Our always-connected culture is destroying workplaces. More than one in five employees report that they “often” feel burned out at work, according to a 2018 Gallup study. More than a quarter of millennials, who make up most of the U.S. workforce, report they “constantly” feel burned out at work, with an additional 45 percent of the generation’s workers saying they “sometimes” feel burned out.
From an organizational standpoint, that’s bad news. Not only are burned-out employees more likely to take sick days, they are three times more likely to quit, according to the same Gallup study. And good leaders shouldn’t want their people to suffer.
How did this happen? Technology plays a huge role, as we often feel pressured to respond to work texts and emails as soon as they come in –– even on nights, weekends, and days off –– for fear of agitating our bosses or clients.
I wasn’t always immune to these pressures. For years, I watched my stress levels rise and my health deteriorate in an attempt to be the best CEO, husband and father I could be. I learned firsthand that humans are not built for this kind of constant pressure. It leaves us exhausted and emotionally depleted.
Hyper-responsiveness Weakens Our Brains
There’s a lingering belief that if only we push harder, we can accomplish more. But neuroscience has shown that’s not the case.
According to Cleveland Clinic doctors, approximately 97 percent of people are not capable of multitasking. When we multitask, there’s reduced activity in the parts of our brains responsible for focus. Multitasking doesn’t increase our brainpower; it reduces the amount of brainpower dedicated to each task.
There are other negative effects that come from multitasking: it can lower our IQ, leave us more open to making mistakes and even increase overeating.
None of this is news, yet our burnout culture persists. As leaders, we can make changes that improve employees’ well-being and resist the pressure to engage with work around the clock.
Here are four changes I implemented at my company, meltmedia, in order to improve balance in our workplace culture. As a result, we have achieved employee tenure rates twice as high as our competitors, won multiple workplace awards, attracted 100 candidates for every open position, and improved employee engagement.
1. Set an Example from the Top
Your actions influence your employees more than the words you say (or write into your company policy). I make a point to attend family events and share with others that I am doing so. I also take personal time to refresh and recharge. Role-modeling my dedication to priorities outside of work and my focus on personal time clearly communicates that I don’t expect my employees to work 24/7.
2. Discourage Work Outside of Work
Taking time to recharge, refresh and revitalize is critical to our health. I don’t look at emails on weekends, nor do I send any out to employees or clients. I believe that time off is time off; that’s why I disconnect. Employees shouldn’t be expected to do work while on vacation, even if it is just one small thing. If I see an email from an employee who is supposed to be on vacation, I will ask them why they are working.
Setting up automatic out-of-office responses or a “Do Not Disturb” schedule for Slack notifications can help to establish boundaries and put your mind at ease.
3. Make Empathy Your First Priority
Life throws curveballs — whether it’s a personal injury, family illness, or flood at the house. These events are stressful enough, so employers should not pile work expectations on top of them.
At meltmedia, we prioritize empathy over short-term productivity when an employee faces hardship. We want our people to focus on whatever issue they are dealing with. Simply giving them permission to do so provides immense relief, and allows them to be fully present once they have resolved their personal challenge.
From there, we as a company can jump in and figure out how best to support them.
4. Trust Your Employees to Do Their Jobs
We allow a lot of flexibility for our employees. They have the autonomy to work from home, leave early to pick up their kids or go to appointments. My peers often ask whether this privilege is abused. It happens, but not often. We have a simple rule for our employees: your flexibility should not impose on our clients, your team or your deliverables. If it happens, we treat it as a performance problem — not a policy problem.
Flexibility should not strictly be seen as a perk to attract talent. The intent is to support fellow humans with empathy, understanding and compassion. That sets your culture on the right path. Any supporting policies or processes should flow from that.
In Closing: What to Expect
If you improve balance in the workplace, your organization should experience improved productivity. Stretching people to their extremes to get one more thing done ultimately stalls the entire organization. Using my own burnout experience as an opportunity to improve my company’s work environment has led to a culture of energized, creative and engaged people.
We spend a great deal of time at work, and it’s better to be surrounded with fulfilled and balanced teammates. Of course, that doesn’t mean we never get stressed out. We just choose to handle it with understanding and kindness.