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Employee burnout: Who is to blame and what can be done?

Executives need to own up to their role in creating workplace stress that leads to burnout ‘and create systems of addressing the same. 


Picture this. Your workload is always overwhelming regardless of your planning ‘and prioritisation. You have tens of things that needed to have been done by yesterday. Every other time, you receive an additional call or email from your supervisor or co-managers of a new task that is to be completed by end of day. You also have several internal meetings to attend ‘and from those there are more meetings to further discuss issues from the main meetings. This could be the scenario facing many supervisors ‘and managers leading to burnout.

According to the Harvard Business Review, employee burnout is a common phenomenon, but it is one that businesses tend to treat as a personal issue rather than a broader organisational problem. In his article, titled Employee Burnout is a Problem With the Company, Not the Person, Eric Garton notes that companies with high burnout rates have three things in common: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, ‘and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. He notes that these forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation but they also eat into the downtime that is necessary for restoration ‘and well-being.

Sources of workplace stress

According to a research by Goh, Pfeffer ‘and Zenios published in the Harvard Business Review, workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year in America. That seems scaring. The research further found out that workplace stress caused additional expenditures of anywhere from $125 billion to $190 billion dollars a year—representing five to eight per cent of national spending on health care. I have not seen the data in Kenya but I believe that we could be headed to such statistics if we don’t address the problem.

The research identified some of the sources of workplace stress to include long hours, lack of control, job insecurity ‘and perceptions of unfairness in the workplace. These were both inherently stressful on the body, ‘and also lead to unhealthy behaviours like alcoholism.

The direct effects to the company include low productivity across organisations, high turnover ‘and the loss of the most capable talent.

Overcoming the challenges

Executives need to own up to their role in creating workplace stress that leads to burnout ‘and create systems of addressing the same. On too much collaboration for example, Eric notes that many organisations have too much consultation, too many meetings ‘and telephone calls aimed at getting everyone’s view ‘and to ensure 100 per cent alignment more than it is required to get the job done effectively. This leads to managers reading ‘and responding to tonnes of emails, many of which should not be reaching them in the first place. Simplifying decision-making structures ‘and reducing the number of meetings are some of the critical solutions for creating an effective framework for work.

Adopting agile approaches such as reducing distraction ‘and focusing on critical priorities for the business as well as creating timelines for those will help in keeping the team focussed.

On weak time management organisational disciplines, what is critical is the kind of facilitation, tools, disciplines ‘and organisational norms that corporate leaders have created to support employees to engage with their work effectively. Very few employees will have the confidence to call off unnecessary meetings or time-wasting projects. Many employees will try to battle the overwhelming workload at the expense of quality or even their own health. It is important that corporate leaders know how much time employees spend on activities that contribute to enterprise productivity ‘and also how much time is lost or spent on less productive activities.

Eric holds that data from tools such as Microsoft Workplace Analytics can map out places in your organisation where too much time is spent in meetings, emails or online collaboration. With this information managers can target changes in specific functions to reduce the organisational drag that takes a toll on productivity ‘and leads to burnout.

The issue of overloading the most capable members of the team is a real one. The research found out that the average manager was losing one day a week to email ‘and other electronic communications ‘and two days a week to meetings. Further findings were that highly talented managers will lose even more time to collaboration as their overwork earns them more responsibility ‘and an even larger workload. The danger of this is that with time, these talented employees learn to slow down on making suggestions or creating innovations because of the resultant effect of being incorporated into so many teams ‘and extended expectations, many of which are not itemised as part of their deliverable scorecards.

Though many managers ‘and corporate leaders know the effects of burnout on their teams, many efforts to reduce the same are always wanting. These include exerting pressure on overloaded employees to manage their time better, pushing employees to work with deadlines that are not realistic or are at the expense of other critical business deliverables ‘and insisting on long schedules that hurt human health.

Managers might presume that a huge workload is good for productivity but the opposite is true – that organisations  are to blame for a stressed out workforce ‘and with that they st ‘and to lose.

The writer is Head, Communications ‘and Corporate Affairs, KIM



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