Combating Workplace Burnout

Image: Omar Gurnah/ Flickr

Technology has made the way we work more flexible and convenient than ever. We can work from anywhere at any time. It can be pretty freeing. 

But for many workers, it has caused more harm than good: It’s making them burn out. This is not only bad for the mental and physical health of the individual but the business bottom line too with the loss of productivity; decreased employee engagement; employee leave and turnover; and increased healthcare and benefits costs. It’s an issue that affects everything and everyone. 

“We’re actually not disconnecting from work. There are constant interruptions due to that sort of widespread accessibility,” says Tanya Chapman, human resources pro and owner of T Chapman Consulting & Associates in Saint John. “So when we think about our technology and even how we have it set up to buzz or ring, research has shown that that’s like a tap on the shoulder. With the constant interruption, the constant requirement to be on and on-call has really changed.”

Twenty years ago, before email and smartphones were commonplace, most people did all their work in the office. When they went home, the day was over. Sure, there may have been working late, but there was more of a separation between “life” and “work.” Most work days also weren’t flooded with continuous digital messages and memos that have the perception of urgency attached to it. Chapman says technology has now blurred those lines and has changed the culture around work drastically.

“We used to take turns wearing a pager, now we have a pager on us all the time because of our smartphones,” she says.

Is some cases, this culture of always having to be “on-call” is created sometimes unintentionally by the employer through the behaviour they model.

“As employers, we ourselves are blurring the boundaries. As a result, we may be working at 11 o’clock at night and might send an email off to our team, and then all of a sudden we’re modelling behaviour that demonstrates that we work around the clock and we expect you to answer around the clock,” Chapman says. “The unintentional consequences of the ability to gain accessibility through our work technology at all hours I think is really impacting how people are perceiving the requirements to be on, whether or not it’s accurate or not.”

But recent research has shown that it’s not just technology that’s causing workplace burnout. A recent study by Kronos and Future Workplace that surveyed 614 human resources professionals at U.S. organizations with 100 to over 2,500 employees found 46 per cent of participants blamed burnout for up to half of their annual workforce turnover. The study also found that unfair compensation (41 per cent), unreasonable workload (32 per cent), and too much overtime and after-hours work (32 per cent) are the top three contributors to burnout.

Chapman says it’s important for people experiencing burnout to take measures to address it. Little changes can make a difference.

“We almost need to take control over our own boundaries as employees,” she says. “Things like scheduling uninterrupted time, planning rest, actually looking at your schedule and planning on when you need to be offline and ensuring just like you’d plan a meeting that you plan for yourself.”

If you’re unsure what your employer expects of you in terms of responding and working outside regular business hours, Chapman says not to hesitate to ask.

“If you’re an employee, it’s important to have an open conversation with your employer about what each of your expectations are,” she says. “A lot of the time, if you do receive an email at 11 p.m., there’s no expectation to respond right away, it’s in our heads. Having a two-way dialogue is important.”

Having an open dialogue is something Kayley Reed, CEO of Wear Your Label, ensures to create with her staff. As a fashion brand aimed at promoting mental health and wellness, it’s important to incorporate that philosophy into the businesses culture.

I think just being very open about our own mental health in the workplace is super important. Obviously, we talk a lot about it in our products and on social media because that’s what the brand is all about. But I also try to have a very open-door policy that works,” Reed says. “If anyone is going through any sort of difficulties or needs to take a sick day for their mental health, we’re very open about talking about that, talking about each other’s experiences and making sure that the rest of the staff is supportive of each other.”

Wear Your Label has also implemented a designated “self-care” time throughout the week. Friday mornings are taken off for employees and they’re encouraged to spend time doing something they love.

“Essentially it’s just this idea that every employee needs to take time for themselves, so nobody is allowed to come in on Friday morning. If you do, I get mad,” Reed says. “Everyone is encouraged to sleep in or do something for themselves and come to work on Friday a little more refreshed and ready for the weekend.”

Though burnout is something experienced by employees of companies of all different sizes, it’s particularly common for those in the startup world. It’s something Reed experienced first-hand when Wear Your Label first launched.  

“When we first started Wear Your Label, I was very much into this idea of hustle and consistently working your butt off to get to the next level and get to where you need to be,” she says. “I think that’s talked about a lot in this community, placing so much on work that you do and always working and almost glorify or over glorify when you’re extremely busy or always tapped out.”

Reed soon realized that the constant “startup hustle” wasn’t sustainable for either her or her business. She started making changes, including dedicating one full day, Sundays, to take a total break from work.

“That was only as a result of spending 12 hour, 14 hour, sometimes 16 hour days working non-stop. Not leaving the studio or the house. Feeling completely drained and exhausted by the end of it and realizing if my mental health and physical health isn’t taken care of, then I can’t be effective in working on my business,” she says.

Every company is different and faces different challenges and circumstances, but Chapman says every company should take steps to ensure their employees avoid burnout.

“Absolutely offer wellness programs and if companies are too small to offer wellness programs, encourage time off. Make sure people are taking their vacations. Ensure that you’re checking with your team regularly to understand the stress level and the workload level,” she says. “Be present. Model really great behaviour around setting your own boundaries. If we’re really talking about work/life balance, then actually demonstrate it.”

Employee burnout is an issue that’s become more on the radar in recent years. Though the attention is starting lots of important conversations, Chapman says there needs to be more action.

“I think there’s more awareness than ever before and I think the right conversations are occurring,” she says. “I would like to see even more action and more demonstration of self-management. More demonstration of the acknowledging of other people’s boundaries and getting clear about the way in which we interact with our team.”