This article is part of our June series about the future of work. Click here for more.
The concept of workplace burnout was first introduced more than 45 years ago. However, the once-novel diagnosis has grown exponentially in the always-on work environment, with researchers estimating its impact on U.S. healthcare in the hundreds of billions annually.
Also worth noting is its toll on employers: Job stress costs U.S. companies an estimated $300 billion annually as a result of absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and other consequences.
“There are real costs to companies and the economy overall,” said Eric Garton, a partner in Bain & Company’s Chicago office and co-author of “Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power.”
What’s more, burnout doesn’t play favorites. One in five highly engaged employees reported high burnout levels, according to a study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, resulting in even higher turnover rates than among disengaged workers.
Employees involved in digital transformation efforts are particularly susceptible to unmitigated stress, “not because people aren’t passionate about what they do, but because the landscape is changing so rapidly,” said Russell Raath, president at strategy execution and change management consultancy Kotter. “Often times, teams will be excited and motivated when they begin to craft new strategies, but halfway through the project, the landscape changes. Employees must then rework or rebuild or redirect the strategy.”
Because CMOs, CIOs, CDOs, and their peers are themselves working overtime to stay ahead of market forces, monitoring and managing fatigue on their teams—and within themselves—may not get the attention required.
“Leaders of digital transformation and innovation are having to disrupt their own businesses, change culture, and keep up with shifts in customer needs and technology breakthroughs that are moving at a relentlessly fast pace,” said Michael Kanazawa, EY Americas’ advisory leader for innovation. “It leaves little time for burnout to be a top priority.”
Savvy digital leaders, however, make preventing, identifying, and alleviating burnout a top agenda item. Here’s how.
1. They Encourage Open Communication
In order to identify burnout signs, digital leaders need a baseline for what is normal.
“On our team, we have real conversations. That means we talk about issues and frustrations—no matter how big or small—instead of internalizing them,” said Dawn Wentworth, vice president of marketing for retail energy provider Stream. “Once you have built a safe environment that only allows for authentic and transparent conversations, it is easy to sense when someone is off.”
It’s important to make it clear that conversations about digital transformation are always opportunities to share thoughts, feedback, and concerns in a non-threatening atmosphere, Kotter’s Raath added.
“The team needs to understand they won’t be penalized for saying something honest, that even if the feedback is negative, leaders need—and, indeed, want—to hear it in order to find ways to improve,” he said.
2. They Create Reasonable Goals
Nothing fosters exhaustion more effectively than unrealistic expectations.
“Rome was not built in a day, nor will traditional, old-school companies become nimble, digitally enabled enterprises overnight,” Bain & Co.’s Garton said. “The best companies build a road map for the implementation of new digital technologies, business models, systems, processes, and ways of working in a logical sequence that also reflects the organization’s capacity to execute and manage change.”
Agile principles or other formal step-wise structures also can make a dynamic work environment more tolerable. “This not only increases the probability of success,” Garton said, “it is designed to distribute the work in a way that leads to less overloading of specific teams and people.”
3. They Provide Real-Time Feedback
A little acknowledgement can go a long way.
“When people feel that their work is appreciated and that they are supported, they are fed or energized by their work as opposed to feeling exhausted by it,” said Mike Grandinetti, CMO and CSO at data management and protection provider Reduxio.
He said he makes sure to provide timely recognition of team and individual efforts. “There’s never a period of uncertainty or anxiety where you don’t know how well you’re doing, which can be draining,” Grandinetti said.
4. They Are Flexible
Monster CMO Jonathan Beamer has high expectations for his team, whose members are “constantly testing new user flows, new platforms, and new approaches,” he said. “We have to adapt to new norms and trends.”
However, Beamer tries to give team members the freedom to work how and when is best for them. “Today’s tools enable more flexibility in time and space than ever before,” he said. “I find it best to establish a culture of mutual trust and clear expectations.”
While the causes of burnout are similar for most people, the ways in which they find relief vary.
“For us, this means that sometimes people work in the office, from home, or even on our rooftop deck,” Stream’s Wentworth said. “If they need to take a walk to refresh or leave early to get some physical exercise, we let them.”
5. They Rethink The Rules
If excessive meetings or endless email chains are draining the workforce, put the kibosh on them. Institute “no-meeting Wednesday” or “no-email Fridays,” Bain & Co.’s Garton advised.
