 3x more likely to be engaged than those who do not.