The research literature is rich with findings that organizations contribute significantly to employee burnout.
Some research also supports the effectiveness of organizational strategies to reduce burnout.
In actuality, the number of these studies is small, in large part due to a scarcity of studies on remediating burnout, but some findings are promising.
Further, it makes sense that if we address the major workplace contributors to burnout, we can make progress on our twin goals of reducing burnout and improving worker well-being.
In consulting with organizations, I recommend 15 strategies that organizational leaders can take—as part of a holistic plan that also includes actions for managers and supervisors and skills for individual employees—to improve worker well-being and reduce burnout.
These steps come from three major sources, including
- Research on organizational burnout factors and recommendations on how to improve the well-being of employees.The journalist Jennifer Moss recently summarized much of this work, especially findings from researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, in her useful book, The Burnout Epidemic. In addition, a 2020 paper, put out by the National Academy of Medicine, presents a number of helpful recommendations. Similarly, a 2021 paper by my colleagues and me provides useful recommendations about organizational factors.
- Thirty-plus years of personal work experience in executive leadership in mental health organizations.
- Twenty-plus years of providing training and consulting on burnout and well-being.
A comprehensive approach by organizations and its executives to reduce burnout and improve worker well-being includes 15 strategies. To simplify the approach, I summarize below 8 of the most critical strategies (if you are interested in the complete set of approaches, email me at email@example.com for the entire set of strategies):
1. Create and foster an organization-wide culture that values and supports employee well-being.
Organizations should make this value explicit in their organizational mission or statement of core values, and the CEO and executive leadership team must champion this goal—and lead by example.
Of course, it is critical for organizations to do more than say they value employee well-being and want to prevent burnout. This value also needs to feel real to employees in other business actions, including the next seven points.
2. Stay focused on the organizational mission, especially as the reason for major changes, decisions, and operations.
A sense of purpose and meaning are critical to individuals and many people choose to work for a company because of its mission. Employees need to understand the deeper reason or meaning behind business decisions, especially to see the connection to the organizational mission.
3. Practice clear, timely communication.
Problems in communication—unclear, conflicting, or a lack of—are major drivers of burnout. Organizations must provide clear communication about organizational goals, new initiatives, operational changes. There must also be clear communication to employees about their job roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations.
Equally important, business leaders need to remember that good communication is a two-way street. It is critical to listen to employees, especially their ideas for improvement, changes, and project implementation as well as their concerns.
4. Identify and tackle barriers to quality services and operations.
Employees are often the first to experience work barriers (such as inefficient and bureaucratic procedures, or a lack of resources). Listening to employees about problems and working collaboratively with them to create solutions leads to employees feeling valued and engaged.
By contrast, executives who react to employee concerns by labeling the workers as “whiners” miss out on quality improvement opportunities and contribute to low morale and burnout.
5. Recognize and support reasonable worker autonomy and flexibility.
All businesses need a degree of structure and consistency, and yet many organizations over-value control while stifling employee autonomy. A degree of autonomy is critical for workers to feel satisfied rather than burned out by their jobs. Autonomy and flexibility can also lead to creativity and higher productivity and employee engagement.
Experts from defense to health care have urged executives to emphasize taking an “encourage and empower” rather than “command and control” approach to management (see Sinsky et al, 2020, National Academy of Medicine article).
6. Set and follow clear priorities.
Some organizations burnout their employees by trying to do too much, especially without a clear sense of what is most important.
One CEO, when repeatedly asked about which of the multitude of initiatives were the priorities, would say, “Everything is a priority.” In reality, however, when everything is said to be a priority, nothing is a priority. Trying to do everything leads to confusion and worker overload—key drivers of burnout.
Further, executives need to resist the temptation of trying to get employees to complete projects under unrealistic timelines—another factor that leads to worker stress, overload, and burnout.
7. Set and respect boundaries.
Burnout thrives on excess.
And today’s workplaces are replete with excesses.
Examples are plentiful but include a deluge of daily emails, back-to-back meetings that take up sometimes the entire work day (including early morning and late afternoons), taking on more projects than staff can manage, and perhaps most draining of all, what author Bill Ivey called “the perpetual work day.”
That is, especially with technology such as home computers and smart phones, the job often overflows far past the normal 8 to 5 hours. Work continues to pile up in the form of emails, texts, phone calls, and video meetings in the evenings, nights, and weekends. One corporate executive, who typically worked 7 am to 7 pm but looked forward to evenings and the weekend, found with a new leader that Friday nights were now saddled with 7 pm meetings.
To manage and reduce stress, employees need time away from work and time for other important parts of their lives—family, exercise, recreation, and much more.
They also need time to focus during their work shift on their priority tasks, without being pulled away by constant diversions of back-to-back day long meetings and incessant emails and work texts.
Organizational leaders can reduce burnout and improve the work-life balance of their employees by defining work culture boundaries.
Each organization should consider, in conversation with its employees, the expectations and boundaries that it wants to set.
- Ensuring meetings should be held within normal work hours (some businesses also steer away from early morning and late afternoon meetings out of respect time for working parents who need to pick up children from daycare or school).
- Establishing “meeting-free work zones” during the day or week that allow employees to focus on their individual tasks and priorities.
- Explicitly setting expectations that employees are “off” after hours, and that sending or responding to emails at night or weekends is not a job requirement (and can instead lead to burnout)
There are no hard-and-fast rules about boundaries. Each organization needs to thoughtfully create its own.
And some flexibility is also helpful, for example responding to emergency situations.
But a lack of boundaries will only increase stress and burnout.
8. Ensure accountability.
Accountability is important for reducing burnout in several ways.
One, workers feel burned out when a co-worker consistently underperforms or is absent. Individual workers need to be held accountable (though provided with coaching, as needed, to improve performance) for their jobs.
Two, many organizations start projects but then never monitor the success of new initiatives or processes—or even check to see if they were fully implemented. Organizations need to ensure that projects are completed and then monitor their success, making adjustments in processes as needed.
Third, the organization needs to hold itself accountable for reducing burnout and improving worker well-being. A number of brief employee survey items and business indicators (e.g., turnover) are available to measure burnout.
A Piece of the Puzzle
These eight—and seven more—strategies can be used by organizations and its executives to reduce burnout and improve worker well-being.
But organizational interventions are only a piece to the puzzle.
The actions of supervisors and managers, as we shall in the next post, are also crucial for helping employees to prevent burnout and to gain a positive work life.
-- Title photo credit: Krakenimages, Unsplash.com