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How can your organization minimize the impact of burnout on your team?
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Having this issue officially recognized by the medical community was a big step but highlighted the prevalence of burnout in the workforce. Fast forward to 2021, and burnout rates are at an all-time high as people navigate the continued uncertainty and stress of the ongoing pandemic. According to data from the NIHCM Foundation, 51% of people reported worse mental health at work since COVID-19 started. The factors that make nonprofit professionals particularly prone to burnout are even more pronounced as worries about funding, resources, job stability, and service populations are exacerbated.
Burnout is not just an individual condition. It has the potential for serious negative long-term impact on both individuals and organizations. Cue the Great Resignation and increasing conversations about the importance of acknowledging and addressing burnout in the workplace. Conversations are not enough; it is up to organizations to take intentional action to address the burnout epidemic in the workforce. Unfortunately, no team is immune to burnout, and it takes consistent attention to keep it at bay. We offer some suggestions to move from conversation to action.
1. Be honest with yourself and others.
The first step to facing burnout is to acknowledge its existence. According to a survey from Deloitte, 77% of professionals have experienced burnout at their current job. How many times have you forced yourself to push through when it was clear you needed a break? Or requested your team do the same? Perhaps said you are okay when you are definitely not okay? In our hustle culture and pursuit of organizational goals, it can feel like the only option is to keep going as if everything is okay all the time. When continually repeated this type of behavior is detrimental. By acknowledging the existence of burnout, you are taking a massive step of helping to destigmatize being open about feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or overworked. Or all of the above! Be prepared that transparency around burnout may not be easy as people are not always comfortable sharing these feelings. It must be clear that your organization is supportive and takes mental health seriously.
Pro tip: Start with leaders and influencers in your network sharing their experiences with burnout and encouraging others to acknowledge if they are dealing with it. This can be a sensitive topic so make sure to have a confidential system for sharing to make your team feel safe. Having open lines of communication and encouraging transparency with management is important but remember some situations may require human resources or an external third party.
Action Item: Provide educational items that help your team understand the signs of burnout and encourage them to take it seriously. Online resources such as this quiz from Mind Tools can help individuals explore how burnout may be impacting them.
2. Pay attention and listen closely to address burnout.
Listening and learning to understand how to best support your team is essential to creating a healthy work culture. According to data from Gallup, employees whose manager is always willing to listen to their work-related problems are 62% less likely to be burned out. Listening is also a recommended practice to effectively address burnout as the root causes and solutions are not the same for everyone. While we are all being impacted by issues like the pandemic, we each have unique experiences and life factors that contribute to burnout. Paying attention to your team and being observant can provide valuable insights to address potential burnout before it becomes unmanageable. For example, if a team member is suddenly unable to meet deadlines offering help without being asked conveys that their struggle is seen, and compassionate support is available. Or if a previously engaged board member has become difficult to reach, taking the time to reach out and show concern about what is causing the disengagement shows your organization cares.
Pro tip: Be aware of times that burnout can be particularly threatening to your team like after a time of intense work for a large fundraiser, big project, or grant deadline. Offering time off without being asked is indicative of an organization that is attuned to the needs of its team. The time off is essential to recover from periods of intense activity and provides time to celebrate big accomplishments.
Action item: Review upcoming projects and deadlines to identify times your team will benefit from extra time off. Scheduling the time off in advance will not only make sure that it happens but motivate your team knowing that time off after working intensely is already scheduled.
3. Establish and support boundaries.
Burnout is not something that happens overnight. If not consciously addressed, it builds up over time. One way to combat burnout daily is to establish boundaries. Practices such as continually responding to emails after work hours keep people connected to work and contribute to burnout. Separation from work is important to give people time to decompress. It is also important to have boundaries during working hours so encourage your team to own their working time. Tactics such as blocking off time on calendars for uninterrupted work time or reset breaks allow people to schedule their day in a way that brings out their best work performance while decreasing daily stress.
Pro tip: Are you finding yourself constantly monitoring your inbox or getting distracted from incoming email or message alerts from platforms such as Slack? If so, take dedicated time throughout the day to devote to these communications and mute them otherwise with a message communicating when responses can be expected.
Action item: One of the biggest sources of boundary issues and stress is expectations that team members are always “on” to receive and respond to emails, calls, and texts. Work with your team to develop a communication policy that your organization can adopt to manage expectations for both internal and external communication.
4. Maximize productivity by working less.
Sound counterproductive? Numerous studies have shown that productivity decreases beyond a 40-hour workweek. New research is showing that moving to an abbreviated workweek or working fewer hours per day can improve well-being without sacrificing productivity. Focusing on the execution of key priorities and less on tracking hours can give your team more time without negatively impacting productivity. This strategy could also help balance busy times when more work is needed with decreased work during slower times.
Pro tip: Gather feedback from your team on how current work schedules are working for them and request ideas for experimenting with different work schedules. Flexibility and scheduling autonomy are in demand as people seek a better balance between work and life activities. This is also beneficial to allow people to work with their natural work rhythm rather than conform to a set schedule.
Action item: Use the information to implement flexible schedules that give your team freedom to manage their lives while achieving work goals. Concerns around availability and reachability can be addressed by working with team members to establish core work hours. This helps to establish boundaries and consistency while giving team members input into designing their work schedules.
5. Celebrate and encourage prioritizing self-care.
How many times have you seen long work hours and personal life sacrifices glorified as the path to success? To challenge this perception, celebrate when your team prioritizes self-care. This could be celebrating a completely disconnected vacation (if you have not been on vacation answering work emails cheers to you!) and taking the time to celebrate life events like birthdays, weddings, and family additions.
Pro tip: Self-care and work time do not have to be mutually exclusive. We’ve all been in situations of rushing from one meeting to the next without time to decompress in between which can be stressful. Encouraging meeting scheduling practices that allow for buffer time of five to ten minutes between meetings can help attendees be truly present and ready to engage.
Action item: While we all wish life was only full of happy celebrations, there are times when team members need time to deal with difficult personal life events. There is not a one size fits all model for these situations so having policies that take that into account will help your team feel cared for in challenging circumstances. Take the time to review and update your current policies to improve your employee experience through good and bad times.
6. Make time for reflection and feedback.
Does it seem like your organization and team are caught in a perpetual burnout loop trying to keep up? Is everything moving so quickly that it feels like your team has lost control or sight of your organizational goals? Taking the time for reflection and feedback to examine pain points that can be contributing to these feelings is worth the time. Allowing time for reflection leads to the identification of opportunities for improvement such as streamlining processes and updating policies. Failing to address issues that hinder people’s ability to effectively do their jobs creates a work environment susceptible to increased burnout rates.
Pro tip: Is your organization caught in a yes cycle? It’s time to break the cycle and take the time to think strategically through opportunities instead of automatically saying yes to everything and stretching your team too thin. Decreasing burnout requires intention and breaking patterns that are not beneficial to the long-term success of your team.
Action item: Schedule a monthly reflection meeting for internal stakeholders to reconnect to your mission, share feedback, and inspire innovation. Having a scheduled time to pause, evaluate, and reassess priorities is more productive in the long term than pushing through and continuing to do things the same way. Taking a step back can be a powerful strategy to move forward collaboratively with clear and reasonable expectations and goals that minimize burnout.
There is no magic cure to eradicate burnout in the workplace. However, organizations can consistently work to decrease factors that contribute to burnout such as stress, overwhelm, and overwork by facilitating work cultures grounded in compassion and empathy for ourselves and others.