Constant change and the pressure of too many expectations, in one or more spheres of life, can wear on the mind and body. Though work weariness can be a precursor to job burnout, other sources of stress contribute, and they need to be managed together.
Science has long regarded the body's fight-or-flight response as necessary to learning important adaptive behaviors. Positive stress is common, can support healthy development and usually doesn't last long or have adverse long-term effects. Negative stress, whether acute or chronic, isn't so helpful. As employers increasingly recognize burnout as a top issue, they continue to see that helping employees manage distress is crucial to preventing potential health problems.1
Awareness of the health risks of stress has grown along with employee access to resources for managing it. While effective tools are essential, many employers overlook the opportunity to rethink policies and processes — with the intent of getting to the root of burnout and addressing work-related factors more effectively.
Burnout arises from a variety of influences, and stress from overwork is a key culprit. Specifically, strenuous micro efforts required to meet job expectations often contribute to untenable conditions for employees at the macro level. Misalignment with the organization's views on how work should be done or recognized can be demotivating. And it's especially relevant in an era when flexibility can be a make-or-break proposition for attraction and retention. No less important are interactions with people, support systems (such as technology) and the physical environment. All of these experiences may trigger an emotional response, for better or worse.
Culture counts too. But it's the sum of an individual's unique experiences that either minimizes or maximizes their exposure to stress, their susceptibility to burnout and their resiliency.
Problem-solving through a focus on the root causes of burnout
With many industries and regions still impacted by labor shortages, retention remains a high priority despite economic and labor market conditions that often make a clear path elusive. This goal can also be compromised by cycles of burnout and turnover among employees. Another risk is that investments in attracting and onboarding new talent will leave tenured members of the workforce feeling shortchanged. Strategic decisions aren't any easier for organizations when unfilled roles lead to capacity issues, and the most feasible solution to production gaps is slotting existing staff into vacant positions. Workable solutions for resolving this conundrum, and the tension that comes with it, may require new ways of addressing old problems.
Solutions designed to reduce burnout are abundant. In fact, investments in employees' mental health had already ramped up before 2020 — a trend that accelerated during the pandemic and continues today. One poll taken in 2022 showed that stress and burnout are the most pressing wellbeing concerns for 78% of professionals.3 And a concurrent study found that considering how employers support mental health will be important to 81% of employees when they look for work in the future.4 Based on this information, it's reasonable to speculate that the emphasis on physical and emotional wellbeing benefits isn't likely to change anytime soon.
The availability of adequate resources and programs is a good start, but variety is only part of the solution. Utilization and effectiveness sometimes fall short of expectations, delivering a disappointing return on the investment of employees' time and employers' money. By focusing first on the root causes of burnout in their workforce and supporting employees on their individual journeys with resiliency, organizations are better able to analyze their needs more precisely and preventively address this dilemma through a more targeted approach.
Listening as the starting point for effective work and benefits design
Strong policies and practices enhance the employee experience from onboarding to departure, and when course correction is needed, an analysis of this cycle provides an important baseline. Insights gathered from listening sessions and workforce interviews help lay the groundwork for constructive change. They can tease out high- and low-performing aspects of the employee experience and improve survey design. Narrowing the initial focus to a single population segment, such as a department or critical talent, also makes the process more manageable and educational.
Case studies, among other approaches, apply a broader framework to identifying practical solutions for evolving policies and improving resiliency. Revisiting work design — workload, variety, autonomy, barriers to agile decision-making, etc. — is also essential. Using any and all of these methods, employers can identify quick wins that enhance the employee experience and build momentum toward positive change. When employees have a voice, they're more likely to engage with the organization and stay onboard.
Traditional benchmarking data, combined with an understanding of employee benefit preferences and other qualitative metrics, offers a more complete picture of the optimal benefits package. Global operations has the added responsibility of helping to ensure that corporate policies and employee support tools consider local as well as broader needs. Through close alignment of benefits with employee values, the organization's concern for wellbeing is made more apparent.