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Creating An Anti-Burnout Culture

It’s easy to think that burnout is an individual’s responsibility to “solve.” That cutting back hours or putting boundaries in place will reduce burnout. Or perhaps that time management and productivity hacks are a panacea for getting more done in less time.

Sure, these skills are all valuable and ones we need in our toolbox. (In fact, I wrote about some of these tools in Getting workplace overwhelm under control.)

But it’s not enough to assume that changes made by an individual will “fix” burnout at your company. It will never be enough unless and until we, as leaders, look at how we operate. Let’s be honest with ourselves: today’s always-on culture is taking a toll on us and our teams.

If we want to retain our best people, it’s time to redesign company culture to be more caring for ourselves and for our teams.

If we want to retain our best people, it’s time to redesign company culture to be more caring for ourselves and for our teams. It’s time to create a culture of leadership where the whole team has a sense of belonging, commitment and growth.

The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Who would want this as a team?

You may recognize the signs. You feel trapped, stagnant or defeated. You’re constantly drained and tired. You think to yourself, I can’t do this anymore. And if leaders are thinking that, can you imagine what the team is thinking and feeling?

And research shows that high achievers can be more at risk for burnout. In fact, burnout has been described as “over-achiever syndrome.” High performers rarely do anything half-way. They are driven to excellence all the time. And when they’re burned out, it feels like nothing is good enough. It’s exhausting.

Burnout is not only harming our individual well-being, it’s also hurting our businesses. And it’s hurting them big time.

Burnout is not only harming our individual well-being, it’s also hurting our businesses. And it’s hurting them big time.

When we’re burned out, we’re less efficient. So, productivity and motivation go down. Disengagement goes up. Turnover goes way up. Then time and money is spent finding talent again. And that is impacting your bottom line. Is it not?

According to a Gallup report, the cost from lost productivity of disengaged employees is equal to 18% of their annual salary. Turnover is expensive too. It’s widely reported that the cost of replacing an employee who leaves is one and a half to two times their annual salary.

Burnout is certainly not a new problem. But, as you know, it’s on the rise thanks to the pandemic.

The pandemic has stripped our emotional reserves. It’s draining our resilience. It’s created uncertainty about the future of work, the economy, our finances and our health. Employees are questioning their life choices. In fact, Gallup reports that nearly half of American’s working population is actively job searching or watching for new opportunities.

What about intangibles of turnover like employee morale? When someone jumps ship, it reverberates across the organization. Why’d they leave? Should I leave? How will we get by with one less person?

Another toll we’re paying comes from over-scheduled workdays. Back-to-back meetings and Zoom calls. Non-stop interruptions. Never-ending distractions from email, social media and text messages. There’s little or no time to get work done.

I read somewhere that the average worker is interrupted every 3 to 5 minutes and that it takes 23 minutes to get back to where they were. These interruptions are fueling burnout and also costing your businesses money.

Have I caught your attention?

What if your high potentials were fully engaged and committed? What if your people stayed because your culture supported and motivated them? And, what if they stayed even when offered significantly more to work somewhere else?

So how can you change company culture to reduce burnout?

As I proposed earlier, it’s time to redesign corporate culture to create a sense of belonging, commitment and growth. This isn’t woo-woo, touchy feely culture stuff. This is basic empathetic leadership that we often slip away from when we’re busy.

And, I am sure you’re busy. But my desire is for you to start thinking of your employees like customers. If they feel ignored or disconnected, they’re more likely to leave. So, what can you do that’s simple and yet meaningful?

First off, let’s talk about your one-on-ones. These are the most important meetings you can have with your direct reports. If you’re not having one-on-ones, now is the time to add them to your schedule. If you are having them, I dare say that now is the time to redesign them.

Inspired by Art Petty, my hope is that one-on-ones become your favorite calendar item. Say goodbye to status check-ins. They’re a waste of valuable time. Instead use the time to explore what’s working and what’s not. Use the time to pause, reflect, strengthen rapport and re-energize. Use your one-on-ones to coach, share ideas, give feedback, talk about career development.

Rather than starting one-on-ones with: “How’s it going?” Use the first few minutes to cultivate care and connection. You might say, “How is your energy these days?”

Use these meetings to uncover issues/concerns by asking questions like: Do you have the tools and resources you need to do your job well? What are you excited about? What’s one idea you or your team have that seems a little crazy and potentially really valuable? What’s keeping you up at night? Where do you feel stuck?

Reconnect your direct reports to your mission. Help them see the positive impact they’re making. Give them a sense of purpose. Help them see how their role contributes to the broader mission. And why it matters. Ask them what they find meaningful in their work. Tell them what connects you to the mission.

Use your one-on-one meetings to have career conversations. Two-thirds of people leave because of lack of career-development opportunities. Spend time understanding your direct reports’ motivations and ambitions. Identify opportunities inside your company that will help them fulfill unrealized ambition. Offer to help them reshape their work to be more meaningful. Help them job craft.

You want to send your employees out of one-on-ones with an understanding that they have the support they need to push projects forward. And, you want to leave these sessions knowing that there’s alignment on strategies and goals.

Don’t stop. These aren’t one-time conversations.

You may be thinking, “These conversations all sound great but I don’t have time.” I hear you. And, I don’t believe you. Plus, I think that it’s potentially short-sighted. Do you have the time to lose your staff?

I once heard a productivity specialist claim that he could find an additional 20% of time in anyone’s typical week.

So, my next suggestion is that you audit your meetings—and ask your team to do the same. Meetings help us collaborate, be creative and to foster relationships. But they also take us away from getting work done; and are often unproductive and inefficient. And they come at the expense of what we’re all craving: uninterrupted time to think.

Which of your recurring meetings have run their course and are no longer serving their initial purpose? Is everyone invited essential? What meetings could be shortened? I love the idea that many organizations have adopted of making 60-minute meetings 50. And 30-minute meetings go to 25.

Another idea is to redesign company norms. What do I mean? One thing my clients crave is time to think and time to do. That’s why we tend to come in early, work late or catch up over the weekend. No wonder we’re burned out.

As leaders, we need to promote and encourage uninterrupted time. And the only way I see that happening is if it’s part of the company’s norm. You’ve probably read that Citigroup instituted Zoom Free Fridays. Facebook, AirBNB and other companies have declared NO Meeting Wednesdays. What is it that would work for your company? How can you create a culture where your team has time to think and do some of this deep work?

Scott Eblin uses a great analogy: “As a leader, you control the weather.”

As leaders, we need to create a weather system that’s cool and calm—not stormy and stressful.

As leaders, we need to create a weather system that’s cool and calm—not stormy and stressful. We need to create an environment where people are taking care of themselves and their colleagues. An environment that offers the tools and resources to lead and work effectively. We need a culture that keeps our people engaged and bringing their best selves to work. A culture that values recognition, gratitude and uninterrupted time for deep work. Where employee engagement is high and turnover is low.

Burnout is taking a toll on us and our businesses. It’s time to tackle it. And as I’ve said here, it needs to start with us, as leaders. How are you going to lead these changes? Which of these ideas—if any—will you take and implement? And it doesn’t have to be all the changes, it could be just one. How will you start tackling burnout in your organization?

[This article first published on SmartBrief on Leadership.]


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