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At first, it seemed like the kind of problem every CEO wants — workers you couldn’t kick out of the office. Some of my employees were putting in 100+ hours a week, and it wasn’t because they felt pressured to do so. They LOVED their jobs.
But burnout is a real thing, and it can happen whether you enjoy your job or not. With people being the most critical part of a business, missing signs of burnout can leave you without continuity, support, community, and worst of all, the risk of losing business viability altogether.
Remote work has made it harder than ever to unplug, and I believe we’re seeing the effects through the Great Resignation. With low unemployment, I’ve never lived through such a competitive talent market. The allure of higher salaries, bigger job titles and more, has given employees every reason to resign. And while a great work culture can make it easier for companies to retain employees, if they aren’t addressing the risk of burnout, employees may still move on. Whether it’s Zoom fatigue, email fatigue, Slack fatigue or just the sheer number of working hours each week, we need to pay more attention to helping employees avoid burnout. Here’s how.
Burnout isn’t just psychological
I’ve struggled with burnout before, as I’m sure most people have. Pouring your heart and soul into something, even if you love it, can be stressful. The same is true for many of my teammates at Quantum. One of my employees has been putting in well over 40-hour work weeks for three years. I loved his passion, but I was concerned about how this was affecting his long-term health and happiness.
There are a number of signs that your workers are burned out. You might see it in the quality of someone’s work or their mood, but it’s not just psychological. Many people start struggling with insomnia, chronic fatigue, changes in eating habits or even headaches and stomachaches. All of these are signs of chronic stress that comes with working too much. You can’t spend 100% of your time and energy doing anything — including work.
They aren’t always just short-term effects, either. Laboring for too long under chronically stressful conditions can have long-term ramifications for both the person and the company. People who have been burned out for long periods of time can begin struggling with depression, chronic illness or even heightened susceptibility to autoimmune diseases like cancer or diabetes. Companies lose, because they lose some of the best employees they have. Clearly, burnout is an issue. But how do we fix it?
Related: 3 Ways to Avoid Entrepreneur Burnout
We have vacation — why won’t we just take it?
My friend who was putting in way too many hours a week needed a vacation, but he didn’t take one for years. Why not? I’ve found there are several reasons people won’t take vacation time, but primarily, it’s because of guilt. They feel guilty, because their teammates are still showing up; many of these teammates will likely have to pick up the slack while the vacationer is out. Still, others dread the amount of work that is likely to pile up before they return. There’s also the overriding sense that taking a vacation somehow makes you weak or unable to keep up.
But taking some time off actually makes us better at work. When we spend some time away from the office, and more importantly, away from the mental stresses of our job, we’re able to mentally and physically recharge our batteries. Rested workers can be more productive, and they can help create a more positive, enjoyable work culture. But how do we get employees to actually take their vacation time?
Lead by example
I’m so proud of the leadership team at Quantum — we work hard, achieve goals, outperform our market and deliver for our customers. But at the same time, it’s important, even at the executive level, that we find time for ourselves. In 2021, for example, I spent an incredible 10 days traveling through Greece with my 3 kids and was mostly disconnected from the happenings at work.
When I returned, I shared that trip with the entire team, both on LinkedIn and in an all-hands meeting. I also sent out a heartfelt thank you to my team who held down the fort while I was away, showing that even the CEO can depend on others and disconnect. Encourage your leaders and team to share their trips. They’ll come back recharged and without the guilt of taking a day or week off. They’ve earned it!
We force them to
Sometimes it’s not enough for a company to just encourage their employees to take time off. Many companies have seen that that doesn’t work out. According to the U.S. Travel Association, American workers left an average of 5.6 days, or 33% of their paid time off unused. While many of those same workers have opted to become a statistic in the Great Resignation because they’re burned out, I believe there’s a better solution. Instead of just encouraging our employees to take time off, we have to force them.
At Quantum Metric, we have a mandatory sabbatical program that employees become eligible for at their third-year anniversary with the company. They get three weeks off work in addition to their normal paid leave, and they have to take it. It’s not optional. During those three weeks, we make our team members unplug, temporarily shutting off access to their email and Slack.
And we require employees to actually have fun — tell us what they’re going to do and then tell us all about it when they get back. Now, instead of having their boss hunt them down to ask why they haven’t taken their vacation time yet, they get to tell their boss all about that great skydiving trip they finally took.
That helps us build a culture where people don’t feel guilty about taking time off. If it’s mandatory, it’s another part of the job, and building excitement around the time off helps signal to the team that it’s okay to unplug. It requires modeling from the top, too. While I’m on vacation, I can’t be answering emails left and right, because that sends the message to the team that I’m still expecting them to be available. Forcing ourselves to get out of the office creates a more engaged, productive workforce.
Light a fire and avoid burnout
It’s gotten really hard to unplug from work. One of the consequences of the drive to remote work has become an “always-on” mentality, where workers feel they have to be accessible at all hours. You’re on your phone anyway, so why not answer that Slack message that came in quickly? But it’s not working. Too many people are burning out, and companies are losing great employees because of the stress. Vacation shouldn’t be optional. I love hearing about my employees pursuing their bucket list items during their vacation; it lights a fire under me to go pursue those dreams as well. Lighting that fire of excitement is a crucial step to helping your employees avoid burning out.