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5 Tips For Preventing Your Employees from Burning Out

Multiple studies have found that a high percentage of workers feel overburdened and unfulfilled. You need to make sure your company doesn't have that effect.
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I've truly detested two jobs in my career.

The first one was with a global consulting business whose executives made the Oakland Raiders offensive linemen seem like Miss Manners. The other was with J. Walter Thompson. It was more akin to working at Stalin's politburo than an ad agency. The executives embraced stealth office politics, building competing fiefdoms, and focusing solely on destroying one another.

I cite these examples because of the considerable stir caused by a recent New York Times opinion piece authored by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath of The Energy Project. In the article, entitled "Why You Hate Work," the authors say most of us hate showing up for work in the morning and believe things are only getting worse. Pretty uplifting, no?

They cite a 2013 survey that found 94 percent of workers worldwide lacked a fulfilling workplace. Talk about a landslide! That's a 9.1 earthquake on the workplace Richter scale. To make matters even worse, a Harvard Business School professor conducted a random survey of 72 senior leaders and found nearly all reported some sign of burnout. But the true pièce de résistance of the job-bashing stats came from a global workforce study by consulting firm Towers Watson. It found that the employees' willingness to expend extra effort is "no longer sufficient to fuel the highest levels of performance." Why? Because they're fried, that's why!

So why not just pack up your tent and just go home? Well, Virginia, there are some firms using best practices to help the situation. And guess what? My firm happens to be one of them--in 2012, Crain's New York Business named us the number one workplace in New York City. So with that in mind, and in search of enlightenment in the midst of despair, I approached Sara Jane Whitman Ramos, Peppercomm's culture czar, for answers. Sara's the woman responsible for our Crain's award; she spends her days and nights studying best practices and assuring our employees don't hate their jobs. I asked SJWR, as we call her, if there are any rays of sunlight in the doom and gloom analyses of so many workplace experts.

Cody: The Times piece identified five key areas employers can improve if they want their employees to have more passion for their jobs and more loyalty to the company. Tell me what you're doing to enhance:

1. Engagement (defined as involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, effort, and energy).

SJWR: Employee engagement is elusive. Sometimes we nail it and sometimes we don't. But it's always a focus of our efforts and attention. We have a team of employees from across the firm that forms the Culture Committee. This is a representative sample of the staff that acts as a sounding board for engagement ideas, and is always asking, 'What can we be doing better as a firm?' They aim to get our people involved to test new skills and ultimately to help all employees enjoy their days at work. The Culture team is responsible for helping us sound the alarm when things are getting a little too heavy in the office, when a beer drop is in order, and for coordinating a host of activities. In a previous Inc. article, my colleague Sam Ford talked about the importance of bringing yourself to work. Being able to apply your passions to your work is a key ingredient to successful engagement at Peppercomm.

2. Renewal (defined as letting employees recharging their batteries)

SJWR: To renew and recharge is a group effort. We have to help each other when things get hectic. Our culture encourages comedy and not taking ourselves too seriously, so that's not too hard. There are regular "laugh breaks" where people stop by a co-worker's cubicle and share a laugh or two. Peppercomm also has a café in the office where you can go for a cup of coffee and sit to chat with a co-worker or read the paper--perfect for a quick break.
We also encourage walking meetings or taking walks around the block. Does everyone do it? No. But we try. And we know we need to lead from the top and equip managers to recognize and step in when they see a co-worker who is in too deep. When that happens, it's time for a break.

3. Value (defined as assuring that employees feel their supervisors care for them).

SJWR: In Peppercomm's annual survey we always ask, "Does your manager care about your well-being?" This question yields an 80 percent-plus positive response rate. Our managers care, and if they don't, they don't last long here. Showing that they care takes consistent work--they need to know the employee, what motivates him or her, what their personal interests are, and their professional aspirations. They find this out through regular communication.

As a firm, we also look for ways to reward and recognize our staff for great work. In addition to management-led recognition awards for great work (a monetary award given at our bimonthly staff meetings), the rest of the staff can give each other shout-outs at those same meetings, and employees can have their great work showcased on our Wall of Fame for all to see. These are small ways we show that we value employee work and that, in turn, make employees feel valued.

4. Focus (defined as enabling employees to focus on one task at a time)

SJWR: It is so easy to get wrapped up in the craziness of the day and to let the hours slip by without having had the chance to focus on the most critical tasks at hand. To address this, we do a few things. Some employees choose to shut email off and note that they're on deadline on IM. Everyone else needs to respect that the employee needs some time to focus.
We offer private enclaves in the office where people can go to work and not be interrupted. We also have a work-from-home policy for employees at every level of the organization. Being able to attain focus requires different conditions for different people, so we need to be flexible in providing alternative options.

5. Purpose (defined as making employees feel their work is contributing to a greater good)

SJWR: The "why" of work is different for everyone. At Peppercomm, our goal is to act as advocates on behalf of our clients and their audiences. We're helping to build brands and serve people. Our employees need to believe in that.

Then there's the personal why, which is obviously different for everyone. We believe some common precepts to managing work/life can help people achieve their personal purpose. Life is too short to work hard and get lost in the daily grind. We need to have fun while we do it. And we need to be flexible in how and where we work. Lastly, we need to apply our talents to giving back. At Peppercomm, that means stand-up comedy fundraisers, officewide giving competitions, volunteer days, and pro bono marketing communications programs for select nonprofit organizations chosen by our staff.

Cody: Would you agree the average workplace experience is only getting worse?

SJWR: I agree, but not because of the physical office. Technology is both a blessing and a curse. We have endless knowledge at our fingertips. With that comes endless information, bombardment of requests and demands, and you only need to blink to find another distraction. This inability to focus and fragmented thinking is what is making meaningful work harder and harder to accomplish.

Cody: Finally, what advice would you have for entrepreneurs who are seeking to overcome worker burnout and attract top talent?

SJWR: Take a break. Spend more time knowing the people and caring about their needs. Trust them to do the work and move them out of the organization if they can't. Provide support for them to do their best work and then get out of the way, allowing you to work on the next great thing.

Chester Elton 1

Last updated: Jun 9, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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