Two-thirds of full-time workers experienced burnout in 2019.
Remote and flexible work options are proven to improve employee well-being and decrease work-related stress.
Building strong relationships and setting realistic performance goals are also powerful burnout deterrents.
In a world where two-thirds of the workforce are struggling with burnout and overwhelm, helping your people improve work-life balance is an organizational imperative. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as a mental condition stemming from “chronic workforce stress,” and countless headlines revealed its toxic impact on people, culture, and the bottom line (not to mention PR). All this can put leaders in a precarious position: On the one hand, you want to encourage your team to disconnect as much as needed and take care of their whole selves. But on the other hand, work needs to get done.
Fortunately, it’s clear that well-being and productivity are not mutually exclusive—in fact, quite the opposite. Here’s how managers can prevent burnout in their teams while improving overall performance.
Offer remote work opportunities
One of the most effective and widely-studied ways to improve employee well-being is to offer remote flexibility. Approximately 23 percent of U.S. employees work from home at least part of the time, and studies show both women and millennial job seekers actively seek companies with flexible policies. If you’re not offering telecommuting options, you’re likely losing out on top talent.
It’s not hard to understand why remote options are such a coveted benefit: commuting has been shown to negatively impact mental health and overall life satisfaction, with each extra minute adding additional chronic strain. Working from home eliminates this stress and gives employees complete control over their work environment, such as location, clothing choice, and potential distractions. Working from home also saves money, time, and other valuable resources, often providing employees the freedom to pursue endeavors that promote overall well-being.
And lest you fear this freedom leads to apathy, data suggest remote workers are, on average, exceeding manager expectations and excelling in their roles. A two-year study conducted by an economics professor at Stanford University found that remote employees were 13 percent more productive than in-office workers, a finding that’s consistent in other research. Our 2019 State of Remote Work Report found that remote workers were 40 percent more likely to have been promoted in the past year than their in-office peers, and 27 percent more likely to feel they had growth opportunities.
That said, working remotely has its challenges, too. Here are some tips on supporting remote employees and how technology can help.
Flexible scheduling options
Of course, some industries really aren’t suitable for telecommuting, such as traditional retail, manufacturing, and health care establishments. (I love using TeleDoc for minor illnesses, but I wouldn’t want an ER nurse handling my case via FaceTime.) Remote work also isn’t something managers can typically offer if the entire organization isn’t on board.
Fortunately, there’s another option: flexible scheduling. In a flexible environment, your team may still need to come into the office, but schedules are more customizable. If Sophie drops her daughter off at school every day and can’t make it into the office until 9:00 a.m., no problem; her schedule is amended to make up that half-hour elsewhere. The flexible scheduling umbrella also includes the freedom to miss work for important events, such as children’s school performances or doctor’s appointments.
While flexible scheduling doesn’t have the same allure as telecommuting, it can still dramatically reduce burnout and job-related stress. A year-long study conducted by the University of Minnesota and the MIT Sloan School of Management found that Fortune 500 workers who were offered flexible scheduling felt more in control of their lives, more supported by their bosses, and more content with the amount of time they spent with their families. They also reported greater job satisfaction, less burnout, and a decrease in psychological distress.
“Our research demonstrates that workers who are allowed to have a voice in the hours and location of their work not only feel better about their jobs, but also less conflicted about their work-to-family balance,” said Phyllis Moen, one of the study’s researchers, who holds the McKnight Endowed Presidential Chair in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. “Crucially, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job. In other words, workplace flexibility is beneficial—not detrimental—to organizations.”
Setting realistic performance goals
Regardless of where or when you work, you have performance goals, and so does your team. Do you tend to play it safe and low-ball team performance goals, or are you overly ambitious? Does it matter?
According to Gallup, yes. Recent data show that workers who think they have realistic goals are 2.4 times more likely to agree that they have a healthy work-life balance. They are also more likely to remain with their company long-term and recommend it to others as a great place to work. And unlike remote and flexible work options, setting realistic performance goals is something that managers can accomplish without needing preauthorization.
According to the research, the top two things managers should do to develop realistic employee goals are:
1. Include employees in setting their performance goals
Employees are more likely to feel good about their goals when they’ve actively played a role in developing them, and this conversation is also an opportunity to discuss expectations. A separate 2019 Gallup study found that barely half of U.S. employees know what’s expected of them at work, but this climbs to 76 percent when they’ve been included in their own goal-setting. The process also creates a sense of autonomy and ownership, which is directly related to improved engagement and performance.
2. Explain the consequences of meeting, or not meeting, goals
Employees who are aware of potential consequences (which can be positive, like a bonus!, or negative, like losing a promotion) are more than twice as likely to say their goals are realistic. Clear expectations and pre-determined targets are fantastic motivation tools.
Be supportive, communicative, and fair
It’s worth noting that in the MIT study mentioned above, managers in the pilot group received training on how to support their team’s professional development and family/personal life. The age-old adage “employees don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers” has its flaws, but the fact remains that the employee-manager relationship is the primary driver of satisfaction at work, significantly impacting both performance and tenure. And, yes, burnout.
Building strong relationships with your direct reports, built on mutual trust, can be one of the most significant burnout deterrents. Taking the time to really get to know your people and what’s going on in their lives can help you proactively step in if needed, whether that means leaving a meaningful “thank you” note or suggesting they work an extra day from home. Make it clear that you care and are on their team. Knowing that you have their back, even if something goes wrong, is extremely reassuring. And, according to Gallup, employees who feel supported by their managers are 70 percent less likely to regularly experience burnout.
Alternatively, when employees feel that they’ve been treated unfairly—which could look like neglect, bias, favoritism, or unfair compensation—they are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout.
2019 was the year of the burnout, but burnout is far from inevitable. These tips can help managers prevent burnout by fostering a thriving and resilient team culture that truly supports the well-being of their people.
Oh, and one last thing: Don’t be a nightmare boss.