employee burnout

Employee burnout: Don’t prize productivity over your people

A high level of productivity is a positive goal that most workplaces strive to meet. But obsessing over productivity to the extent that you neglect the people doing the work can be a big mistake.

This comes at a real human cost: employee burnout.

Employee burnout is the culmination of physical and emotional strength exhaustion, which can be further impacted by a lack of support and resources.

How do you know if your office suffers from employee burnout?

Employees may do these things:

  • Disengage or withdraw
  • Appear demoralized, worried or stressed
  • Perpetuate a negative workplace culture
  • Take frequent absences
  • Become sick often
  • Leave your company for another opportunity

When productivity is prized above all else

Let’s say you push productivity hard. What can go wrong?

The impact of employee burnout reaches other team members, your business and your customers. When people are unhappy with their job circumstances, they can convey that – intentionally or not – to colleagues and customers. Within your team, negativity can be contagious. Customers can be repelled by a poor service experience.

When people are absent a lot or resign from your company, you won’t have the manpower to meet output demand, which can impact your bottom line and – ironically – diminish productivity.

But employee burnout isn’t always as simple as someone getting frustrated and needing a break. It can also have serious consequences.

Instances when work can – literally – make you sick

Some jobs or working conditions are particularly susceptible to employee burnout.

1. Sales personnel

Salespeople operate under intense pressure to exceed certain targets or meet with a specified number of prospective customers – with the full understanding that their job is on the line if goals aren’t met.

These types of employees can literally work themselves sick, especially if the sales targets or the processes that define their work are untenable.

Stress-related illnesses include:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Heart attacks

2. Remote employees

Remote employees can be under pressure to demonstrate their work ethic and productivity levels.

They don’t share the same work space as their managers and can fear that others think they’re lazy or gaming the system to reduce workload. As a result, they could overcompensate in their hours worked and obsess over quality of work output.

With fewer boundaries between work and personal life – between cell phones, email and instant messenger (IM) – these workers can also feel as though they’re on call 24/7 and never able to take a break. Someone working nonstop like this can be prone to snap.

3. Truck drivers, warehouse workers and other time-sensitive roles

Occupations like truck drivers are often pressured to make deliveries on-time, no matter what. This creates an incentive to drive all night to make it to destinations and stay on schedule, especially if they’re running behind because of maintenance issues or road conditions.

But there’s a high risk they could fall asleep at the wheel and cause a major car accident.

In the era of e-commerce and on-demand fulfillment, an employee working at an assembly line on a factory floor could be scrambling to meet performance targets. They’re at risk of making a careless mistake and sustaining a serious injury.

These time-sensitive conditions can lead to workplace injuries, workers’ compensation claims and extended periods of reduced workplace productivity.

4. Strict attendance policies

Perhaps an area has adverse road conditions as a result of inclement weather, such as flooding from a hurricane or iced-over roads from a winter storm.

If attendance is a productivity measure, and you’re extremely strict with employees about how much time they’re able to spend out of the office, employees can deprioritize their safety.

The message they’ve received is “come to work or else.” They may feel pressured to take risks they wouldn’t take ordinarily. As a result, they could accidentally drive into an accident during their commute.

Under similar attendance requirements, someone who’s feeling unwell could be forced to come into work – only to have a major medical incident in the office and have to be rushed to the hospital.

In each of these scenarios, you could not only lose a valued employee, but also expose your company to liability.

How can you prevent these types of situations from happening?

The essential element of productivity: putting people first

People are your greatest asset.

It’s important and necessary to have standards for work output and performance. But your productivity goals are pointless if your people are:

  • Sick
  • Injured
  • Exhausted
  • Lacking focus
  • Overwhelmed and stressed out to maximum limits
  • Seeking every opportunity to get away

Ultimately, happiness and job satisfaction are strongly correlated with productivity. You extract the highest-quality, most consistent work from people who are in a good place in terms of physical and mental health, and who feel that their needs are being met.

Remember: A happy workforce is a productive workforce.

You have to prioritize the needs of your employees, and trust that everything else will fall into place.

