As pets, partners and kids paraded through the background of Zoom calls, the last barrier between life and work disappeared for many office workers. Now millions of Americans are burning out and quitting jobs in record numbers. For CEOs to succeed in retaining employees, we must embrace a more human and caring workplace.
A New Wave of Workers Depart
When 4 million people quit their jobs in April 2021, many people chalked it up to the same pent-up energy and post-vaccination relief that led to the Hot Vax Summer era. The April wave of resignations was largely driven by lower paid retail and service workers--industries that are accustomed to high turnover.
A few months later, the resignations are increasing. In August, 4.3 million people quit their jobs, a pandemic-era record. Not only are more people quitting their jobs, it's a different type of worker than those in the first wave of resignations.
The new wave of quitters aren't minimum wage retail employees emboldened by the government stimulus. According to one study of 9 million employees, they're much more likely to be millennial workers in tech and healthcare who are experiencing increased pressure from the rapid growth in their sectors. After months of heavy workloads, hiring freezes, and homeschooling, many workers simply hit a breaking point.
In short, burnout is accelerating the great resignation.
Alone, Powerless, and Underappreciated
There are a lot of factors that influence workplace burnout, from workloads to compensation and isolation. The leading researcher behind the study of burnout, Christina Maslach, identified the major factors of burnout in a theory that I like to summarize as the "triple C's": a lack of control, compensation, and connection.
First, control. In an era where many of us have lost control of things we once took for granted, like our ability to send our kids to school without Covid scares or get on a plane without fear of a stranger's sneeze, it's easy to feel a lack of control. Pair that with shifting workplace priorities, demanding work schedules, and a boss who is contacting you 24/7, and it's easy to see how this leads to quitting.
Second, compensation. On the surface, this seems challenging for many businesses that are still recovering from lost revenue during the pandemic. But, compensation doesn't just mean a salary. It boils down to feeling valued. This sense of value and recognition is even more powerful when it's crafted from more than money.
The last "C" is the easiest to understand and the hardest for many CEOs to manage: connection. The leading burnout expert, Dr. Maslach maintains that human connection is the most effective way to combat burnout. In her words, "What we found is that people's health, well-being, everything in life, is way better if you're connected with other people." It is particularly important for employees to feel connected to their leaders. As Dr. Carole Robin, the professor behind Stanford Business School's legendary interpersonal dynamics class and author of Connect, puts it, "People do business with people. Building authentic connections is what makes people want to follow you."
Addressing Workplace Burnout
I used to believe that burnout was a natural part of running a fast-growing business. I lost a lot of incredible employees, and almost burned out myself before I realized that glorifying stress does not lead to sustainable growth. Over the past ten years of running a startup, I've spoken with countless CEOs, and read dozens of books to understand how to create an environment where employees feel connected, well-compensated, and in control.
The first, and most important task is to create a Connected workplace. This requires leading with vulnerability, and making time to build authentic relationships. I lead all of our leadership team meetings with a "check-in" where everyone shares how they're feeling. I'll often go first, and openly share how I'm anxious about the upcoming board meeting or stressed about the timeline of our new innovation. I also make an effort to check in with other people on my team who I don't normally work with at least once a quarter. I always invite them to share how they're feeling about their trajectory and that of the company overall. I begin these conversations by making personal disclosures, such as my own struggles balancing work and childcare during Covid.
Establishing an open dialog about bandwidth is key to giving employees a sense of Control. It's important for everyone on the team to understand what the top 1-3 business priorities are, and to feel like they can raise the flag if there are too many things on their plate for them to focus on the top priorities. We've challenged everyone on our team to answer two questions on a quarterly basis: what does burnout look like for you, and what does growth look like? These simple questions help managers quickly course correct when employees are on the path to burnout.
Lastly, creating the right type of Compensation is key to make employees feel valued. As a startup founder, I realized quickly that I would never be able to compete with larger companies on salary. I started thinking of compensation more holistically, and tailoring it to individual employees. For some employees, having unlimited vacation and lots of flexibility may be more valuable than a salary increase. For others, positive feedback may go farther than a bonus. For many startup employees, workplace flexibility, the ability to work independently, and equity ownership in the business can be more important than a higher salary. For many office workers in today's post vaccine economy, workplace flexibility is the new money.
A New Era of Work
These changes won't happen overnight, but like most things, it starts with great leadership from the top. Today's leaders face a grand reckoning - how can we design a workplace where employees feel valued, connected, and with a good work-life balance? It's clear that the old "normal" is never returning. It's up to all of us to create a new normal that makes workers excited to stay.