August 19, 2021 6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout, describing it as a syndrome that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” characterized by feelings of energy exhaustion, increased negative feelings about work, and reduced professional efficacy. It had been nearly five decades since the concept of burnout had been introduced, by psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1973, and since then it had seemingly only gotten worse. In fact, the syndrome was so pervasive that the WHO committed to developing guidelines for mental well-being in the workplace
But in the past year, with employees around the globe rapidly transitioning to remote work, burnout took on a new dimension — for many, filled with restless kids, dirty dishes and a host of new factors demanding our attention while we’re working from home. It’s no wonder that research found that 2020 was the most stressful year people have experienced in their working lives. What’s more, by some estimates, more than 25% of the United States workforce will continue working remotely through at least next fall. The risk of burnout seems to loom larger than ever.
Though employees can and should take self-care into their own hands and develop healthy work habits, leaders can also be proactive about preventing burnout among their teams. According to recent Gallup research, managers are largely responsible for the conditions most likely to cause or prevent burnout.
Here is the approach I aim to follow with my company, JotForm.
Addressing burnout from the top-down
The medical profession has a rampant burnout problem. Even in “Before times,” round-the-clock schedules and emotionally volatile conditions were hard to avoid. As Physicians Practice explains, prior efforts focused on encouraging a healthy work-life balance and promoting self-care and time-off. While very important, these steps are not enough.
“It is a Band-Aid on a cut that requires 30 stitches. Unless you address the underlying issue — that gaping wound, for example — then the Band-Aid can’t possibly help.”
Instead, they recommend that the medical profession take a top-down approach. The same goes for entrepreneurs, beginning with making well-being the cornerstone of your organizational culture.
You might be wondering: what does that look like in practice?
While modeling healthy behavior is a good place for leaders to begin, the best companies go one step further and provide employees resources to support their well-being. Also noted in the Gallup research, there are various well-being components for leaders to consider, including social, physical, career, and financial. Let’s take a closer look at each.
1. Make time for family and social relationships
Ask anyone on my team and they’ll tell you: family is my number one priority. The only way that’s feasible, while leading a company of over 300+ employees, is by allowing myself flexibility. Some days, that might look like arriving at the office (or virtual office) early in order to check out by 4:00 pm and attend a soccer game. Or, it might entail working extra and delegating more than usual so that I can disconnect for a full two weeks when we travel to my family’s olive farm in Turkey.
Flexibility is the key to enabling employees to dedicate time to their relationships. Also, regularly ask employees for their feedback — don’t assume you know what they need to maintain healthy social lives.
Hire good people and give them the space to organize their schedules to prioritize their personal relationships. I can guarantee that after cheering from the sidelines at their kid’s soccer game, your employee will return to the office refreshed and ready to work.
2. Encourage physical and mental health
It’s safe to say that the days of bottomless kegs and kitchens stocked with troves of junk food are corporate perks of the past. Today’s most celebrated companies put a premium on their employees’ physical health — because healthy, energetic employees make for happier and more productive workplaces.
Take BlueBeam — according to Glassdoor, the software company usually offers in-person bi-weekly yoga & Tai Chi classes, chair massages, and incentivized fitness challenges. When the pandemic began, BlueBeam switched to offering employees free access to online fitness streaming programs and weekly virtual dance parties.
And don’t forget to provide resources for mental health, which is intrinsically linked to physical health. Grammarly, for example, offers “mental health” sick days, virtual counseling sessions, anxiety workshops and more. Salesforce has made meditation apps available to their employees.
Entrepreneurs can be creative about finding new ways to get their employees feeling physically and mentally well.
3. Ensure employees are happy and motivated in their careers
When Monster polled users to see which workplace factors were most important to their career satisfaction (aside from salary), the top answer was work-life balance. But the second and third answers were work they can be proud of (20%) and career development (14%). Clearly, having a meaningful career with room for advancement is critical for employee satisfaction.
So, how can entrepreneurs best ensure these conditions?
Show genuine interest in your employees and their goals; offer guidance to help them achieve those goals; encourage advancement within the company; regularly solicit from employees what they’d like to learn and offer ongoing training; and finally, continually challenge them. For example, instead of assigning the same project to the same person, give someone else, maybe a junior employee, a chance to give it a shot.
Create for your employees the space to grow and chances are they’ll meet or exceed your expectations.
4. Provide tools for financial well-being
Finally, if employees are worrying about their financial situation, they’ll be less engaged with their work. With unemployment reaching record highs last year — in the US, for example, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%, the highest rate since data collection began in 1948 — many can’t help but stress about their financial future.
But there are things leaders can do to ease their employees economic anxiety, like supplying the tools to make better financial decisions — for example, providing guidance on enrolling in benefits packages, offering disability insurance and making 401(k) plans available.
Short of increasing salaries, as much as managers might like to do, isn’t always an option, you can still provide resources to increase your employees’ financial well-being.
For entrepreneurs, the benefits of investing resources in preventing employee burnout will always outweigh the costs. Even if working conditions for the next year are uncertain, there’s one thing you can guarantee: that your team’s well-being will be prioritized regardless.