Is Employee Burnout on The Rise in Your Organization?
If you were to take a breath and think back over the last year, our accomplishments are numerous. Employees took center stage, leaning in and adapting to the unknown while often exceeding expectations. Even as the landscape of business is still in rapid change and businesses are returning to (and sometimes exceeding) pre-pandemic output, it's probably safe to say we need to talk about employee burnout.
When software company Limeade surveyed employees just months before the pandemic began, they found that 42% of workers were burned out. When they surveyed employees a few months later into COVID-19, that number had shot up to 72%.
Before the pandemic, Gallup surveys from 2019 also show 28% of the workforce surveyed reported feeling burned out at work "very often," or "always." One year earlier, in 2018, that number was 23%. Burnout was increasing at an accelerated pace even before the recent challenges we faced in business, as well as socially, and personally.
Causes of burnout have also been accelerated by the pandemic. From unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, less communication and support from managers, to the additional stresses of worrying about survival, family member safety, economic stress, and isolation.
We see a clear tie to how leadership could help be a support to these challenges—from asking better questions, having a well-being strategy for employees, to practicing and modeling leadership behaviors.
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 guard against employee burnout: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.
Model the Way: Employees' personal values play a big part in driving their commitment. Burnout can certainly occur if the stresses of change are not allowing leaders to live their values - think overwork, not feeling supported, or not having clear work/life boundaries. Employees will be significantly more engaged if they both believe they can stay true to their values and if their manager/leader actively helps teams affirm shared values.
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, but they are also 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%, compared to 18% if the leader almost never or rarely shares their confidence in their 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 can use their skills and judgment 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 can significantly impact employee engagement with their behavior, as Kouzes and Posner’s research in The Leadership Challenge shows: 95.8% of direct reports are highly engaged when leaders very frequently or almost always use The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®.
For a great overview of this Model, be sure to visit our Five Practices page to learn how to help your leaders become more effective and have a greater impact on those they serve.
Burnout is soaring during Covid-19: How can employers help?, Human Resource Executive, 2021 https://hrexecutive.com/burnout-is-soaring-during-covid-19-how-can-employers-help/
Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures, Gallup, 2019 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/282659/employee-burnout-perspective-paper.aspx
The Leadership Challenge, 6th Ed., Kouzes and Posner, 2017