Preventing Employee Burnout Can Transform Your Company

Employee burnout can lose you time, money, and talent. Cultivate a thriving organization to curb burnout before it happens.

Arianna Huffington speaks about employee burnout in front of a video camera.

Wikimedia Commons

In October 2020, we launched our first annual meeting: Now, New, Next. In this virtual series, we sat down with trailblazers in all categories to discuss wellbeing, burnout, and tips for navigating a changing world. Couldn’t make it? Not a problem. We’re bringing these valuable discussions to the Worklife site. Today we’re chatting about The Great Global Employee Burnout with Arianna Huffington. 

When Arianna Huffington (founder: Huffington Post, Thrive Global) and Brianne Kimmel (founder: Worklife) sat down for a virtual chat from their homes in October of 2020, employee burnout was just beginning. 

As knowledge workers pivoted to remote work, “Zoom fatigue,” became a household phrase. Outside of their homes, frontline workers faced exhaustion amidst spiking COVID-19 cases and poor health coverage

In the past two years, we have seen large swaths of Americans quit their jobs, joining the growing ranks of the Great Resignation

What’s motivating this mass exodus? Why are so many employees burning out? 

Low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and disrespect, the Pew Research Center reports. Childcare issues and lack of flexible working hours are also notable factors. 

Although we have seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases in recent months, rates of employee resignation remain steady. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in February 2022. Industries that saw an increase in quits include:

  • Retail trade
  • Durable goods manufacturing
  • State and local government education

What is Employee Burnout?

The numbers are clear; many employees are dissatisfied with their work lives. As a first step to addressing the issue, employers can define employee burnout. 

There are three main dimensions of employee burnout:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism and detachment
  • Sense of lack of accomplishment

Employee burnout has concrete negative impacts on individuals who experience it. Burned out workers are more likely to deal with chronic health problems and coronary heart disease than colleagues who are satisfied with their job. 

Plus, burnout in one employee impacts the larger organization. Teams with burned out individuals are likely to experience decreased performance at individual, team, and organizational levels. They are also likely to have difficulty with creativity and innovation, and see higher levels of workplace injuries, accidents and mistakes.

Employee engagement is the opposite of employee burnout, and is characterized by:

  • Motivation
  • Dedication
  • Absorption 

How to Address Burnout in the Workplace

So, how can employers reduce burnout and increase engagement?

One study suggests five evidence-based strategies for how to address burnout in the workplace:

  1. Provide stress management interventions
  2. Allow employees to actively craft their work
  3. Cultivate (and encourage!) social support
  4. Engage employees in decision-making
  5. Implement performance management

In a time where much of daily life is outside the control of everyday people, returning control to employees can go a long way. If you’re managing people, you should be frequently checking in with them to: 

  • Find out what resources they need to get their job done 
  • Discuss what tasks and responsibilities they prefer
  • Set developmental goals

To boost employee engagement, it is also critical to maintain a transparent decision-making process and to involve workers in it.

Beyond organizational operations, make time to build relationships with employees and cultivate space where employees can build relationships with one another. Founders can even host events for non-work family and friends to attend. This will further strengthen the company culture and community. 

Offer direct mental health services to your employees. This could include cognitive-behavior training, mindfulness exercises, or meditation groups.

Burnout is about your workplace community. By creating a thriving workplace, you can cultivate thriving employees.

Build a Culture That Prevents Employee Burnout

Managers who prevent employee burnout also boost company output. 

How company culture affects productivity will vary by organization, but BetterUp CEO Alexi Robichaux provides a great case study. At 25, Robichaux was leading a Fortune 1000 company, attending board meetings with icons of Silicon Valley, and… feeling miserable. 

He took some time off to figure things out. After trial and error, he realized that his self-neglect was the root of his problem. If he was going to continue moving forward and performing well at work, he needed to take care of himself.

Revitalized, Robichaux teamed up with Eddie Medina to launch the career coaching platform BetterUp. The company’s ethos is that investing in your people yields high returns. First and foremost, employees are shared owners in the company and care about its success. Next, they are members of the better up community. Finally, they are workers fulfilling the role they were hired for.

Robichaux and the BetterUp team prioritize culture fit over role fit. If you’re a great addition to the team, but your responsibilities aren’t working out, they will tweak your role to keep you on board. 

BetterUp’s culture is informed by their six values:

  • Courage: Dare often and greatly
  • Craftpersonship: Find meaning in what you do through crafting excellence
  • Playfulness: Boost health and happiness to promote great ideas
  • Grit: Exercise perseverance driven by determination and passion
  • Empathy: Use understanding to drive innovation
  • Zest: Recognize that what sets you apart makes the team unique

Like Robichaux, Arianna Huffington has key insight into creating a positive company culture, starting with founders’ approach to their job.

