Should the onus be on individual employees, managers or senior leaders to cure burnout at work? In the fourth instalment of The Big HR Question, two experts dive deep into this troubling workplace issue.
Some leaders attribute the rising rates of burnout to the individual employee. They think if companies created more resilient employees, then people would be more equipped to cope with wellbeing challenges.
While there’s value in implementing interventions to help employees to switch off, build resilience, and calm their minds, there’s a risk these employee-focused solutions could lead some people to the conclusion that employers are being let off the hook.
Many experts argue that leaders need to take charge of the problem by addressing understaffing and resourcing issues, or re-evaluating unreasonable performance expectations.
Then there’s an argument that burnout should be addressed by teams and middle managers, who have their ears closer to the ground and can gauge which employees are struggling. But again, could this absolve senior leaders of their responsibility?
In the fourth episode of HRM’s The Big HR Question series, Ruchi Sinha, Associate Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of South Australia Business School and Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President, Research and Advisory at Gartner and coaching psychologist, discuss the different levels of responsibility for curing burnout.
If you want to skip to the part that interests you most, we’ve included some key timestamps below:
40 seconds– What’s the current state of burnout in Australian workplaces?
Few industries and roles are immune to the increasing surge of burnout, but some employees have been more impacted than others, including women, members of other diverse groups, and middle managers.
Workplace interventions and support systems need to be viewed through an equity and inclusion lens, says Sinha.
1:48– To what extent are individuals responsible for tackling burnout?
Sinha and McEwan discuss the efficacy and uptake of wellbeing programs. Although the number and availability of such programs have increased over the course of the pandemic, they aren’t being used to the extent that organisations would hope.
If people aren’t participating in their company’s wellbeing offerings, what does this indicate about their mental state and attitude towards their company? Sinha offers some telling insights.
5:30– What are the key factors contributing to burnout?
- Employee autonomy, including time fungibility, control, the presence of harassment and bullying, and the level of psychological safety within an organisation all factor into the likelihood of experiencing burnout.
- Sinha identifies five broad levels that are key to addressing burnout: Individual, team, supervisor, policies and practices, and organisational culture.
8:31– Are there situations when increased autonomy can lead to burnout?
- Context is king. During the pandemic, high degrees of autonomy without clear direction created more stress for employees, says McEwan.
- Sinha adds that employee autonomy must be paired with other critical factors, such as reasonable performance expectations, helping employees prioritise, consistent communication and leadership support.
10:12– Is a company-wide week off effective for tackling burnout?
- Micro-breaks alleviate employee stress, but they aren’t a quick fix, say McEwan and Sinha. Solutions that target organisational factors contributing to burnout need to be front and centre.
“I think [company-wide weeks off] are a good start, but it’s a little unrealistic to believe that you can kill me with work for 360 days in a year and then five days is perfect for recovery,” says Sinha.
12:33– Should burnout be managed on a team level?
- There’s good sense in intervening at the team level – particularly as close ties with close colleagues have become increasingly important over the pandemic – but this shouldn’t be at the expense of leaders changing the workplace culture from the top.
15:42 – What’s a final message you’d like to share with HR?
- Sinha says as well as reducing demands and improving resources, HR must not forget to focus on engagement and the meaning people derive from work in order to support employee wellbeing.
- Tackling burnout is critical for performance, says McEwan.
“You can’t have growth or performance without a healthy workforce. As leaders, we need to understand that.”
- Many employees are now tracking the impact of work on their health, happiness and wellbeing in real time, says McEwan.
“The glass door of the future is not reviews and CEO ratings. It’s aggregated smartphone data. Employees of the future will choose the companies they work for based on things like average resting heart rate, amount of hours of sleep, fitness levels and happiness.
“This is a future we are stepping into and we have this once in a generation opportunity with the introduction of hybrid work to build human centric environments that allow humans to reach their full potential. Companies that do that will win, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
Watch the other episodes in HRM’s The Big HR Question series.