Like so many other widely celebrated holidays, Labor Day has origins that aren’t without some contention and mystery. Even the U.S. Department of Labor says the jury’s out on who founded this annual dedication to the laborers who built our nation. Regardless, we can all agree that the weekend leading up to the first Monday in September has become one of the biggest travel, relaxation, and get-together opportunities of the year.
Yet it doesn’t feel right to let Labor Day pass without reflecting on one of the most critical challenges facing modern workers: burnout. According to a recent article in The New York Times, burnout is affecting more than half the employee population in the United States. This means millions of people regularly are experiencing intense, unpleasant, and unwanted symptoms such as fatigue, reduced productivity, and a cynical attitude toward life.
It might be easy to just assume that this is an individual problem, but it’s not. And it’s a problem that business leaders need to help solve. After all, workers can only do so much. Employers are in a position to make widespread changes to positively affect all their team members.
Not sure which strategies will help you stave off burnout throughout your organization? I’ve enlisted the assistance of two powerful thought leaders to come up with suggestions.
Kristen Sieffert is the president of Finance of America Reverse and a passionate supporter of creating cultures that buoy and honor workers. Peter Boumgarden is the Koch Family Professor of Practice in Family Enterprise, director of the Koch Family Center for Family Enterprise, and academic director of the Center for Experiential Learning at Washington University in St. Louis. He has a deep background in organizational design, strategy, and behavior.
Together, Sieffert, Boumgarden, and I have crowdsourced several ways to take a bite out of burnout at your company.
1. Acknowledge that burnout exists.
Calling out that burnout is a problem may sound incredibly simple. However, some people believe that burnout is nothing more than boredom or mild depression. Burnout is its own diagnosis, per the World Health Organization. Interestingly, the WHO has burnout listed under conditions related to “employment or unemployment,” emphasizing just how corporate-based burnout is.
Boumgarden recommends basing your understanding of burnout on a definition from the psychologists Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter, who called burnout “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” Boungarden goes on to explain that the definition outlines inefficiency, cynicism, and exhaustion as the three aspects of burnout.
Just by knowing a little about burnout and sharing the information with your colleagues and direct reports, you can bring burnout into the open. From there, it’s easier to make inroads to manage it.
2. Make PTO sacrosanct.
One of the go-to ideas to beat back burnout is to offer employees more paid time off. Unfortunately, people aren’t good at using all their PTO. They’re not able to unwind when they’re out of the office, either. Sieffert notes, “Some studies report that it takes people four days to fully release the stress they are carrying from work when they go on vacation. If you are working the first few days of PTO, then unplug, you aren’t getting the benefit you likely need. This creates a vicious circle where people are always on, even when they are technically off, and in that cycle, it is near impossible to get the mental break needed.”
What does Sieffert do to put an end to the burnout merry-go-round? She tries to set a good example by detaching and unplugging. When employees see the boss 100% stepping away for long weekends and healthy vacations, they’re less likely to feel like they have to check emails or turn in a few hours of work while at the beach.
3. Get to the heart of burnout at your company.
Maybe you’ve noticed that your workforce is burned out. Because all workforces are unique, take time to evaluate what’s burning everyone to the core. Do they feel they can’t meet their professional demands? Are they being given all the tools they need? Or, as Boumgarden asks, could one of your corporate policies unintentionally be causing a problem that affects performance and morale?
“Let’s say you are an organization that desires greater collaboration,” says Boumgarden. “You ask for people to come back to the office at a higher rate than your competitors. If the average commute time is an hour each way, what is the impact on work outcomes and burnout of having to find two more hours in the day?” As his example points out, every decision you make will have ripples—and those ripples may create more issues than your policy solves.
4. Experiment with different working structures.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that no company has to play by another company’s rules. Sieffert has heard of businesses that close for two weeks a year (in addition to giving PTO) so that everyone can let their hair down. Other organizations are getting even more innovative. “A lot of companies are also exploring the concept of the four-day work week and how productive people can be,” she explains.
You don’t have to get drastic, of course. You just have to keep an open mind. For instance, Boumgarden reports that he’s increasingly in favor of flexibility in terms of hybrid workspaces. While he sees the benefit of being in person sometimes, he explains that many workers “need uninterrupted time to focus on larger tasks, and the latter might be easier outside of a traditional office setting.”
5. Look for solutions that can impact nearly everyone.
Equality and fairness are large obstacles when it comes to setting up a burnout-free workplace. Boumgarden explains that some types of benefits, including being able to work remotely, can’t be equally distributed across income brackets. Accordingly, individuals in lower-level job positions may be more susceptible to burnout simply because of their occupational position or career stage.
Sieffert agrees, which is why her company is trying to make impacts and inroads that all team members can enjoy. “At FAR, we supply all employees with a subscription to the Calm meditation app,” she notes. “Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to combat burnout, and I want people to be able to take a mental vacation, even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day.”
6. Become more purpose-driven as an organization.
Younger Millennials and Generation Z are causing a major shift in the employer-employee relationship. They want to be appreciated. They want to feel like they’re working toward something bigger than themselves. Sure, they want traditional health insurance and happy hours, but they want meaning in their work, too. “The greatest benefit we can offer an employee is the knowledge that they won’t be wasting their day when they wake up in the morning and that their working hours will be filled with possibility and enrichment,” says Sieffert.
Leaning more into your purpose doesn’t have to be hard. It may just be a matter of reminding employees why you need them and the benefit they bring to others. Take Zappos’ purpose, which is “to live and deliver WOW.” It’s not difficult to see how living up to that mission could make every day less stressful and more satisfying for workers.
7. Prioritize overall wellness.
Burnout doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a phenomenon that can be addressed from a variety of angles, including wellness programs. Look for ways to help employees improve their health. Sieffert sees this as a way to challenge yourself as a leader and ask tough questions.
“How do we engage our team on a deeper level? How can we prove to our team that we care about them? How can we inspire our team to live their best lives not just professionally, but personally as well?” she asks. “If leaders commit to wrestling with these questions, we will find the path forward that allows our team and our businesses to thrive no matter what the future world of work looks like.”
You don’t have to spend your entire Labor Day weekend pondering burnout. Spend time with your family and friends, and urge your workers to do so, too. But do try to put aside a few moments to consider how to leverage your leadership position to put burnout on the back burner—and keep it there for good.