When Huffington founded behavior-change platform Thrive Global in 2016, employee burnout and the mental health crisis had yet to gain mainstream attention. Huffington says that the pandemic “highlighted the themes at the heart of Thrive’s mission like never before.”  When global attention turned to employee wellbeing, the platform was prepared to meet the moment and raised an $80 million series C round to augment their program.

Thrive Global provides concrete tools for improved employee wellbeing to powerhouse customers (Accenture, Microsoft, Salesforce). The company provides:

  • A behavior-change app designed to help users move from awareness to action
  • A suite of micro-learning programs
  • Live webinars and leadership journeys
  • Pre- and post-assessments to measure employee engagement

Since its launch, Thrive Global has:

  • Taught Microsteps to 100+ organizations in 40+ countries
  • Launched a behavior-change platform powered by AI
  • Partnered with Stanford Medicine to create a mental health and resilience program

We sat down with Huffington to tap her wealth of knowledge about employee burnout and wellbeing as founder and CEO of Thrive Global. Our conversation spanned:

  • Company culture
  • Mindset shifts for founders
  • Technology’s relationship to burnout
  • Biotypes (the latest Stanford brain research)
  • Frontline workers and employee burnout

You can read our conversation below or watch the recording of our discussion.

Worklife: How do you create a culture where there's empathy and where employees feel that they have a voice? 

Arianna Huffington: Well, the first thing is a mindset shift for founders.

One of the things we are all realizing is that the frenetic nature of our lives was not sustainable..

Both I, and many of the people I’m working with are looking at our lives and saying: do I really need to travel as much? Do I really need to go back to a life where I never have a meal with my family at night? I mean, one of the things that we've all loved is the opportunity to reclaim the family meal and have more honest and in-depth conversations.

Years ago, I totally bought into the founder myth that in order to be a successful founder, you have to be always on. We have failed to recognize that you are much more likely to make a lot of mistakes when you're depleted and running on empty. And when I was building the Huffington post, I totally bought into that myth. I collapsed from burnout and exhaustion. I learned a lot from that experience and I built Thrive very differently, recognizing that the worst mistakes I have made were when I was exhausted. I think every founder can identify with that. 

graphic with image of stressed worker at computer and Slack message notifications
Source: The 24-Hour Work Cycle: Navigating Always on Culture

When founders focus on well-being it will make them even more effective and creative and innovative.

Founders should also prioritize creating a compassionate culture where directness prevails. At Thrive, we are not a debating society. Leaders have to make decisions. People will rally around the decision or leave if they're not comfortable with it. But it all starts with compassionate, direct communication, and a culture where everybody can express both their dissatisfaction and their good ideas. 

Wellbeing and Employee Burnout

Beyond a mindset shift for founders, what does daily wellbeing look like for employees? Especially in a time period where data shows a disconnect between employee and engagement and employee wellbeing, two dimensions that are generally reciprocal.

One study suggests the effectiveness of social support and belonging affirmations, particularly for people working on the frontlines or in high-crisis roles.

Opportunities for anonymous, asynchronous dialogue with peers can reduce burnout and cut resignation rates.

Can Technology Prevent Employee Burnout?

Technology like Tandem and other virtual communication offerings provide a viable platform for these critical community-building practices. Thrive Global also leverages tech to boost wellbeing.

Worklife: How do we holistically balance work and life to prevent employee burnout? Does technology play a role?

Huffington: Technology and technological innovation have been absolutely essential during these times.

Look at what has happened with Zoom or any video conferencing technology. They are lifelines for teams. We’re using it not just for work, but for our personal lives; for weddings, for holidays.

At Thrive we are working to add a human layer to technology. We have a SaaS enterprise app that we've brought to many companies like:

  • Accenture
  • Verizon
  • Walmart

In those apps, we want to make sure that we take care of  our humanity. For example, we have a 60 second reset feature because stress is unavoidable, but cumulative stress is not. The reset feature comes preloaded with 60-second guides to breathe, to stretch, or remember what you are grateful for. There’s also the opportunity for users to build their own personalized guide based on things they like.

Mine has pictures of my kids, my pet, my favorite quotes, music, and a breathing pacer. 

One of the things we're finding is that sharing this personalized guide at the beginning, middle, or end of meetings creates deeper connections.

