Being Happy Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Burned Out
A new survey report just published by Staples Advantage offers a paradoxical set of findings about US office workers. Overwhelmingly, they are happy. Yet the majority of them feel burned out. How could both things be true?
First, a look at the statistics. The good news is that 43% of respondents report being “very happy” at work, and another 43% say they are “somewhat happy.” That is a fairly ringing endorsement of office work, especially in a culture where Dilbert comics and The Office have seemed to strike such a chord. The bad news, however, is that 53% of the same office worker population report feeling burned out at work.
My guess as to how these numbers can be reconciled would be that the overwhelming majority of these workers like the nature of the work they do. Perhaps, to borrow Gallup terminology, it gives them the chance to use their strengths every day. It might also enrich their lives by allowing them to contribute to products and services that make the world a better place. At the same time, however, most of these workers must be feeling stretched too thin. Their workplaces are making it hard for them to limit their hours and workloads to healthy levels.
You might say: so what? If 86% of workers are happy, that sounds like success. Why mess with it? Here’s the problem: When people tell you they are burning out, they are signaling trouble ahead. They are telling you the situation is unsustainable.
The causes of burnout can be many. Psychologists often point to jobs where workers have high demands placed them but are given low control as being the most stressful. In the case of the Staples survey, however, respondents are very specific about what is damaging their wellbeing. A 52% majority report burnout from putting in too many long days.
If too much time spent working is the problem, the solutions are not hard to devise. Most obviously, employers could reduce the overtime demands they put on people by assigning more reasonable workloads. Other strategies to retain the same productivity would be to provide more flexibility, to waste less of the hours workers are spending on the job, and to make the work less exhausting. Each of these deserves a closer look.
Rein in Excessive Time Demands
Many, including myself, have written about the toll chronic overwork takes on people’s lives and what employees can do to combat its effects. It’s a subject I researched extensively for my book, The Working Dad’s Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home. The Staples study confirms it is a reality for many workers: a quarter of them say that after they leave the office at night, they “usually” continue their work at home. Fully 40% put in hours over the weekend at least once a month.
While I think most employees would agree that occasional overwork is an acceptable part of the modern workplace, no one should consistently be given more work than can be reasonably accomplished during paid hours. Rather than turning a blind eye to constant encroachment on people’s non-work lives, employers should honestly assess the time workers are taking to accomplish the work being asked of them. When staffing levels are dialled down to “lean and mean,” employees are overburdened and overworked. When employees feel compelled to stay plugged into work 24/7, they have less time for life and to recharge. Rather, we should build in enough teamwork and overlapping responsibilities to allow emergencies to be handled and gaps to be filled without employees’ routinely being pressured to go above-and-beyond.
Provide More Flexibility and Autonomy
Workers are able to make the most productive use of their working hours when they can adjust the time and place of their work to best avoid conflicts with other responsibilities. Employers don’t necessarily have to institute formal programs to allow for telecommuting or flex-time. Indeed, informal and ad-hoc arrangements often prove to be more effective. The key is simply the willingness to let employees construct working arrangements that suit the content of their jobs, their working styles, and their family and other non-work demands. By upholding performance standards, but providing autonomy regarding some of the where, when, and how of work, you can help your employees find more time in their days and avoid burning out.
Waste Less of Employees’ Time
Make Work Less Exhausting
Finally, even if work hours are long, workers can experience less burnout if they are given chances throughout the day to recharge and refocus. It’s when employees feel compelled to press on through lunch and forego breaks that they hit their physical and psychological limits. Meanwhile, workers who modulate the pace of their work and occasionally step away from it – often literally, by taking a walk – experience overall boosts in productivity. Managers can model such behaviours and stop signalling in various ways that to be a great employee is to be a workaholic. Need a way to change the tone? Why not treat your team to lunch and steer the conversation away from work. Ask a colleague to go for a walk mid-afternoon. Give the break room a makeover so it’s more inviting.
In general, treat your people as exactly what they are: knowledge workers who are happy in their roles, and whose time is precious. People in offices today seem to love their work, but that doesn’t mean they can neglect everything else in their lives to take on more of it. And it doesn’t mean employers should take advantage of their desire to succeed. Managers who encourage the attitude that work is life only manage to burn their best people out, and have no one to blame but themselves when productivity goes up in flames.
Credit: Harvard Business Review