Preventing and Addressing Employee Burnout with Elizabeth Ross
The practice of self-care has been a big part of a cultural shift in the last few years, but in light of the pandemic and changing work environments, many employers are realizing how closely connected it is to the success of their staff and business. With increasing concerns around the possibility of employee burnout, Elizabeth Ross, Founder of Mindful Employer, brings clarity and a path forward for business owners in this interview about workplace well-being.
How do you start your day? Do you have a certain routine or focus?
For the past year I have been starting each day with breathing meditation. I do this before getting out of bed and before anyone knows I am awake. It’s a simple way to connect with me before anything else captures my attention, like my phone or my dog. Taking these 15 minutes to breathe into my body and let go of the immediate mental to-do list allows me to be more purposeful and aware of my power in responding to the day. I can center my energy. It also leads to lower stress, greater clarity, and overall well-being.
Why should burnout be such a big concern to employers?
Burnout is often experienced due to the feeling of being overworked, and/or as a result of little or no self-care or awareness practices for well-being. When we operate in a state of burnout, we may feel that there is no time to care for our emotional or physical needs. Burnout can lead to high stress, lower productivity, costly errors, and poor health.
When we or our employees are operating in burnout mode, how can we expect them to provide the highest level of service to our customers or achieve results that require their highest skill levels? Burnout and stress are the number one drivers of disease. If you have read the news surrounding the Olympics, there is much more attention to the fact that emotional and physical well-being are connected. Burnout is both emotional and physical.
What are some signs that employers need to look for when it comes to burnout in their employees?
Burnout is not always easy to see, especially in cultures where a majority of people are experiencing it. We get used to operating in stressful environments and feel that this is the expectation over time.
I was on a panel discussion recently and a business professor from a college referred to the Rule of 1 of 8. Only one in eight employers have purpose and well-being woven into the fabric of the company and culture. In his personal experience only 1 out of 10 companies he worked for in his career had a culture of purpose and compassion.
If those are the numbers, it might indicate that we haven’t been looking very closely.
Some of the obvious signs for burnout are increased unplanned absences, more frequent mistakes, quality issues, or mood swings. If someone isn’t behaving like themselves, it is worth checking in and not making assumptions.
Burnout is a feeling that is present and uncovering it requires us to create a compassionate and caring space for conversations. We need to talk with each other beyond business outcomes and performance to build stronger relationships. Through these conversations we can learn how people are perceiving and experiencing their work.
What impact has COVID and WFH had on employees? Are some employees benefiting from working remotely?
It is not a stretch to say that 100% of employees have experienced stress and anxiety due to COVID and from the immediate and unexpected move to WFH or classification of serving as an essential worker. For months on end there was very little stable ground. Nearly everyone was juggling the demands of work, internet connectivity, childcare, parent care, education, safety, wellbeing, and daily living. On top of that we are experiencing political division, systemic racial inequity, and climate events.
Before COVID, mental wellbeing was already the number one challenge most companies faced. We tend to focus attention on the cost of physical manifestations such as chronic illness, depression, absence management and low productivity. I believe that COVID has unmasked the delicate balance we deal with each day. And we are learning the importance of building compassionate work environments to create a safe space where we can talk truthfully about suffering and emotional well-being.
There have also been benefits from this pandemic. Many people experienced work in an entirely new way. There was less time spent commuting, more time with family, more downtime, and time in nature since that was one of the safe places we could be.
The pandemic has led to big questions and re-thinking how we work. What are the options going forward to create more meaningful work and life integration? We have learned that many jobs and tasks can be done remotely. If flexibility is one of the top employment benefits people are seeking, why don’t we create roles that are blended? It is also true that working together in shared space can help us strengthen relationships, within your team and with people you may not normally interact with. In-person relationships can benefit our professional and personal development.
This is the time to have conversations with every employee and design the working environments that best support the work you do in the world.
Can you provide an example of a few resources for employees who are overwhelmed, especially coming back to work after a pandemic?
A blend of resources can provide support for employees who are struggling to adjust or are feeling overwhelmed.
Mindfulness and Meditation Resources
- Insight Timer: Meditation and Sleep App
- Ten Percent Happier: Mindfulness Courses and Guided Meditation
- Yoga with Kassandra: Yoga practices for busy people.
- Resilience Tools and Activities: Positive Psychology
If you are able to offer health insurance, many plans include benefits for counseling and there are also counseling visits available through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Check in with your insurance broker, or with customer service at the health plan.
National Alliance on Mental Health: Support, education, and advocacy for individuals and families struggling with mental health.
Maine 211: A free referral and information helpline that connects people to a wide range of health and human services, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To contact 2-1-1 in any state, including Maine, simply dial the numbers 2-1-1 from any phone.
Is work-life balance an option since most of us are at home working?
Balance and integration of work and home life is absolutely possible. However, significant differences in home environments and living situations can greatly impact an employee’s ability to experience balance. If someone lives with multiple roommates or family members, it may be challenging to find a quiet workspace.
For someone who enjoys work, having the office at home can make it hard to leave work.
