How HR Can Address Employee Burnout [5 Steps]

As we're entering our second (or is it still the first?) wave of the coronavirus, the plans many of us had about re-entering the office have fallen to the wayside. 

As we are re-adjusting plans on a weekly, sometimes daily, cadence, it's a lot for us to manage and it's also a lot for our people to manage too. 

You already know this, but with all this uncertainty and constantly changing routines, we're all likely to experience burnout at some point. And the risks to your people and the organization are significant. Fortunately, there's things you can do to address it in a thoughtful, proactive, and sustainable way that will have a lasting impact on your company and it's people. 

First, what is burnout?

Boiled down to its simplest terms, burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

A recent report from Eagle Hill Consulting found that a staggering 45% of US employees are feeling burnout, with 25% feeling burnout due to the coronavirus.

So if you're feeling your people are burnt, you're not alone.

Why is addressing burnout important?

First off, not addressing burnout has a serious implication on your people and their physical, and mental health. Research shows when people live in a stressed out state too long, it can manifest such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

This impact on your people has business implications. People are unengaged, overworked, stressed, and scared which not only impacts their output but also their quality of their work.

Lastly, there’s been a shift in HR today and while it’s been traditionally HR’s role to support the people, it’s now having an impact on how their businesses brand and how they’re perceived by the market. Brand isn’t just the marketing team’s role anymore, it’s also on the HR team.

According to a RepTrack survey of consumers in Italy in March 2020, companies’ reputations were already more defined by their demonstrated concern for the well-being of their employees. There's also the famous, Mark Cuban quote in a CNBC piece in which he says how companies treat workers during pandemic could define their brand ‘for decades’. Sending employees back to work too quickly may be “unforgivable” in the eyes of younger Americans, too, Cuban said. “So not only is it smart to take care of your employees, but it’s also good business and that’s the way I’m looking at it.” 

What are some ways to address burnout?

You could start launching initiatives from the following list: 

  • Coffee chats
  • Virtual happy hours
  • Playing games online
  • Fitness challenges
  • Summer Fridays
  • “Guess the person” from baby photos
  • DIY pizza creation
  • Virtual Lunch N Learns
  • Mental health apps
  • Book club
  • “Meet the kids”
  • Craft O Clock
  • Show and tell
  • Affinity-based groups
  • Hobby-based groups
  • Sharing sessions
  • Trivia hours
  • Online scavenger hunts
  • Virtual escape rooms
  • Keynote speakers
  • Movie nights
  • Virtual murder mysteries
  • Virtual campfires
  • Virtual team challenges

These initiatives are great, but they don't address the root cause of burnout.

Introducing initiatives left and right might feel like a great way to engage your team and show them you care, but there's a better approach.

5 Steps to Successfully Addressing Burnout

[The following content comes from a webinar we did in partnership with AceUp. I've synthesized the webinar content below, but you can still check out the slides, or watch to the recording.]

compt aceup burnout

1. Identify your guiding principles (for leading & making decisions)

Guiding principles are the lens for which you make every decision that will impact your people and the organization.

When they are are identified, defined, and shared with the team, it helps everyone at your company build a powerful lens for understanding what matters to the organization, how decisions and initiatives are made, it gains buy-in, and builds better receptivity for anything you roll out.

An example of a guiding principle shared by RepTrak’s guide about communicating in crisis was empathy. A focus on people and meeting them where they are.

This is important because your people have high level of emotional exhaustion.

Acknowledging this and understanding them where they are shows your organization is putting them first, which will result in everything you do being more successful. Without empathy, anything and everything you do appearing tone def.

And having a guiding principle of empathy is essential in times like this.

Another great guiding principle might be personalization. Everyone is different and everyone's current situations are vastly different from the employees with newborns who need constant supervision, to school-age children which need activities, to are caring for their parents, living alone in isolation, or have fragile mental states due to the high uncertainty (who doesn't?).

