Worried about burnout? Few enterprises are set up to fight the real causes

C-level execs argue a fine game about caring about their employees — but those platitudes somehow never make it into the HR meetings about bonus benchmarks.

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Employee burnout is often cited as a reason for losing enterprise employees. But a CEO saying that is like the head of a hospital saying death is the prime reason for bad outcomes.

Although both statements are obviously true, they are effectively meaningless without addressing their causes. A recent McKinsey report found that “employers have invested unprecedented resources in employee mental health and well-being.” That is a classic way of treating “burnout” as though it is a mental aberration.

Let’s look at what burnout is: employees suffering from overwork. If the CEO sees the problem as overwork, the proper response is, “We are understaffed. Hire a lot more people.” (I’ll simply disregard the alternative — “We should do less.” — because that’s just not how CEOs think.) 

Years ago, I worked for a wonderful company (they truly cared about people) but when they saw a dip in employee morale, they spent millions on a company-wide meeting, with lavish dinners and entertainment. I argued (unsuccessfully) to senior management that taking that money and instead spending it on employee bonuses would do far more to boost morale than forcing employees to leave their families and attend a powwow. 

Instead of comforting employees who are tense due to overwork and lack of sleep, how about hiring more people to truly address the problem? Or even flood the overworked business units with more contractors? 

Here's more from that excellent McKinsey report: “Many companies offer a host of wellness benefits such as yoga, meditation app subscriptions, well-being days, and training on time management and productivity. In fact, it is estimated that nine in 10 organizations around the world offer some form of wellness program. Employing these types of interventions may lead employers to overestimate the impact of their wellness programs and benefits and to underestimate the critical role of the workplace in reducing burnout and supporting employee mental health and well-being.

“When asked about aspects of their jobs that undermine their mental health and well-being, employees frequently cite the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support. Those are not challenges likely to be reversed with wellness programs. In fact, decades of research suggest that interventions targeting only individuals are far less likely to have a sustainable impact on employee health than systemic solutions, including organizational-level interventions.”

Exactly! The traditional wellness programs are not bad. Indeed, many employees use their own money to obtain such services away from work. But C-level leaders must see those efforts as perks, along the lines of a dry cleaning service or a massage program. They are not meaningful ways to address overwork or a toxic work environment. 

And nowhere are overwork and a toxic environment more of an issue than within IT. Many talented coders, for example, love what they do and truly enjoy it. It takes a rare kind of manager that will anticipate the problems from letting an employee work 18-hour days–consecutively — even before the employee sees it as an issue.

That is one of the hidden curse of remote sites, especially work-from-home situations. Managers are overjoyed at the massive volume of quality work delivered and don’t pause and think, “Is this a burnout situation waiting to happen?”

Managers are beaten down into thinking short-term, in much the same way CFOs at publicly-held companies learn to think only quarter-to-quarter (thanks, Wall Street!) and thereby resist many long-term investments. How many managers will push back against that kind of intensity, especially when it might help them earn their bonus? A manager who focuses on the long-term health and welfare of an employee is rarely rewarded as much as if they don't. C-suite types argue a fine game about caring about their employees, but those platitudes somehow never make it into the HR meetings about bonus benchmarks. 

What role should HR play in all this? (Sidenote: Is it just me or is calling a department Human Resources about the most cold and demoralizing name possible? Is that really the way you want to differentiate your talented co-workers from desks and an assembly line conveyor belt?) Many enterprises try and paint HR as the department that defends and supports employees. Typically, though, that is far from the truth. They are really there to do what corporate orders them to do.

Have you ever heard of an HR manager that takes an employee’s side against the CEO, or against the employee’s department head? And no matter how supportive HR might actually be on anti-harassment policies, I suspect they're in place mainly because the chief counsel thinks it will ultimately protect the enterprise and save the company money.

What about creating a true employee-advocacy department, one that is empowered to step in and really fight against the causes of burnout? Today, most of the people supposed to protect the employees have conflicts of interest, including bonuses for getting the most work out of the workforce. What about an employee-advocacy manager with the sole responsibility of protecting the employee, someone given the authority to overrule a LOB head if need be?

The dispute would ultimately go to the CEO and the board, but at least the employee would have a champion who — hopefully —couldn’t get fired for fighting the good fight. And we might finally get some real solutions to the employee burnout problem corporate leaders say they care about.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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