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Burnout in the Workplace: What Leaders Can Do About It

Combating Burnout through Empathy, Resilience, and a Shift in Perspective

As the world began to transition into the post-pandemic phase, new work challenges arose. Sara, VP of Product in an IT software company, couldn't help but notice the change in her team's demeanor.

Anna, her Product Manager, who had once been a highly motivated and engaged employee, had started to lose her enthusiasm. Sara observed Anna's energy levels dwindling as she tried to juggle work and family responsibilities in her new remote work setting. Anna's usual prompt and thorough responses to emails and messages had become delayed and lackluster, and her presence in virtual meetings was often marked by distraction or disengagement.

Mark, the Lead Software Engineer, seemed to be facing similar challenges. A dedicated and hardworking employee, Mark had begun taking longer and more frequent breaks, trying to cope with the mounting stress of his workload. Sara noticed that Mark's contributions during team meetings had become sporadic, and he appeared to be disengaged during company events.

As Sara continued to assess her team, she noticed that even employees who were back in the office seemed to be struggling. The constant changes in work policies, safety protocols, and team dynamics had left her colleagues feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. The once lively office atmosphere had given way to an environment filled with hushed conversations, as employees shared their frustrations about their ever-increasing workloads and the seemingly endless state of flux.

Now she realizes it can only be one thing. Burnout.

But before Sara reaches out to their HR department to arrange another team-building retreat or add more yoga classes to the company wellness program, she must first address the root cause of the burnout epidemic within the organization. Just as doctors treat diseases, medications that alleviate symptoms may offer short-term relief, but for long-term results and overall well-being, it's crucial to identify and address the underlying factors causing the issue to treat it for good.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon and the issue has only intensified in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return to work in a post-pandemic era.  As leaders navigate a new world where barriers between work and life are no longer as steadfast as they once were, symptoms of workplace burnout, such as exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy, are more likely to manifest. As a consequence, leaders are witnessing an increase in issues like change fatigue, change resistance, and overall employee disengagement. These challenges have led to phenomena such as the great resignation, and even quiet quitting, ultimately contributing to the decline of organizational resilience.

However, there is still hope for turning things around and addressing workplace burnout. First and foremost, leaders must understand that workplace burnout is a consequence of an unhealthy organizational culture. Second, creating a company culture takes time and rebuilding it will also require a long-term commitment. That being said, mere employee engagement activities are superficial solutions to the broader problem of an unhealthy work culture. Instead, leaders should focus on empathic communication, resilient leadership, and promoting a change in perspective when tackling workplace burnout.

Empathy is a critical component in building a healthy organizational culture. By understanding and acknowledging the unique challenges their employees face, leaders can create a supportive company culture that values open communication and active listening. Resilience in the organization and its leaders is another crucial aspect of healthy organizations. Building organizational resilience involves developing a culture that empowers employees to cope with change and the stresses that come with it, and this can be done by having a resilient leader who can show the way. A change in perspective is also necessary for dealing with burnout effectively. Leaders should view change not as a source of disruption but as an opportunity for growth and innovation. By adopting a positive attitude towards change, leaders can inspire their employees to do the same and reduce the negative impact of change fatigue on organizational health. These things take time but with consistency and perseverance, it will lead to a healthy work culture.

While those strategies are working in the back burner for long term impact, here are some things leaders can do right now to help ease the transition to a healthier work environment:

  1. Schedule regular check-ins or team meetings where employees can share their concerns and challenges openly. Make sure to create a safe and supportive environment for these discussions. Actively listen to their feedback and demonstrate that their well-being is a top priority. Ensure that there is a follow-through on the concerns raised and the solutions discussed during these check-ins, which helps in building trust and rapport with your employees.
  2. Establish clear expectations regarding working hours and communicate that it is not necessary to respond to emails or messages outside of these hours. Encourage employees to set "Do Not Disturb" periods within team communication tools and respect those timeframes to help maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  3. Promote the importance of breaks and time-off. Encourage employees to take short breaks throughout the day to recharge, to take sick leaves when they are not feeling well, and to make sure they use their vacation time to rest and unwind. Leaders should set an example by also taking breaks and vacations, and by avoiding contacting employees during their time off unless absolutely necessary. Implement policies that support this such as mandatory vacation days or giving mental health days.
  4. Give employees the choice of what balance is in work and life. Offer flexible working hours, remote work options, or the ability to adjust their schedules to accommodate personal commitments. Empower employees to make decisions about their work-life balance and support them in finding the best approach for their individual circumstances.
  5. Acknowledge a job well done by recognizing and celebrating achievements. Either through a compliment, a shout-out in team meetings, or by giving an award, providing feedback—whether positive or constructive—builds rapport, trust, and a better working dynamic. Establish regular recognition programs or events to celebrate employee accomplishments and milestones, fostering a positive and supportive work environment.

In conclusion, empathic communication, resilient leadership, and fostering a shift of perspective on change plays a vital role in building a healthy organizational culture. By doing these, organizations become more capable of recuperating from or preventing workplace burnout and change fatigue. The strategies outlined in this article offer a starting point for leaders to consider when determining the best course of action to address this issue. However, it is important to recognize that each organization is unique, and consequently, the approach to address burnout will vary. Ultimately, tackling workplace burnout is an ongoing process that requires consistent effort, empathy, and adaptability.

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