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Leadership behaviors to decrease employee burnout and increase engagement and retention
Gallup has studied employee engagement and its impact for years. In 2018, a study of 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of employees felt burned out “very often or always” while 44% felt burned out “sometimes”.
It’s clear that since nearly two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout at least sometimes, we’re facing an epidemic of burned out employees. The World Health Organization has even noticed, identifying burnout as an occupational phenomenon and clarifying the definition for it. Gallup’s research shows far-ranging impacts from employee burnout – including employees being more likely to take a sick day and visit the emergency room, having lower confidence in their own performance, and being more likely to leave their current employer.
As part of their research, Gallup identified five common causes of burnout: Unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from manager, and unreasonable time pressure.
As I thought about the causes Gallup identified, I saw a clear tie to how leadership could begin to remedy these problems. Of course, individual leaders can only remedy some of these problems – bigger pieces like compensation structures or policies are often out of their hands – but many of them are within the control of individual leaders.
Leadership Strategies to Guard Against Burnout
In their best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner provide a model that can help all of us leaders guard against employee burnout: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.
Inspire a Shared Vision: Employees who don’t know what success looks like and what role they play in that success are at risk for burnout. Not only do outstanding leaders have an exciting and ennobling vision to work towards, they are able to enlist their team members in that common vision. Each team member has a clear understanding of how their aspirations correlate to the leader’s (and team’s) goal and what success means to the team.
Challenge the Process: To guard against ever-growing workloads and overwhelm, leaders can look to Kouzes and Posner’s Challenge the Process technique called “small wins”.
There are plenty of opportunities to look for “small wins” to encourage employees to re-frame and look at what they’ve accomplished and what progress they’ve made. In addition, leaders who Challenge the Process help direct reports focus on what they can control, instead of wallowing in the growing complexity and changing nature of our workforce today.
People want to feel valued at work and to know that their managers believe they are capable of getting the job done. Leaders who very frequently or almost always communicate their confidence in others’ abilities see direct reports trust in that leader increase to 75 percent, compared to 18 percent if the leader almost never or rarely shares their confidence in direct reports’ abilities (Kouzes and Posner, 2017).
Enable Others to Act: To effectively engage employees and avoid burnout, leaders must create a climate of trust where employees are able to use their own skills and judgement for how to get the job done.
Exemplary leaders are tasked with sharing knowledge and information, then encouraging direct reports to collaborate to complete projects. An excellent leader trusts that employees will take the appropriate amount of time to deliver good work and knows that the employee understands how much time is needed to devote themselves to high-quality work.
These leadership remedies, of course, are best when they are practiced throughout the organization and come from the top. But individual leaders are able to significantly impact employee engagement with their own behavior, as Kouzes and Posner’s research in The Leadership Challenge shows: 95.8 percent of direct reports are highly engaged when leaders very frequently or almost always use The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.
The Leadership Challenge, 6th Ed., Kouzes and Posner, 2017
Employee Burnout, Part 1: Thee 5 Main Causes; Gallup, 2018 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx
State of the American Workplace Report; Gallup, 2017 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238085/state-american-workplace-report-2017.aspx