Make your people feel:

  • Supported
  • Valued
  • Heard
  • Validated

Here are the areas in which you can focus your efforts.

Setting expectations

The quickest way to make an employee unhappy is to hold them to standards that they can’t achieve.

Tips for ensuring that your expectations are realistic and achievable:

  • Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) for each type of role or each department at your company. These should be:
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Tied to business goals and strategy
  • Identify baseline performance and productivity standards.
  • Monitor and measure KPIs continually.
  • If 100% of your staff is able to meet their KPIs, they may not be challenging enough and your expectations may be too low. Consider increasing KPIs.
  • If fewer than 50% of your people are achieving their KPIs, this could be an indicator that your expectations are unrealistic or there’s another underlying issue.

Does there appear to be a widespread, consistent lack of productivity on your team? What should you do next?

First examine your work environment and processes to determine if there’s a problem. Have there been any recent changes that could be the culprit? Is your employees’ work space conducive to getting tasks done? For example, is your office design crushing productivity?

Consider all workplace-related causes for a dip in productivity, including your own management style.

Then ask your people if something at work or in their personal life is impacting their performance, and plan for how to overcome these issues. You could conduct:

  • One-on-one interviews
  • Small focus groups
  • Larger team meetings

To better incorporate feedback from introverted or less talkative employees, consider a combination of meetings or focus groups with one-on-one interviews.

If no other clear issues are uncovered, consider lowering your KPIs.

Understand that productivity is dynamic – it will ebb and flow at times.

Proper training

You should give your employees everything they need to succeed and meet desired productivity levels, and that includes proper training for their roles.

Know that you can’t out-train a poor work process, though. If your processes are flawed, no amount of training will help. This is why you need to be sure that you’ve established solid, proven processes, procedures and measures – and then train according to those.

Be realistic about how employees will perform when they start a new role, whether they’re brand-new hires or transfers from another department. You can’t expect that on their first day someone will perform at the same levels as someone who’s been in the same position for five years.

Give people a ramp-up period – commonly 90 to 120 days – for learning and instruction. This allows them to build up confidence and get into a cadence with their new role.

They also need time to adapt to a new team culture as well as the personalities and working styles of their new colleagues.

Strategies that balance productivity with employee well-being

Additional ways to avoid employee burnout:

  1. Communicate with your employees about performance and productivity regularly – not just during formal reviews. Foster an environment of open, ongoing dialogue. As the manager, lead the charge and set the tenor for your team.
  2. Let employees know you’re listening and you hear them. Acknowledge their feedback and input. If you can’t take action on their ideas, explain why.
  3. Be attentive and clued in to employees’ needs. Look out for visible signs of stress. Make it a regular practice to approach employees and ask them how they’re doing.
  4. Explain to employees the appropriate channels and processes for submitting feedback or concerns related to performance and productivity. They also need to know where to go if they don’t feel comfortable speaking with their direct manager. This information should be documented in your employee handbook.
  5. Implement a wellness program or employee assistance program (EAP).
  6. Encourage work-life balance. Incorporate more flexible scheduling if your business allows for it. You could also give people periodic wellness days – or even a few hours off here and there – so they can recharge or attend to personal matters.
  7. Get away from the office periodically to give people a change of scenery and the opportunity to disconnect from office goings-on. For example, take your team out to lunch or have some meetings off-site.
  8. Consider how automation or technology upgrades could make some processes and tasks more efficient, and relieve burdens on people. After all, there’s only so much that people can do in a day.
  9. Always exercise intellectual humility. This means that you’re open to other, potentially better ideas for how to improve performance and productivity, and that you’re agile and flexible enough to change your approach.

Need other ideas? Easily implement these simple yet effective hacks for boosting productivity and improving performance.

Summing it all up

Pushing people too hard to achieve arbitrary, unrealistic productivity goals can be disastrous for their well-being and for your business. The first and most important step in any productivity-boosting strategy is to focus on making employees happy. This can be accomplished through:

  • Better establishing expectations and monitoring performance
  • Delivering proper training
  • Improving communication with employees
  • Being open to adapting your work environment

For more information on maintaining a workplace where employees are happy and productive, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work

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