Every 100 days, the leadership teams at consultancy Fahrenheit 212 take a look at the organization’s digital health “to break some addictive email and phone behaviors and help employees further avoid distractions,” said CEO Todd Rovak.
Monster’s Beamer challenges meeting requests. “Lots of work can happen outside of meetings and email,” he said. “Can we just have a quick chat instead? Does it have to be an hour? Can we go for a walk instead of sitting in a room?”
6. They Mix Up The Workload
Having multiple types of projects can actually discourage tunnel vision that increases stress.
“We tend to have our staff work on more than one problem at a time instead of constantly focusing toward a single deliverable,” Fahrenheit 212’s Rovak said. “We view the change of challenge and perspective as an important reset, allowing them to still percolate on problems in the background and return with enthusiasm.”
Some other burnout reducers include outsourcing assignments when the workload is high and empowering employees to make decisions on behalf of the team.
7. They Consider Role-Sharing Or Task-Swapping
Template management company Templafy has adopted peer programming for which two software developers are always working together, alleviating individual stress.
Templafy co-founder Henrik Printzlau encourages an overall team approach to stave off overload. “We all break down tasks together and design features together,” he said. “We guard the team from commercial pressures and deadlines.”
Doing so also factors in that not every employee is exhausted by the same types of activities.
“Identifying specific tasks that contribute to high levels of stress and burnout for individuals is the first task,” said The Results Catalyst CEO Nicole Wipp, who helps business leaders improve personal and team performance. “Reallocating those to individuals that do not experience the same level of stress around the specific task and or enabling employees to trade energy draining tasks can make a massive difference in output at the end of the day.”
8. They Adopt Monitoring Tools
Signs of burnout are not always apparent, “so the issue may remain hidden,” Kotter’s Raath said.
However, leaders can use technology to monitor stress levels. Workplace analytics tools can uncover where certain parts of the organization may be overtaxed.
“Companies like GM and Cigna have begun collecting data on connections among employees to figure out who might be overloaded,” Bain & Co’s Garton pointed out. Telltale signs of an overconnected manager, according to GM, include when 25% of individuals in a network say they want more access to that manager. Cigna found that trouble starts when more than 40% of connections in a network run through one person.
Intelligent agents also can analyze internal communications to gauge employee morale. Ryan Bonnici, CMO of G2 Crowd, a review website for business software and services, uses survey software to encourage regular, anonymous feedback from employees.
“This provides a good pulse on a week-to-week basis of how people are feeling and whether we need to make any adjustments,” Bonnici said.
9. They Require Employees To Recharge
Rovak of Capgemini Consulting has found that giving employees more creative outlets or learning opportunities helps them reboot.
“If someone takes a guitar lesson or a cooking class, it feeds and recharges a part of their brain that the work itself can’t,” he said. “We found this to be so powerful that we provide a stipend and ask people to take a class every year that has nothing to do with work.”
Many organizations also have seen the benefit of mindfulness programs in increasing performance and alleviating stress. Plain old fun can offer benefits as well.
“Despite the work we do all day, human beings are profoundly analog creatures,” said POSSIBLE’s New York managing director, Joe Crump. “Our office is over-run by [our employees’] dogs, and we do all-office activities like storytelling and skee-ball and building terrariums. The more we advance in digital, there’s an equal and opposite pull toward things that ground us and connect us in real life.”
Sometimes, however, a full break is required—even (and especially) if you have to force it. “If the signs of burnout are evident,” said EY’s Kanazawa, “you need to give the high performers some time off. There is no substitute to taking an afternoon off, a long weekend, or a vacation.”
Above all, don’t punish success. “There is often a desire to reward productivity with more work,” said Tony Fross, a partner in Prophet’s New York office. “When a team finishes something early, they should get time off.”
10. They Walk The Walk
It’s critical for digital leaders to keep an eye on their own stress levels.
“Most leaders are aware of the demands that strategic transformations are putting on the digital teams,” said Garton of Bain & Co. “Sometimes, they are the ones who are most at risk of burning out given organizational expectations and market pressure.”
“I help my team avoid and fight burnout by modeling the right behavior,” said Jen Grant, CMO of Looker. “It is important to model behavior that supports a healthy work-life balance and to set boundaries in order to not push your team over the edge. I block time in my calendar that is specifically dedicated to family, friends, and personal life. By scheduling this time on my calendar, I am letting my teams know that personal time is encouraged and am setting an example for everyone on my team to do the same.”