Speaking of uncertainty, let's address that now.

2. Find ways to create certainty

Next, is to find ways to create certainty for your people.

How can we create certainty when there is none? HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan recently shared a powerful quote from their former COO JD Sherman, and it was “Great leaders absorb uncertainty and pass down clarity.”

Clarity is a form of certainty. So what are some ways to create it? Here are a few:

  • Some ways organizations are creating certainty are by announcing that their remote work options will be able to continue in perpetuity. Twitter, Square, Facebook are just a few who have come out in support of remote work. Also, this WFH stuff is very present in your peoples' minds. In a recent survey from Blind, some 90% of respondents said they expected a flexible work-from-home policy to persist well after COVID-19 is finally contained.
  • By focusing on what stays the same also creates certainty. Everyone is focused so much on the uncertainty, they tend to miss what is actually staying the same. Finding ways to keep people’s lens focused on what’s staying the same can be helpful. This is especially helpful if you find people people stiff-arming your changes, do what this HBR article suggests, and get people to focus on what's staying the same. By doing this, you can get people to welcome your changes with open arms.
  • And lastly, as you introduce new initiatives -- keep them consistent or certain as to what days they’re on, methods you’re communicating them to the team, times, etc.

Take a moment and observe to yourself how you feel right now with the idea of creating certainty for yourself? How would that make you feel? You can create some certainty for your people which will go incredibly far for addressing burnout, and helping to build a remarkable brand that will withstand the test of time. 

Who at your organization can benefit the most from certainty? What are some other ways you can introduce certainty during the uncertainness of our future.

3. Empower your managers to lead from these new guiding principles too

Every HR professional knows the phrase, "even the best laid plans can fall on deaf ears."

This is exactly what we want to avoid. Once you have your guiding principles, and certainty -- make sure your managers are educated, informed, and empowered to ensure these trickle down to their people.

Some ways to do get managers to assist in preventing burnout by getting them to set realistic expectations for projects and deadlines, create clear work and personal life boundaries, and encourage their team to take time off. 

What are some ways you’ve worked with managers in the past which have worked well for you? How could those translate to helping to address burnout?

4. Embrace change & adapt by implementing powerful policies, programs, and new perks for your people

Now that you have your guiding principles, you’ve identified ways to create certainty, your managers are on bought in and supporting from beside, now you can pick some high-value initiatives.

The key here is to embrace the change happening in the company, market, the world and adapt by implementing game-changing policies, programs, and new perks for your people.

Brian Solis has a great quote about embracing, accepting, and taking advantage of the current state of the world. He said:

We aren’t going through all of this disruption just to become what we were before. This isn’t the “New Normal,” It’s the "Interim Normal.” What comes next is ours to define.

Keep that in mind as we share with you these high-value, and sustainable initiatives you can introduce:

Policies: 

Communication. When this pandemic began, it’s likely you were hyper communicative. Just because it’s almost month five doesn't it mean you should step off the gas on your communication strategies. The numbers around unemployment, financial distress of people, an increase in COVID cases recently are ever-present on your peoples’ minds and they’re left wondering "what does this mean for me?"

Some ideas include having your CEO or CPO step out front and communicate weekly what’s going on, and if there are no changes, communicate that too.

Letting people know you’re aware of the situation in these times is also a great way to lead with empathy and care. Other ideas include creating weekly videos, posts on an internal wiki, or even setting up office hours.

A member of our People First community who works at public company with 2,000+ employees mentioned they began hosting office hours, and they’ve been consistently booked up for various reasons -- employee questions, requests, and some are just in need of connection.

Another policy would be to create a way to let them own it. And by own it, we mean their mental health. 

HubSpot recently launched a “Take a break” campaign for their people.

In it, they communicated internally the need for everyone to own their own mental health and take a break, whatever the reason.

hubspot take a break campaign address burnout

Programs:

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

A pre-COVID report came out which found that 96% of professionals say they need flexibility, but only 47% have it.

