Sparking Motivation Is The Key To Beating Stress And Burnout, And To Improving Employee Engagement


Let us kick off Stress Awareness Month by looking at the opposite of stress. Certainly, there are times when stress is telling us that something in our lives is straining our capacity—a stressor we need to identify and deal with. However, often times, stress can be a sign that something is missing.

As an Executive Wellness Coach, companies and individual executives hire me to help them manage stress for well-being and success. Stress is an enormous drag on our physical and mental health and our productivity. It is imperative to manage stress and replacing it with a positive is even better. Stress drains our energy. Let us also look at what creates energy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third of U.S. workers report high levels of stress at work. Two-fifths (40%) say their jobs are very stressful, and more than one-fourth (26%) report being “often burned out or stressed” by their work.

It is no accident that high levels of workplace stress are accompanied by high levels of employee disengagement. Business leaders need to understand what factors are crushing employees’ spirit, and on the other hand, how to spark motivation.

Meaning and motivation

A recent report by the Korn Ferry Institute explicitly links the problem of a stressed-out workforce with the challenge of fostering motivation. The key to sustained innovation is motivation—specifically intrinsic motivation, the drive that comes from within. By contrast, stress is “a well-known creativity killer.”

The report challenges business leaders to take a long hard look in the mirror: “Is your company stoking or suppressing people’s intrinsic drive?”

Paying attention to motivation is especially important now that Millennials have become the largest part of the workforce. They are searching for purpose and meaning, and want to work for more than a paycheck.

Intrinsic motivation is driven mainly by two factors: autonomy and purpose. Give both to your employees and they will thrive, and so will your company.

A sense of control

Disruption and constant change are unavoidable realities in today’s economy, as is the threat of jobs being replaced or radically altered by automation or AI. As a result, the American Psychological Association finds that “a sense of powerlessness” is at the core of workplace stress.

Business leaders can effectively counter this source of stress by giving employees meaningful autonomy—the ability to exercise discretion in how to carry out their jobs. Employees who feel trusted and empowered are more likely to show initiative and to take ownership over their work. That kind of employee engagement translates directly into improved performance and higher retention rates.

Creating a sense of autonomy throughout an organization requires a new leadership style. Rigid, top-down leadership is a relic of the past. Today’s leaders see authority and decision-making as something to be shared. A participatory and coaching leadership style leads to greater motivation and innovation.

Clarity and purpose

It is well-established that purpose-driven companies perform better and have higher employee satisfaction rates. The challenge is to align the jobs of employees with their unique strengths and individual interests. The art of putting employees in a position to succeed and thrive is one of the marks of a great leader.

Purpose has to come with clear expectations in order to produce results. According to a recent Gallup State of the American Workplace report, a lack of role clarity is a significant factor behind employee burnout. Only 60% of workers strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work. “When accountability and expectations are moving targets, employees can become exhausted just trying to figure out what people want from them.”

On the other hand, when leaders simultaneously communicate a strong purpose and clear expectations, employees will engage and deliver. Engagement and motivation is an antidote to stress.

Invest in your employees

A feeling of competence is the third big driver of motivation. Conversely, the pressure to quickly master new skills and technologies can be an additional source of stress.

Consider your employees as human capital and invest in them. A culture of learning within an organization inspires a growth mindset—a quality linked to improved performance and greater resilience. People who consistently feel they are learning new skills are far less likely to be stressed.

Sometimes stress arises from feelings of being overwhelmed—but being underwhelmed can also be a problem. Employees enjoy a challenge when their jobs have a sense of purpose and autonomy, and when they feel that they have the skills to meet that challenge.

As business leaders, we need to examine what drains our energy in the workplace, and also what fuels and feeds that energy. By fully tapping into the power of motivation, our own and that of our employees, we can both combat stress and ignite innovation.


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