Too often we place the blame for burnout on the individual, when the fault lies with the culture they’re embedded in.
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“On what high-performing companies should be striving to create: A great place for great people to do great work.” —Marilyn Carlson
The signs of burnout were all around us. Our team had grown into the double digits, and then suddenly, the culture shifted. In the 13 years years since I’d launched my company JotForm from my New York apartment, our product had reached millions of people worldwide. We were growing, but somewhere along the way, our management stagnated.
We were like the crew of a ship lost at sea. High performers, once energetic and poised for action, struggled to maintain composure. Others put their heads down and worked nonstop, seldom taking breaks throughout the day. By the time Friday rolled around — dry land in sight at last — people were too exhausted to even engage in friendly banter.
Something needed to be done, but what exactly?
As leaders, it’s easy to place the responsibility for emotional exhaustion on individuals. But In a story for Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Moss argues that burnout is about the workplace we’ve created, not the particularities of our people. She writes:
“We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by ‘learning to say no,’ more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle.”
Burnout is preventable
I’ve written before about the “snake in the room.” It’s my personal metaphor for how burnout is impacting many industries at an alarming rate, triggering a downward spiral in individual and organizational performance. Research backs me up on this — a 2018 Gallup survey of 7,500 full-time employees found that “burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.”
There are many factors that contribute to this hotbed of pressure, but as the survey researchers conclude, burnout is not inevitable. Leaders who care about their people can and should take steps to prevent this snake from sinking its fangs into their workplace.
While finding the right system has been a process of trial and error over the years, I’d like to share three tactics that enabled me to turn our ship at JotForm around.
1. Stop and ask yourself the hard questions
Busy founders can often become so caught up in the work of building and maintaining their organization that they fail to see what’s right in front of them.
“Burnout can show up when leaders equate long hours with getting ahead,” writes Moss in another article for Harvard Business Review, “when there’s an implicit expectation that staff should come to work despite mental and physical illness, and when production-focused, remote, and inside sales environments tend to push relationship-building to the back burner, which has been shown to increase loneliness.”
The first step in reversing this systemic problem is by taking a hard look at leadership’s role in promoting unhealthy expectations. We can do this by continually be asking ourselves questions like: Why is our workplace lacking the conditions our team needs to flourish? How can I do my part to make this a happier, healthier environment? Am I placing the person over the product or vice versa? By asking the hard questions, we can proceed to the next step.
2. Address the root causes of burnout
Don’t fall into the too little, too late dilemma of only dealing with employee exhaustion once they’re thinking of leaving. Nip it in the bud by investing time and resources to combat fatigue before it happens (and no, this doesn’t involve buying thousands of ping-pong tables or installing cereal bars.) Below are a few examples of how I’ve created a burnout free workplace:
Encourage boundaries. Many people think the only way to get ahead is by working 80 hour work weeks and never using their vacation time, but it’s up to management to set these boundaries by encouraging flexible hours and a manageable workload. At JotForm, for example, we understand that everyone has a different internal prime time, and we welcome late-starters to come in at a different hour than early birds. We’ve also asked employees to ditch Slack after work hours to promote a healthier recovery time. As Moss says, “We need to teach people that setting boundaries is OK. It’s not selfish. It’s actually selfless. It allows you to be more effective at what you do, and to better [help] those you wish to serve.”
Practice regular, effective communication. According to that same Gallup survey, employees who strongly agree that they feel supported by their manager are about 70 percent less likely to experience burnout on a regular basis. Perhaps nothing shows people you have their back like letting them know they can come to you with any concern. For this reason, I’ve made it a point to set up long strolls on my way to lunch with new employees so we can get to know each other better. I’ve also implemented Demo Days each Friday so that teams can show what they’ve been working on and receive constructive feedback.
3. Ask your team what they need, then take action
Even small fixes like repairing a broken printer or coffee machine can make a world of difference when managing everyday workplace irritants. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in addressing burnout. Make it a point to regularly check in with your employees and ask what’s not working. This is an invaluable way to catch issues before they become larger hurdles.
Some additional questions to ask: Does your team have the adequate resources to perform their jobs? Where do they think the budget should be invested? What would make their environment more comfortable?
But remember — just asking in and of itself isn’t enough. Your team should see you put words to action. Engaging in this process allows employees to witness leadership taking their needs into consideration.
More importantly, it shows that their opinions, efforts, and well-being matters.