Abi Freeman is an organisational psychologist and founding partner of Brink and Wellcome-backed venture, Well-Lab, which enables employers to access the latest leading science and evidence based strategies to tackle burnout.
The pandemic has sparked a radical workplace transformation over the past 2 years. Working remotely is now a viable and sometimes compulsory alternative to the office 9-to-5. Thousands of workers have reevaluated their life priorities and how their careers fit into the picture, prompting the great resignation. It’s no surprise after surviving multiple lockdowns where people had to work whilst supporting families through crisis, battling loneliness and struggling to hold onto jobs. Meanwhile, volatile markets have kept employees and employers on their toes, prompting both talent shortages and mass layoffs.
Combined, these have left unprecedented numbers of jobs lying vacant in the UK and employers struggling to replace job leavers and hire for new positions. Whilst we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, we’re starting to see its true effects on the workplace more clearly. A major impact is that burnout, poor mental wellbeing and neglected physical health are rife, causing many to question the role of work within their lives.
Employers across the world are struggling with this issue, as overworked employees quit in droves in search of more balance. These employees are hard – sometimes impossible – to replace.
What does this mean for those employees left behind? As the BBC noted, when a worker leaves their colleagues often step in and take on work. Some employers, seeing no tangible loss, may conclude that additional help isn’t necessary. Others may simply not be able to replace leavers quickly enough.
For the colleagues remaining, this leaves a difficult and often unmanageable workload; and we’re seeing just how much stress and exhaustion it’s causing for those still in work. The term burnout was originally coined in relation to healthcare where it’s currently reaching new levels. But the issue spans far beyond the NHS to many sectors.
Employers cannot afford to lose further talent. And, more importantly, it is unethical and poor business to simply allow people to pick up others’ work to the point of exhaustion. The responsibility for managing burnout and its causes can’t sit with the individual. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon and the strategies to curb it need to sit at the organisational level: we need to shift the conversation from wellbeing as nice-to-have, to being core to business resilience.
While burnout prevention isn’t a simple process, there are some things to consider:
The pandemic has fundamentally changed people’s relationship with work; people are no longer seeing it as the top source of purpose for a good life. Flexible working options, measuring productivity in terms of outcomes rather than hours put in, finding new ways for teams to collaborate are just some of the options organisations can test to see what helps strike a better work-life balance. There’s no one-size-fits all approach though, organisations must test and learn to see what works for them, starting small before scaling what works across the business.
Your wellbeing strategy could be even more valuable if it focuses on subtraction rather than addition. In fact, the more precious time is to people, the more return you’ll get from unlocking it.
- We need to do less, not more.
- We need to take away, not add.
- We need to help people reset and reprioritise.
Free yoga classes, access to meditation apps and additional leave have all been applauded recently, but while these are offered in good faith, they require staff to switch off and “fix” themselves in their own time. What’s really needed and what really works are initiatives that rethink the workplace.
Teams must have space to be vulnerable and honest about the pressures they face, and as an employer it’s critical, in this new world of remote working, to have systems in place to both (truly!) listen to and stay emotionally connected to staff.
Businesses need radical approaches to how they can create the new future of work, and they need these to be implemented through action-plans where it’s possible to measure effectiveness. Until then, responding to immediate concerns and showing that the business cares about how employees feel may well do some damage control as workloads spiral and employees watch their peers leave for new pastures.
Burnout is preventable, as long as organisations take responsibility for what happens in their workplaces and work hard on changing it for the better. The future of work needs a new breed of organisations that can create and implement a blueprint for change and inspire others to build healthier, happier, more productive workforces.