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How Every CEO Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of my team members at the cybersecurity company which I founded and lead rarely spotted me without my standard Silicon Valley uniform of blue Oxford shirt and khaki slacks with a black belt. These days, they’re more likely to see me on Zoom in a hoodie sweatshirt. They’ve watched as […]

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of my team members at the cybersecurity company which I founded and lead rarely spotted me without my standard Silicon Valley uniform of blue Oxford shirt and khaki slacks with a black belt.

These days, they’re more likely to see me on Zoom in a hoodie sweatshirt. They’ve watched as my playful young daughter has traipsed into my home office and as I’ve stepped away to grab a FedEx delivery. Once, in a particularly un-CEO-like display of multi-tasking, I took a call as I washed broccoli in the kitchen sink.

But I think we can all relate. 2020 has brought a perfect storm for work anxiety and stress, and an unclear 2021 lies ahead. While the world awaits a widely distributed vaccine, employees will continue to face high levels of uncertainty. Forces unique to each individual – health concerns, family obligations, loneliness, or the maddening disruption of familiar routines – will keep many stretched to their emotional limits. Frankly, we’re all exhausted..

Employee burnout has become an all-out crisis that requires attention and action from the very top of the organization. I believe it has become every CEO’s responsibility to prioritize not only workers’ physical health and safety during COVID-19 but their mental well-being too. Empathetically recognizing and addressing the pressures of these times has become a chief executive’s professional – and moral – duty.

I’ve long been obsessed with culture and values as critical to an organization’s success. Eight years ago, when I founded Netskope to build an iconic cybersecurity company that solved some of the world’s largest cyber challenges, I resolved that no matter how much we grew, it would always be a place where people would love to work – collaborative and transparent, filled with big dreams, and without patience for egos or corporate politics.  The culture that I always wanted wherever I worked.

But the current situation ups the ante. It demands that CEOs go beyond their typical role in setting an organization’s overarching culture from on high and support employees with extraordinary levels of mindfulness and intention. As employee engagement firm Glint recently put it, “Employees expect their employers to not only embrace but also support them in all of their humanity.” That means heads of companies must strive for more thoughtfulness, personal involvement, and leading by example.

My hoodie sweatshirts and broccoli washing are small reflections of that reality, but there are bigger things CEOs and their companies can be doing as well. Based on our experience, here are five suggested steps for fighting employee burnout.

Embrace empathy as the No. 1 company value. A smart work-from-home policy is integral in protecting employees – we’ve extended ours through at least July – but it’s only half the battle. 

It’s important to recognize that every employee’s personal circumstances are unique. While many feel more productive working remotely, the lack of human interaction and face-to-face collaboration could be unsettling others. Some are dealing with hardships such as adjusting to their children learning from home or caring for an elderly parent. Some have roommates, others are by themselves.

The pandemic has blended work and personal life to an unprecedented degree, and it’s the CEO’s responsibility to make sure the company has pivoted accordingly.

Open up the lines of communication. Now more than ever, the CEO needs to be visible and accessible. At our company, for instance, I host “open dialogue” Zooms every week for employees around the world (at times convenient for that location) to talk to me or ask about anything they want. 

During one recent call, an employee complained that their prescription prices had suddenly skyrocketed. We followed up and discovered an issue with the person’s pharmacy. In ordinary times, such a problem probably wouldn’t even reach the CEO’s desk; today, anything that matters to an employee is the CEO’s business. But every employee has challenges in their personal lives that may impact their professional lives, and needs an outlet to express frustrations.

Our more than 1,000 employees also know they can directly reach me by email, text, Slack, or WhatsApp anytime. This year, many have done so. 

Mandate time off. The pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint, and time off is vital for maintaining mental wellness over the long haul. 

Companies shouldn’t merely encourage employees to use their paid leave, they should proactively give them additional days. We’ve enforced a no-work rule on long weekends in 2020 and added a mandatory mental health day. We also formed our own holidays, giving everyone the day off this year for Netskope’s eighth anniversary.

Hold the rest of the management team accountable. A CEO can make all the right moves to help reduce employee stress, but they go for naught unless the rest of the leadership and management teams follows suit. The chief executive can’t drop the ball on certifying that empathetic practices are filtering through the entire organization. He or she needs to regularly check in and make sure that is happening.

Don’t backslide on healthy routines. In the early days of the crisis last spring, many companies acknowledged the potential impact on employees’ mental health with a number of work-life balance initiatives, such as mindfulness workshops and calendar blocks for walks. 

I wonder if those efforts have slowly evaporated inside many organizations as the year has worn on. Rather than retrenching on investments in combating burnout, companies should be doubling down on these efforts.

I expect our company’s focus on employees’ emotional needs will remain long after the pandemic has subsided. If there’s one bit of good that has come COVID-19, it’s the realization that empathy for employees should be a cultural cornerstone at any company.

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