The future of work is here, employee burnout needs to go

Work burnout is real, and during Covid, it only got worse. A survey from careers site Indeed conducted during the spring found more than half of workers saying they felt burned out, and more than two-thirds saying the feeling had gotten worse throughout the pandemic. 

The good news: the world of work is taking it more seriously.

While Sweden is the only country to recognize burnout as a disease, the World Health Organization added burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. Research shows the condition is a lot more complex than just a heavy workload, but businesses, from Nike to online dating company Bumble, have recently offered office employees extra time off of work to support their mental health and address the issue of burnout.

How to deal with burnout — and prevent future burnout — is a challenge all businesses are now tasked with as many workers hit 19 months of working from home.

Research from work burnout expert Jennifer Moss finds that while the average person says they are “fine” 14 times a week when they are asked how they are doing, 19% of the time they are lying.

(Photo: Getty | Maria Korneeva)

Jennifer Moss, author of the new book, “The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It,” recently spoke with CNBC’s Workforce Executive Council about strategies employers and employees can implement to reduce burnout.   

“The future of work is here, and that means we need to test some new rules out,” Moss said. 

Burnout needs to be treated in the workplace  

Burnout is not considered a mental health illness, but it is a mental health issue, and needs to be treated as such in workplace environments.

Moss said that require leaders to “trust employees and create flexibility” in the workplace. Creating safe spaces, offering psychological safety and resources, and prioritizing employees mental health will benefit workers and business productivity, she said. And any effort made to invest in employee well-being will show up in business results, but it has to start from the top. A leader’s first task is to give permission to workers to make their mental health a priority. 

“The key to [creating] comfort inside organizations is being permitted to prioritize mental health,” Moss said. 

Her research finds that while the average person says they are “fine” 14 times a week when they are asked how they are doing, 19% of the time they are lying. 

Asking workers more specific questions to better assess how they are doing, will translate into their professional work. Moss says while most meetings go on for too long and harp on non-essential issues, a 15-minute meeting a week between managers and employees can pay off in terms of mental wellness and job productivity, and it should not only focus on work issues.

Among the key questions Moss says should be covered in a short meeting:

  • How was this week?
  • What were the highs and lows?
  • What can I do for you next week to make things easier?
  • What can we do for each other?

“It’s so simple,” she said.

Talking about mental health in the workplace establishes open communication and a safe environment for employees to feel connected to their work and to their leaders, she says, and also helps employees to reach their goals. It helps leaders begin to better understand what their employees need to be more productive.

“Simple actions done with repetition equal positive wellbeing outcomes,” Moss said.

Work stress, a new idea of success, and the Great Resignation  

More companies are worried about the “Great Resignation” impact on their workforce, and Moss said keying in on burnout and employee’s desire to better connect with their work and their values has to be part of the analysis in employee retention efforts. 

“The hyper use of technology, not meeting people in person disconnected [workers] emotionally from what we care about inside the organization,” Moss said.  

The past year-plus of the pandemic has allowed people to develop what Moss calls “cognitive gratitude” and that means employees are zeroing in on what matters most.

“That’s why we are seeing the mass resignations. I want more from my manager, more from my leader,” she said. Many people are making different life choices than they would have made pre-pandemic, and defining success in new ways.

In some ways, the pandemic also has dissolved the “we” versus “them” mentality between workers and managers, as organizations as a whole have faced the same challenges, and that is a positive, Moss said. It should also make managers more willing to be open with teams.

“Leaders should be transparent about their struggles as well,” she said. “It is not healthy to remain stoic.” 

Leaders are exhausted too — “exhausted leaders leading exhausted teams,” Moss said, referencing the name of a talk she gives. She added that interventions she has done inside organizations show that most managers right now don’t really know what their direct reports are doing given how busy they are themselves.

The transparency of the 15-minute meetings, “the constant communication,” is what prevents teams from being sent “off trajectory,” Moss said, and “that changes the inefficiencies that reduces the workload, which reduces burnout.”

Leaders also need to know how to direct employees to resources. Companies are prioritizing mental health because of the pandemic, but many organizations have had mental health resources available for years and had not taken advantage of them. Moss said it is important for leaders to communicate what programs and mental health resources are available to employees and should not feel that they need to be a mental health expert to do so. 

Moss said what she learned while interviewing managers is that they are often concerned about having a conversation with workers on the subject without being a mental health expert, and “that made them shut down.”

“I keep telling them you are not meant to be a mental health expert, but you are meant to know where those mental health experts exist in your organization. You are a conduit,” Moss said, adding that also extends to knowing about community resources. “Managers just need to be able to point people in the right direction.”