A few things that can help with a sense of balance when working from home:
- Create routines for work and home activities.
- A morning routine before you begin working can help you connect with yourself before serving others. This can be going for a walk, stopping for a healthy breakfast and coffee, reading, writing, or simply sitting quietly.
- Plan to eat a healthy lunch and perhaps get some movement into your day. Meet up with a friend or co-worker.
- Take an afternoon break to stretch, have a snack, or step into the fresh air.
- Make sure you have a stop time. Turn off your computer for the evening and enjoy your life, family, and friends.
If we have learned anything during this pandemic, it’s that human connections are crucial to mental well-being. As well as time in nature and being completely unplugged. We human beings require stillness, silence, and solitude to refuel.
What can business leaders do to mitigate some of the stress and burnout employees are facing?
The number one thing we can do for our employees is create a healthy space for listening with two-way dialog. Most of us have been trained to listen and solve (or respond). Creating space for compassion and relationship building requires listening with curiosity. The act of allowing someone to be heard without judgement or trying to solve something is one of the most generous and kind things we can offer. Taking the approach that everyone wants to do a good job and suspending judgement can help reduce stressful environments. Asking employees what it feels like to work in their role and listen to learn.
I witness many business leaders who want to create healthy places to work, and they truly care about their employees. Yet they have not been taught how to have curious conversations. We don’t teach human compassion and deep listening skills in business school, although that is changing.
How important is the “mission” of a company? How does it impact employees?
I prefer to start with a purpose before the mission. Working for something greater than ourselves is the most important aspect of work. Whether this represents newer thinking or is something you have been championing, the pandemic is shining a new light on why and how we work.
The book Firms of Endearment, by Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth, and David B. Wolfe, provides motivating research (with two decades of data) that purpose-first companies out-perform profit-first companies 7:1. And profitability continues to increase over time for purpose-first companies compared to flatter long term results for others.
We also know that purpose is not something you can just put up as a statement on the wall or in your marketing materials. It must connect to the hearts of your employees and customers and be embedded in the DNA of your company to experience these results. In other words, you can’t fake purpose and it starts at the top. Purpose is something you can feel when you walk through the door or hear through the phone in the voices and physical energy of employees.
For several decades, we have operated within very narrow lines to define a successful business, primarily focused on financial profit. This narrow focus has resulted in historic lows for employee engagement and happiness. Ignoring the human experience and impact has also led to lower productivity and disease.
Purpose-first companies do better on every level: profitability, employee retention, well-being, stakeholder relationships, etc.
What can business owners do to show employees that their work has purpose or meaning?
For employees to know their work has meaning, the owner/CEO/ED has to be living from a place of purpose and service.
I use a process framed as ‘Me, We, World.” We must each do our own work (Me) before we can move to our employees and customers (We) and then to our entire eco-system (World).
The owner/CEO’s “why story” can help employees find and attach to their own stories as to why they are working with you (think Simon Sinek). For an owner to demonstrate that the employee’s work is meaningful, they need to be able to tell their own story and model the behavior they want to experience.
If this work has not been done, the best place to begin is to go back to the original dream and vision the founder had for the business and work from there. What is the journey from that point? Perhaps share that with employees and reshape it for today, together.
For each employee to find purpose in their own work, they need to be able to tie the tasks they are doing to the value the business is creating or delivering for customers, and more frequently for the community and the planet.
Some days it may feel that our work does not have “purpose.” How can you help employees who may be running out of steam see the purpose in their job?
When we are truly engaged in purpose-first work, it is an inside-out job. While we all lose our way at times, when the purpose is from the heart and embedded in all you do as a business, it creates a center to always come back to. That is why the broader work is so important at every level. It is not a program or something you tack on. It is a way of being that creates purposeful energy and work.
Have you seen a shift in “leadership”? Is it a generational shift?
I am witnessing a shift in the desire for human-first cultures, which requires a shift in how we lead. Bates College and Gallup released a report in 2019 that showed 80% of college graduates are looking for purposeful work, yet less than 50% are finding it. I observe young professionals being more vocal about their needs, perhaps because they have witnessed what stressful work has done to their parents and grandparents. Yet, they are struggling to find companies and managers who are aligned. Employees at every age would like to work for a manager who cares about them and their well-being – truly.
What we are experiencing is a transition from a “doing” work environment, where everyone is focused on the outcomes, to a “being” way of working, where we truly focus on the journey and the outcomes follow.
This transition takes training. We must teach people how to lead with the concept of service leadership vs. managing tasks. There is an enormous difference in how that feels.
Conscious service leaders with high emotional intelligence are required to create the kind of places we want to work and thrive in as we re-imagine work for the future.
What advice would you give to business owners to be better leaders when it comes to their employees’ physical, emotional, and spiritual health?
Each journey begins with self-awareness and compassion. We can only be better if we are willing to look at our shadows and allow others to see our vulnerability. I have failed at a lot of things, and I have also been very successful. It is important to embrace all sides so that our employees and colleagues can see that physical, emotional, and spiritual health are a path we are on for a lifetime. It’s not about an end goal.