Employee burn-out is a trending hot topic in the business media, with numerous surveys* citing it in staff attrition, and reports† highlighting the financial impact on organisations in terms of rising recruitment costs and workdays lost to absence. It’s enough to keep any HR manager or business director awake at night, but are we in danger of conflating the various different challenges at the cost of sound mitigation?
It is necessary to be clear on what we’re talking about. As defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Clearly, employers have a duty of care with regards to the wellbeing and health of their employees, and much has been written about the signs to look out for and the actions to take. But if we’re talking about the inability for people to be at their best at work because of the general stresses and strains that are impeding them, then that’s a broader framing.
What are some of those stressors?
We do have a fundamental societal basis for many people to feel increased and possible extreme pressures in the workplace. People are worried about the skyrocketing cost of living, forecasts of recession and potential job losses. Inflation is causing concerns about living standards and a reduction in the quality of life.
If a company has lost employees through redundancies, resignations or ill-health, then that negative burden can also make people fearful, either for their own job or for their ability to manage extra workloads that may be outside their capacity or skill set.
A business can’t do much about the macro causes, but it can think about those micro elements over which it has influence.
Tackling the issues
To tackle these issues, it’s necessary to be specific and direct. So, if we take the issue of a major stressor to people being the cost of living, then what can the business do about that? Similar to a business dynamic, if personal ‘profits’ are being eaten away, you either need to try and increase the revenue line (income) or decrease the cost line. And the way that an employer can do that is either to give the employee more money or engage with them to understand and better manage their costs. The problem with the latter is that while the motive may be sound, there’s a danger of overstepping into the employee’s private life.
Clearly, how much a firm invests in trying to maintain staff quality of life through salary increase is a key consideration. It’s also a crude measure – it doesn’t require too much thought, but it is often a short-term improvement to the issue of people feeling they’re under stress because they don’t know how their normal salary is going to cover their costs. If a flat rate percentage increase is just given across the board, the impact on different levels within the organisation won’t be the same. A 10% increase might be proportionate to what everyone else in the firm received, but it may not be proportionate to the challenge that individual is facing.
Something that’s more nuanced can be considered, beyond just giving out money. That might just be access to advice, ways in which to find different suppliers, or it may be accessing things at a discounted rate, leveraging the buying power of the company for individual benefit. Bigger companies do run more creative and broad-based benefits, such as EAP, childcare vouchers or discount schemes such as ‘cycle-to-work’. But it’s not really addressing the cost-of-living issue, as the problem areas are generally utilities, food and fuel.
Employee absence and loss has a direct capacity or skill-set impact on the rest of the workforce. For instance, if your organisation is already lean at 100 employees and 10 of those employees cannot work, then it’s nearly impossible to deliver the same quality standard, especially if those 10 people have a skill set that can’t easily be replaced.
But workforce and flow capacity planning is not a new issue. There is a responsibility on people throughout an organisation to identify capacity very clearly and honestly, and determine what can be stopped. That’s a conversation we regularly have with clients, particularly over the last couple of years.
The fear of ‘No’
A common issue for organisations is recognising when they have the optimal number of clients to manage or tasks/projects to deliver. Everybody finds it really difficult to say, for example, ‘For us right now, the right number of clients is 63. We’ve got 75, so we need to part with 12 of them.’ Or, another example, ‘We’re doing these 100 things really well, but actually the first 10 have lost their impact and stopped being useful, so let’s stop doing them.’
In every piece of work Blackmore Four are involved in, there’s something different or new to do. And it usually involves us finding a way of capturing what we’re going to ask our client organisation to stop doing. We challenge them with the question, ‘What is the real expected benefit or outcome of what you are doing?’.
It often boils down to that general fear of saying no, not taking things on, or cutting out what’s not working. Rarely does the conversation go, ‘Thank you for all that work you’re doing. We’ve delivered a really important initiative. And now I need you to do x, y, z. Please can we just go through your current workload and identify what you’re able to stop doing in order to be able to do x, y, z.’
What tends to happen instead is that more is added under the guise of greater productivity and greater output. But just doing more work with more clients isn’t necessarily better.
