Photo by Benjamin DeYoung on Unsplash

Replenishing the Fire Within

Stories of burnout are becoming increasingly common. Three out of five employees throughout the world say they’re burned out. After more than a year of working remotely, the demands of today’s employees regardless of industry or tenure are reaching unsustainable levels. Sadly, the pace at which companies are trying to address the overall emotional and mental well being of their people is lagging behind.

There are multiple factors that have led to this point, but I’m going to share some observations and recommendations from the lens of both the individual and organization.

The Individual

Let me begin with the individual. Recently I heard someone say to a colleague of hers that the company she works for will “suck you dry” if she chose to adhere to common practices. This thinking is flawed, however, because it assumes that the organization holds all of the responsibility and the individual is simply a victim when it comes to how and when an employee uses her time. Employees have some responsibility in setting the behaviors and norms across an organization. Yet it’s the employees that believe they don’t have a choice to change behaviors that are often the ones who standardize certain behaviors and ultimately exacerbate the pace of burnout.

What I have observed is that the individuals who commonly struggle with establishing boundaries share a common trait; they “grew up” in the organization. For example, many of the employees culpable of setting unrealistic expectations of themselves and others are those that entered the organization early in their careers, demonstrated high performance and gained a reputation for their contributions and work ethics throughout their tenure. However, as they have matured and entered other stages in life, these individuals fail to challenge themselves and their organizations by considering new ways to allocate their time and energy.

Rather than establish new behaviors as their commitments outside of work typically increase, and help their organizations adapt new norms, these employees have preserved the original ways of working that surprisingly puts an insurmountable amount of pressure on their lives.

Ultimately, if individuals such as you and me don’t consciously decide how to use our time, then the forces around us will.

Here are a few questions that can help employees examine their time commitments more closely, and determine which efforts require their energy:

  1. Where will I deliver the greatest value today?
  2. How much energy am I gaining from that specific meeting or initiative on my calendar?
  3. What is my motivation for attending this meeting or contributing to this effort?
  4. Will I be proud about how and where I spent my energy, at the end of the day?

All of us have a finite amount of time, and therefore we must be intentional about how we use our time, wherever we might be working. So ask these questions and be ruthless with how you expend your energy by determining what you decide to give.

The Organization

Beyond the individual responsibility one has over how time is spent, the organization and the behaviors they incentivize are arguably a larger part of the burnout equation.

In retrospect, as technology became more prevalent at connecting people to one another, many company cultures failed to evolve. Without setting clear expectations for how regularly their people engage with work, the “always-on” employee became normalized.

Recently an increasing number of companies have explored the importance of employee experience. However, without a holistic view of the incentives and norms shaping that experience, many companies are investing their efforts on superficial topics related to burnout versus the underlying factors. In short, incentives create behaviors and greatly influence the employee experience. While many companies understand the need to maintain a healthy workforce, very few are willing to revamp their incentive structures to establish new behaviors because it’s too cumbersome.

The questions below can help organizations examine their incentives and how those incentives shape culture:

  1. What are the values and behaviors of our most respected leaders?
  2. How does our incentive model encourage specific behaviors?
  3. What is the ideal experience we want our people to have? Specifically, what behaviors do we want them to embody?
  4. What tradeoffs are we willing to make to retain and attract top talent given the pace of change?

Answering these questions will allow organizations to see clearly the values, incentives and norms that they must address to avoid burnout and attrition. Moreover, it will shed some light on their willingness to change and the pace in which they need to move to address the many challenges their people face.

Addressing the Needs of Today’s Workforce

Today’s environment present a critical crossroads for organizations worldwide. How individuals and companies respond to this moment will not only determine the trajectory of our global economy, but the health of our population. No singular party is entirely responsible for the rate of burnout today. Therefore, it will require a collective effort from people reclaiming their power by making different decisions about how they use their time to organizations establishing new incentives with empathy and agility if we are going to effectively reduce burnout.

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