Fighting Fatigue: The Right Way to Combat Employee Burnout

Guest: Rachel Bitte Corporate America, Culture, Rachel Bitte, Work Life Balance

The age of the “always on” worker is officially upon us. Today, nearly half of workers claim they feel encouraged by their employers to check email or work after hours, and with that demand comes rapidly increasing counts of employee fatigue.

According to experts, burnout has now reached record levels, and it’s only likely to compound as younger generations feel even more pressure to be on call after close of business or the weekend. Smart employers agree that improving retention is a critical priority – and since it costs thousands of dollars to replace each employee lost – companies truly can’t afford to neglect the growing cases (and causes) of burnout.

Here’s some practical HR advice for how you can help mitigate worker stress and boost retention.

Understand it, measure it

So just what is job burnout? Medical researchers have spent more time studying the phenomenon in recent years, and come up with a more concrete definition. According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”

It not surprising then that one of the leading factors contributing to fatigue is work-life imbalance, but there are still other reasons too. Some companies think they’ve solved the issue with chef-catered meals, free laundry services and housekeeping or on-site gyms. But with an implied message of “stay here and work, we’ll take care of the rest,” businesses continue to miss the real point.

Compensation was the number one factor for employees leaving their jobs last year, followed closely by a lack of growth opportunities. Yet, more and more employees feel the need to embrace a less-balanced lifestyle as a necessity for career advancement. At least, until they experience a dip performance, lose their cool, or worse of all, hit their limit and give up entirely.

In order to catch employees before they check out, you need to provide reasons for them to actually leave the office (more on that later), as well as find smart outlets for workers to share their voice. Regularly scheduled internal surveys can provide quantifiable feedback for specific departments, but HR can also set-up one-on-one check-ins to qualitatively gauge employee sentiment.

Set expectations and be a role model

The key to mitigating employee stress lies in setting the right expectations for workers, and that starts at the management level. Managers are the eyes and ears of a company’s employees, and good ones are hyper vigilant of their teams physical health and emotional wellbeing.

From an HR perspective, you need to know whether leadership is truly advocating on behalf of the team members, rather than just fixating on company objectives. Figure out if your managers can: 1) see when employee workloads are spiking; 2) identify when workers are “on” all the time; and 3) notice when people aren’t taking any time-off.

HR can assist management during the hiring process to set the expectations, especially as more and more jobseekers vet their opportunities through the lens of culture fit. When hiring folks, work with managers to determine essential expectations during the candidate journey. That way, both employees and managers can be on the same page from day one, which is more likely to keep workers content and engaged.

Most importantly though, your company needs to have role models in leadership that practice what they preach. Know whether executives and managers are taking vacation, leaving the office at a reasonable hour and staying offline during the weekend. If they’re not doing it, it’s safe to say other employees aren’t either.

Empower employees to set their own boundaries too

To avoid burnout, employees to need to feel comfortable calling some of the shots too. Misguided on-site perks and a global work environment contribute to the constant pressure for workers to stay at work and be available across time zones. For example, if your teams are supporting clients on both coasts, does that mean workers need to be on the clock from sun up to sun down every day, grabbing grub from the food court and sneaking in a workout when they can?

That probably isn’t sustainable for most people long term, so team members need to feel comfortable to reach out to managers and HR to find their own sweet-spot. The same goes for figuring out paid time off, sick and mental health leave, balancing family time and more. After all, if employees don’t feel able to take-off that which they’re entitled to (and actually leave the office), they become much more likely to grow less motivated and less productive over time.

This is where HR can really support leadership with data to devise a system where managers can easily check-in on how many hours workers are clocking, and how often (or not) they are taking time-off. Ultimately though, workers themselves need to feel they have agency in determining when they should or shouldn’t respond to emails at night, and also when to take vacation or sick leave.

Not all instances of burnout are avoidable. After all, job stress comes with the territory, and some workers are more prone to it than others. But with a focus on creating the right employee assistance initiatives that prioritize awareness around work-life balance and mental health, you can help staff feel more fulfilled in both their professional and personal lives. Trust me, that will go a long way to keep top talent around for years to come, and save your company the costs (and troubles) associated with replacing those workers in the future.