At an individual level, there is a degree of responsibility to be clear – to tell one’s manager the situation and agree what can be dropped in order to take on a new task. It’s right to expect well-paid, intelligent people to do their own analysis, and say, ‘Actually, I’ve been doing this task for a couple of years now, and I’m not really sure how useful it is’.
On an organisational level, the situation can be more complex, not least in partnership firms. There can be many valid things being asked of people and the business as a whole, at different times of the year, for different reasons. But many partnerships are built on a billable hours framework, so every lawyer or accountant in that firm, for example, has a target and needs to prioritise spending time with, or doing work for their clients. So anything over and above this is sitting on a to-do list, waiting for them to have time to do it.
And it just keeps building up until the firm loses people, and/or has a client base that is realistically beyond their capacity.
One of the things Blackmore Four does is help clients to figure out what on that list is actually going to have an impact, or is really going to change the way the organisation operates in line with their strategic objectives. We look at what is mandatory because it’s about external regulatory compliance, and what is just an improvement on what is already being done. What is a ‘good to have’ but isn’t critical to where the business is heading? We assist the business to go through that assessment and critical evaluation of the impact of all their activities, and we guide the executive in their responsibility to justify the need to do each of those things.
For some organisations, that’s a big cultural change. The accepted behavioural norm can be to start a project and keep going until it is done, instead of consistently and continually reflecting on activity and input and critically evaluating that against the organisation’s strategic goals.
So the consistent themes that we talk about are, ‘What are you trying to achieve? Where are you heading? Why is that important? And how does any of this help you get that?’. If an organisation doesn’t do that, they are in danger of layering activities up until the workload increases and capacity drains. People can find themselves in the position of being tasked to do things they’re not really skilled to do; where the task hasn’t been defined properly.
In the context of broad global issues such as a cost-of-living crisis, economic decline, health concerns, war, etc., people are already at a heightened anxiety level. Compounded by chaos at work, it’s a never-ending downward spiral. It’s further exacerbated when the workload of those that are unable to work through burnout is shifted to people who were managing, but are now at the tipping point because of that additional burden.
The responsibility of leadership
This does place a responsibility on leadership in general, and leaders as individuals to actually change the direction of the culture if that culture doesn’t support having the courage to not do things if they’re not necessary.
Some business leaders will feel that working as hard as possible is equivalent to being the best they can be; the only way to achieve optimal business performance. Other leaders will accept more of an outcome-focused approach. But this can get muddled, with a belief that ‘regardless of the input, this is the outcome that’s needed’ – but without really knowing how it’s going to be achieved.
So the question is, what else can leaders do?
Firstly, they need to consistently evaluate and communicate what their focus is. If their focus is on maintaining and improving results for instance, they need to do that in a way that means people are going to be able to contribute their best, despite what’s going on in the world. They need to not be subject to unreasonable stresses and strains. And ‘unreasonable’ is key – because high performance does require some level of stress.
If the business ethos is that, ‘We are going to protect and look after our people’, it needs to be very conscious about the language used; how it’s articulated. That message needs to be consistently communicated by the executive and leadership team; anybody who is looked upon as a leader or an influencer, and all of those in the organisation. That narrative needs to be carried regularly, at all opportunities, acted upon consistently and action taken when it’s not being fulfilled.
At Blackmore Four, we’re listening to and engaging with business leaders who understand that this is the right way to do things, but perhaps are struggling with how to actually facilitate it. Moving or changing a culture can be challenging, and it’s something a lot of partnership companies are likely to face. That environment, fixated on billable hours, is not necessarily geared around how to prioritise and manage the workload, and the changes needed to make a business work really well. Our approach focuses on the things a business needs to do that are directly impacting performance, and simultaneously what needs cutting back that have either limited or no value.
The topic can be overly generalised, and there is often an assumption that the issues can be resolved by routine, traditional management techniques. But it’s important not to conflate the issues and generalise to the point of not being able to tackle them.
Blackmore Four are an independent consulting company, offering specialist advice, leadership insight and tailored solutions to businesses looking to improve business performance. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.
If you would like to talk to us about the ways that we can support you in assessing and developing the leadership capabilities in your business, contact us here or call 07734 920 222