Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reversing Burnout

Companies with apathetic, burned-out employees are at risk of hampered productivity, while the workers themselves face health risks. Most at risk are employees who work long hours, do monotonous tasks or have been in the same job for a long time. To help, HR leaders first need to listen to what workers have to say.

Burned out and looking for a way out? That seems to be the case for many employees.

A recent study at the University of Zaragosa in Spain found that two key factors -- workplace stress (mainly monotony and feeling overburdened) and a perceived lack of recognition -- are the prime factors in employee burnout.

At the same time, a recent study by Mercer reports that about one in three (32 percent) U.S. employees are looking to leave their jobs, while another 21 percent have rock-bottom scores on key measures of engagement.

"The business consequences of this erosion in employee sentiment are significant, and clearly the issue goes far beyond retention," says Mindy Fox, a senior partner at New York-based Mercer and the firm's U.S. Region Leader.

"Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation," she says.

But, there are ways to reduce burnout and negative feelings by following some obvious, but often neglected, steps, say HR experts. And unless employers change their workplace culture and philosophy, many of them may take major productivity hits because of such a situation.

In the Spanish study, published inBMC Psychiatry, scientists analyzed the factors that drive three sub-categories leading to burnout: frenetic activity, under-challenging work and worn-out employees.

According to the researchers, who were from the Aragon Institute of Health Sciences in Spain, burnout is increasing in that country and poses a serious problem to society because of the economic losses it causes and its health consequences. No doubt the same could be said for U.S. workplaces with the same issues.

The Spanish researchers surveyed 409 employees working at the University of Zaragosa, including administrative, services, teaching and research staff and interns. Among their findings:

* An employee who works more than 40 hours per week is six times more likely to develop the burnout than someone who works less than 35 hours;

* A worker who does monotonous tasks -- creating the tendency to get bored and lacking personal-development opportunities -- is more at risk than others of developing the under-challenged burnout profile;

* Employees who are in the same job for long periods often ignore responsibilities due to the lack of recognition they perceive in their environment, and frequently fit into the worn-out profile; and

* Workers with more than 16 years at the same workplace are five times more at risk of developing a worn-out profile than someone with fewer than four years at the same job.

Regardless of the type of burnout, however, the result is emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of productivity, the researchers concluded.

So what's an employer to do?

According to Fox, employees see a "disconnect" between what employers are promising and what they are delivering, so organizations should re-examine their "deals" with employees -- both the traditional and non-traditional elements -- and then support them with effective administration and consistent, authentic communication that fosters a sense of belonging.

Mercer's survey also drives home the importance of formal or informal employee surveys.

"Often, a change in mood or sentiment is not spotted until it becomes a full-blown issue," says Pete Foley, a principal at Mercer and employee research consultant. "Employers must periodically take the pulse of their own employees to identify their specific areas of concern and link employee opinion to outcomes such as productivity and retention."

Rebecca "Kiki" Weingarten, a New York-based executive coach, says that, when working with corporate clients, one of the first things she initiates is communication between management and employees.

"That can be tricky because people are often afraid of speaking up honestly about issues they're unhappy about because they don't want to be the problem employee, don't want to be seen as being instigators or making trouble," she says.

Most of all, it's important to get employees to feel that their opinions make a difference; often, workers at lower levels have great ideas for productivity or new ways of streamlining work that can benefit the bottom line.

As for overworked employees, Weingarten says, it's important for HR and managers to keep an eye on them, saying they "can (and should) step in and voice concern that the person might be headed toward burnout if they keep it up, which wouldn't be good for anyone since a burned-out employee is not productive the way they should be."

One additional way to "stave off burnout," she says is to offer effective training, either within or outside of the company, to enable advancement opportunities and give employees a sense that it's possible change their environments.

That training, says Dave Jennings, a leadership and change expert in Salt Lake City who advises Fortune 100 clients and is author Catapulted: How Great Leaders Succeed Beyond their Experience, can be in the form of job shadowing, job sharing, job rotation, etc.

He also suggested HR leaders look at creating "influence teams" who can look at ways to improve employee situations -- but management has to be really willing to listen and act; if not, it will create even more problems -- and offering a paid month, 3-month, or 6-month sabbatical for long-term employees.

"Let's face it, the typical work schedule is unhealthy," Jennings says. "The body and mind are not designed to stay 'on' five days a week and 52 weeks a year. The body and mind have rhythms. A person with burnout has basically lost connection with those rhythms."

Jennings says it's most important to help people experience success, and never underestimate the power of caring in the workplace.

"A person who has done the same job may no longer believe they have other capabilities. Help them rediscover their strength as well as expose them to new challenging demands," he says. "Plus, employees want to know that they matter, so employers and managers need to go out of their way to say hello and make small talk.

"It also helps to ask employees how they accomplish work and then really listen," he says. "Don't give ... any feedback; just listen and appreciate."

Thanks to Tom Starner / HRE Online / LRP Publications


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