How to Address Workplace Burnout and Drive Well-Being
A few months ago I delivered a talk to Google managers on how to drive well-being on their teams and in their organizations. To begin this topic, we needed to get to the key causes and drivers of low well-being or burnout. In my research, I found 5 leading causes based on a Gallup study on drivers of burnout.
- Unfair treatment
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of clarity (i.e. roles, deliverables, strategy)
- Lack of communication and support from manager
- Unreasonable pressure
More isn’t Always Better
Numbers 1, 2, & 5 are things that have very little upside. Meaning that there is only so much you can improve them before they have a negative impact again.
Nevertheless, these three are your foundation for well-being. That said, they are not the drivers of wellbeing. Without these as the foundation, any other efforts or drivers will be less effective.
With fairness, if you have too little fairness, you have a problem. However, if you have too much fairness for one person then someone else might experience unfairness. A lack of fairness can break an organization.
When I studied organizational psychology, one of the ideas I most remembered was the incredible impact of fairness in organizations. For instance, psychologists found that many times, when people steal office supplies, they are doing it balance the scales of fairness. They might have been treated unfairly elsewhere (i.e. passed up for a raise or promotion). Powered by a desire to achieve equilibrium, they might have packed up a few extra supplies into their bag. Once that becomes normal, taking a little more doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Studies have found similar dynamics when it comes to expensing charges on a corporate credit card.
All of this to suggest how important an equilibrium of fairness is critical to an organization. In fact, that’s why fairness is at the top of the top 5 causes of burnout list.
Unreasonable Workload and Pressure
With pressure and workload, the goal is to reach an equilibrium range that doesn’t burn people out and doesn’t bore them. The goal is not to make things as easy as possible, but rather to keep things as reasonably challenging as possible. The equilibrium range is going to depend on your industry and organization. It’s fair to expect that high growth companies will likely face more pressure than mature industries that have more stable systems in place.
Sometimes it’s Quality, Not Quantity
Numbers 3 & 4 are interesting because too little and it’s clearly a problem. Too much is also a problem (i.e. micromanaging), however, these two have significantly more room for growth. Taking this one step further, if you strive for world-class levels of clarity, support, and communication, the sky is the limit. Quality, not quantity is the opportunity.
These two can be your drivers of well-being, built upon the foundation of fairness and reasonable workload and pressure.
Lack of Clarity
Clarity is one of the most powerful weapons for success. When you know clearly, specifically, and measurably what you are going after, you will find a way to get there. The constraints that come from specific targets significantly reduce the possible solutions for getting there. This helps keep people focused and moving forward. When goals broad and ambiguous, too many solutions begin to emerge as possible candidates. This can keep us from even making a decision on what path to take.
Clarity in role, strategy, and purpose creates the conditions to empower people to go be awesome and figure out how to make it happen. Why? Because there will be no doubt as to where they must end up and everyone is in agreement.
Lack of Communication and Support from a Manager
Clearly, specifically, and measurably defined goals can change, especially in fast-moving industries. Priorities, goals, and needs can change at any time and without strong and open lines of communication, people might deliver on goals that are no longer a priority. The frustration that comes from this absolutely leads to burnout as they are then forced to go and still deliver on the newer targets and goals.
Support is also a powerful driver of well-being in organizations. This includes being heard, getting quality guidance and advice, and introduced to people in the organization. Knowing you have a leader who can support you when challenges come up makes a significant difference in well-being. And this doesn’t mean you can’t have challenging moments in the manager-employee relationship. It simply means that ultimately, you are both on the same team and the manager will always put aside any issues in order to support their employee.
Sir Alex Ferguson, former long-time manager of soccer club Manchester United, was known for at times exploding on players when they messed up. And while that might be ok on the soccer pitch (less so in the office), he said that frustration with a player never impacted his support and caring for that person. His players could always count on his support and open communication, no matter what happened. Support doesn’t mean always getting along.
Conclusions and Key Ideas to Take Away
- Strive for equilibrium in fairness, workload, and pressure and make it your goal to maintain that equilibrium. When things fall out of equilibrium, work with your team to get them back. These are your foundation for well-being, but not the drivers. The drivers are clarity, communication, and support.
- Don’t simply aim for more clarity, communication, and support. Instead, aim for best-in-class. Work to create the highest quality and most innovative systems for clarity, support, and communication. Focusing on quality in these two key areas will give you unlimited upside.
- All 5 of these can be improved by managers and leaders – they are in the best position to address these. Do not shift this responsibility onto employees as they cannot fully control these.
- If you’re a manager, collaborate with other leaders on getting fairness, workload, and pressure to a healthy equilibrium for your industry and organization. Then, think about how you might deliver world class clarity + outstanding communication and support to your teams.