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People managers: The antidote to employee burnout

September 2, 2019 - 10 min read

People Managers: The Antidote to Employee Burnout

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The power of people managers

Workplace interventions to combat burnout

Coaching + technology

As employee burnout continues to rise in the workplace, many HR leaders are asking themselves: how do we stop it? According to a recent Gallup study, two-thirds of full-time workers are experiencing burnout on the job. The impact is considerable and costly, for both employees and businesses.  

Employee burnout is hurting companies, from high turnover and absenteeism to a loss in productivity and quality of work. It’s become so great, experts consider it a public health risk. A study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard estimates that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for as much as $190 billion in health care costs in the United States.

Despite the high costs, organizations are falling short in effectively addressing this issue. According to Deloitte’s “Workplace Burnout Survey report,” nearly 70 percent of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout within their organization.

This isn’t surprising. Tackling burnout is not a simple fix, especially in today’s business environment. As the pace and complexity of work intensify, employees are under greater pressure to adapt. Without the right skills and support, they are at greater risk of burning out—creating ripple effects across the organization.

The power of people managers

While there are many ways to prevent and reverse burnout, research points to one powerful and core factor that can make a significant difference: People Managers.

Those who manage employees—whether senior executives or frontline supervisors—can either contribute to or protect employees from burnout. “According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor,” stated Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller and author of Everybody Matters, in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a Paycheck.

Consider the influence of a manager. They control the climate of a team, are responsible for promotions and defining workloads, and serve as a model for company culture. Good managers can help an employee develop and thrive in the workplace.

Organizations can help to prevent and reverse burnout by focusing on their people managers and supporting them in two key ways:

Help people managers manage their own burnout.  It’s hard to be an effective leader when feeling burned out. Managers have less to invest in their teams and can spread negativity among team members through emotional contagion, a phenomenon where one person’s emotions and behaviors directly trigger similar feelings and actions in others. The exhaustion and cynicism managers may feel from burnout can also make it challenging to effectively manage others—such as offering constructive feedback, problem-solving, or maintaining optimism.

In a recent HBR article, the authors highlighted several ways a toxic manager can harm employees, including lower morale, diminished well-being, and increased work-family conflict. They also pointed to research that shows the potential for employees to model the abusive behaviors of their managers.  

The advice to “put your own oxygen mask on first” is important in helping people managers who are burned out. Managers can learn evidence-based skills that prevent and combat their own burnout, empowering them as individuals and leaders.

For example, research shows there is a clear link between a lack of control and burnout. Helping managers develop skills that give them a greater sense of control, such as influence, problem-solving, and resiliency can create a buffer against burnout.

Help people leaders develop the leadership skills that will prevent team members from burning out. First-time managers—and even those who have led for years—often lack the foundational skills of people leadership. Many of these soft skills, such as communication, empathy, and providing feedback, aren’t taught and may not come naturally. Yet they are critical to effectively managing people and building successful teams.

In her research on burnout, Christina Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory and author of The Truth About Burnout, identified six mismatches” between a person and a job that can lead to burnout: lack of control; insufficient reward; lack of community; absence of fairness; conflict in values; and work overload.

Most of these relate to how people are managed—and require soft skills to address. Helping managers at all levels to develop strong leadership skills will give them the foundational tools and mindset to help prevent and reverse burnout on their teams.

Workplace interventions to combat burnout

How organizations approach preventing and reducing burnout will determine their level of success. Traditional learning interventions, such as manager trainings or one-off classes, can be helpful, but aren’t enough to make an impact. They aren’t designed to provide the sustained learning, practice, and support that enables managers to develop the skills they need to combat burnout.

To create meaningful and lasting changes, HR leaders should consider the following in their learning and development interventions:

A Personalized Approach that Focuses on the Whole Person. Addressing burnout is an individual process—one approach does not fit all. Managers may be dealing with burnout stemming from differing causes, including workload, sleep deprivation, or lack of support. Programs should be science-backed, personalized, and focus on the whole person, taking into account physical and psychological impacts.

Taking a personalized approach also means assessing how ready people are to work on themselves—and beginning where they are. Research tells us that interventions are most effective when we take into account an individual’s level of motivation.

Development of Strengths. As the field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated through extensive research, building on our strengths is often a more effective path to success than focusing on weaknesses. Helping managers more effectively leverage their strengths boosts performance, and also enhances their feeling of being in control, which is effective for preventing burnout.

Time for Practice and Integration. Preventing and combating burnout is a skill set that can be developed. But as with any new skill, it takes time to develop and practice.

According to a recent LinkedIn article from global industry analyst Josh Bersin, the number one thing holding people back from learning is time. Most learning and development programs today aren’t designed to give people the time needed for meaningful change. In fact, research shows that employees forget up to 75 percent of material taught and revert back to old practices.

Helping managers develop skills that combat burnout is a process that needs time for ongoing practice, reflection, and integration. Interventions that are easy for people to incorporate into their daily lives can help them stay motivated and engaged as they do the work.

Supportive Relationships. When people experience burnout, it can often be challenging to find the energy and motivation to learn and develop new skills. Having a trusting and supportive relationship during this process can help accelerate learning and progress, especially when they help managers deepen self-awareness, incorporate feedback into practice, and stay accountable to goals.  

In fact, research shows that the biggest differentiator between general practice plus repetition of a skill versus deliberate practice is feedback. Having a way to receive continual feedback on performance will help managers master a new skill set.

Coaching + technology

Finding an intervention or program that incorporates these five factors can be challenging. One way that HR leaders are bringing this level of personalized and individualized learning to their people managers is through one-on-one coaching in the workplace. While coaching is not a new concept, innovations in technology are enabling organizations to scale one-on-one development in a way not possible before.

Mobile-based digital learning platforms use evidence-based assessments and machine learning to match employees with expert coaches based on their needs and backgrounds. Employees are able to work directly with a coach from anywhere via their laptops or mobile phones.

For burnout, individual coaching in the workplace can provide multiple benefits. Managers develop skills and behaviors to reduce their own burnout. They also become more effective leaders who can help prevent burnout on their teams. Coaches also provide the unconditional support needed to help people do the hard work of behavior and mindset change, especially when challenges arise.

At BetterUp, we’ve seen the impact of coaching on burnout firsthand. In our work with more than 100 organizations, including 28 of the Fortune 100 companies—BetterUp members have reported an average of 19 percent reduction in burnout.

Burnout impacts companies where it matters the most—their talent. Start tackling this issue by focusing on the development of people managers. Equipping them with the right skills can help prevent and reverse burnout, on their teams and for themselves.

Many thanks to Dr. Jacinta Jimenez, Head of Coaching at BetterUp, and Sarah Greenberg, BetterUp Lead Coach, for their scientific input and guidance.

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Published September 2, 2019

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