This demand for flexibility is in multiple facets including when they work, where they work, and how they can make up work. Letting people do the first "when they work" is also referred to as TimeShifting. If they’ve children at home like I do, it’s nearly impossible to work 40 hours a week, but my team knows I have shifted my hours to be a bit later in the evening to make up for time when I was watching my 15-month old son.

You can also offer flexibility through:

  • An additional pandemic-related free PTO day (Smartsheet recently implemented this).
  • Summer Fridays!

Programs that foster togetherness (and be aware some people need solitude).

There are three types connection according to Together author Vivek Murthy.

  1. Emotional (close confidant or partner)
  2. Relational or Social (quality friendships, social companionship and support)
  3. Collective (hunger for a network of community of people who share your sense of purpose and interest)

Each one of these is important and integral to a sense of connection. The presence of one of these kinds of connections, no matter how strong, is unlikely to compensate for missing the others.

Companies can help by fostering the last two the most. Leaning into your company's values and creating programs around that is a great way to help people feel deeper connected and engaged.

What programs have you created that help people with relation or social connection in the past? How can they be adapted to fit the current times? 

Perks & benefits:

Mental health, meditation, and physical fitness perks.  

The brilliant Julie Paris, Wellness Programs Manager at Akamai, recently shared with us some programs she did for her people. When working remotely for 40-hours, a big part of physical health begins with making sure your people have proper infrastructure and desk set up to work from home. Paris and her team brought in an ergonomist to do a few trainings for their people on how to set up a desk to improve posture and comfort, and best practices when working from home including taking frequent breaks to walk, looking away from the screen and more.

You can find other ideas for supporting your people's mental health here.

Coaching

Coaching in organizations has become wildly popular in the last few years as there are tremendous benefits. 

Your people likely have access to virtual therapy which can be helpful, but if you want them to focus on the positive changes they can make now in life and in work, coaching might be a better idea. 

Perk stipends

If you’re unfamiliar with a perk stipend (also knowns as an allowance or lifestyle spending account) -- they’re a sum of money you give to employees for them to invest in perks that are best for them and their always evolving needs.

At Compt, we help companies create and scale these and we’ve seen a massive shift to this model because it’s inclusive, personalized, and meaningful for people but also flexible, cost-effective and scalable for HR.

So what are some perk stipends?

  • Health and wellness stipends. With this kind of stipend, your people are able to get the mental health apps, meditation apps, home gym equipment or virtual fitness classes they need to be get and stay health. This also frees you up from having to pick the PERFECT perk like meditation app that everyone loves because let’s face it, people already have preferences for these things and they know what is best for them -- we won’t. 
  • Learning and development stipends let your people level-up up their career in the way that suits them and their growth. This can also be used to spend on coaching!
  • Remote work stipends to help people get their desk set-ups, home infrastructure like internet, and food or snacks like they had in the office.
  • Meal stipends allow you to transfer over any food budgets you had into the hands of your people for them to get healthy foods delivered, takeout, meal kits, and more.
  • Equipment stipends let people buy the equipment they need to set up a home office and ensure comfort, productive, and efficient work.
  • General perk stipend are an amalgamation of the items above. You can select any of the perk categories above or more to let people opt-in to what they need most.

How could offering a perk stipend to your people make their life better? How could it make your life better?

[If you're redoing your budgets and needing to decide on a new approach to perks, download our Perks Comparison Guide which compares discount platforms, debit cards, marketplaces, and perk allowance software like Compt.]

5. Continue to lead by example

Last and certainly not least, you need to continue to lead by example by putting your own health first. 

With HR being on the front-lines of companies managing the tone of the organization and support for it's people, your health is essential. Whenever this comes up, remind yourself of the safety measures shared before every single airplane takes off:

"In case of an emergency, masks will drop from the overhead compartments. Secure yours first before helping others."