Screens and Reducing Employee Burnout at Home

Despite technology’s ability to reduce stress, it has the equally powerful ability to amplify stress, notably during times of collective crisis.

Studies show that more exposure to disaster media can produce poor mental health outcomes.

It’s a tough line to walk in a time where staying informed has direct implications for physical health and safety.

Worklife: How do we strike that balance between staying informed and staying connected without getting immersed in or triggered by social media?

Huffington: We are coming face to face with our growing addiction to our phones. That's something which we're seeing now more than ever. And we need to set boundaries.

I actually love what you said about not getting too triggered. We launched the Thriving Mind Experience, which deals with our stress triggers. We are looking at the medical crisis and seeing that the key is to go upstream and identify stress triggers before they become depression and anxiety.

This is based on the latest Stanford brain research. The key here is to recognize that we all have different triggers. We are giving the people we're working with in different companies the tools and techniques to use this brain research to improve mental health. 

Leveraging Biotypes to Reduce Employee Burnout

Stanford Professor Dr. Leanne Williams has identified eight circuits that brains may get stuck in as a response to extreme stress:

  • Rumination
  • Threat Response
  • Emotional Numbness
  • Anxious Avoidance
  • Inattention
  • Cognitive Fog
  • Context Insensitivity
  • Negative Bias

She calls these circuits “biotypes.” Constant repetition of the same circuit can leave an individual spinning in the same feedback loop. This has potential to become clinical depression or anxiety. While the outcome of repeated circuits may be the same, the root cause is different, and that impacts what treatment options will be effective. 

The Stanford research team’s goal is to use biotypes to take the guesswork out of customizing individual mental health treatment plans.

Improving workers’ mental health is one strategy for addressing employee burnout in the workplace. Sharing information about the different biotypes along with strategies for combating these harmful circuits is a good place to start. Individuals can begin to address burnout and improve mental health when they receive individualized tools for their unhealthy patterns.

With education, people stuck in a negative bias loop can begin paying attention to their thoughts and notice when they represent invention versus reality.

Huffington: One of the quotes we use in Thriving Mind is from Mark Twain, who said “there were many terrible things in my life, but most of them never happened.”

Worklife: What Thrive practices have you integrated to balance both your wellbeing and personal productivity? 

Huffington: Well first, I'm in Los Angeles right now. I live in New York, but I have kept a family home here. So my daughters, my sister and I moved here. If we can't integrate into our normal life right now, at least we can have a garden and go on hikes and be able to integrate more with nature.

I find that these microsteps—as we call them at Thrive—can help us set boundaries to our world and create antidotes to the anxiety of these times. They have been amazing and game-changing for me.

Microsteps are literally small, daily, incremental steps: 

  • Starting my day with 60 seconds of breathing 
  • Washing my hands and thinking of three things I'm grateful for
  • Having a social media and news cutoff at the end of the day so I'm not consuming coronavirus news just before I go to sleep.

Hourly Workers and Employee Burnout 

Worklife: How can frontline workers and people with flexible working hours in the real world look after their wellbeing? 

Huffington: Brianne, thanks for raising that. We are passionate at Thrive about reaching, not just knowledge workers, and those of us who are now able to work from home, but also frontline workers. We signed a five-year contract with Walmart to be their exclusive wellness provider for their 2.2 million associates.

We love the work we are doing with store employees. 

If you go to our Instagram account, you will see these amazing stories. People are dealing with extraordinary stresses in their lives, but using the concept of one better choice, one micro step a day, and seeing how it all adds up to healthier habits and real changes in their lives. This could be in terms of losing weight, or reversing diabetes. There are real, tangible, health outcomes. 

From the beginning, we've made that connection between wellbeing and productivity. So there is no trade off between the two. 

When we improve our wellbeing, we improve our productivity. Companies are recognizing that. If you are totally focused on business metrics, you will see that your employees' well being is essential and now more than ever. 

End Employee Burnout

Ultimately, employee burnout and career burnout is about the workplace. While providing mindfulness techniques and wellness tech is helpful, the absolute best way to prevent burnout is to take good care of your employees. Are your workers:

  • Being paid well?
  • Receiving quality benefits?
  • Accessing paid time off?
  • Getting clear feedback on achievable tasks?  

If not, making some big changes can go a long way for your company. Multiple studies have found that higher pay and employee recognition boost the job satisfaction of workers and in turn, your revenue. Employee turnover results in money lost; one study found that it costs about 33% of an employee’s yearly salary to replace them. 

Ending employee burnout at your company can save you money, improve worker satisfaction, and set the organization up for long-term success.

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