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The Burnout Fuse is Getting Shorter

June 1, 2008
You may have to push your people to relax if you want them around for the long haul.

Golfer Annika Sorenstam recently announced her retirement from the LPGA Tour at the age of 37. She played at the top of the sport and is retiring to pursue other interests such as her businesses and building a family.

The next day, Justine Henin abruptly retired from the number one position in women's tennis, saying she had accomplished all she wanted and no longer had the will to play another day. She is 25 years old.

The world of sports frequently gives us advance knowledge of what is to come in the “real” world. Signing bonuses first appeared on the national landscape in sports. The idea of people taking a “free agent” route to test their worth on the open market also became well known in sports before becoming common in the workplace. I fear these retirements are also a foreshadowing of things to come in the workplace of the not too distant future.

From the time children can walk, parents whisk them off to participate in multiple events. After-school activities once were an occasional event, but now are an everyday occurrence in one form or another. The generation coming through our schools is filled with multi-taskers and stimulus junkies who constantly need to be bombarded with activity so they never have a boring moment. When does this pace become too grueling? At what point does this overload of activity reach burnout, where the focus, commitment and energy level can no longer be maintained?

For Henin, it was at the age of 25. In her case, she has “enough money to last three lifetimes.” But what about the average 25-year-old who has been maintaining a breakneck pace for 22 years, but who doesn't have the money to retire and has a projected life expectancy of close to a century?

Actually, this phenomenon is already creeping into the workplace. This younger generation of workers sees no likelihood that they'll be able to retire financially sound in their 60s or even 70s, so they take sabbatical years in which they quit their jobs and have fun doing things they enjoy and then come back to find new employment. Not only is this a way for them to “enjoy their retirement one year at a time,” but they need the break! They are burned out.

Burnout in the workplace is nothing new, of course. American workers get the least vacation time of any modern, developed society, and even so, many do not use it all. Even when they do, many schedule every day of this supposedly “fun” time with home improvements projects (thank you, HGTV!) or a breakneck sightseeing itinerary that leaves the employee ready to go back to work just to get some rest!

A 2005 survey showed:

  • 33 percent of workers said they would be checking in with the office while on vacation.

  • One-half of workers reported feeling a great deal of stress on the job.

  • 44 percent of working moms admitted to being preoccupied about work while at home, and one-fourth say they bring home projects at least one day a week.

  • 19 percent of working moms reported they often or always work weekends.

  • 37 percent of all working dads said they would consider the option of taking a new job with less pay if it offered a better work/life balance.

  • 36 percent of working dads reported they bring work home at least one day a week, and 30 percent say they often or always work weekends.

What does the Wmployer Do Here?

First of all, employers need to diversify their human capital portfolio. No longer can you invest in one person to be your “go-to” person, the one you can always count on. Managers have a habit of relying on their workhorses to pick up the slack left behind by other employees. The danger is this employee is going to “retire” at a young age, because they no longer have the drive to get out of bed for that job.

Now imagine an entire workforce battling burnout and fatigue and craving retirement while they're still in their 30s. This is an alarming trend of a younger generation in the workplace that could have the potential for disaster for an employer.

There is only so much a person can do, and the employee's world outside the walls of work is creating more demands and more stress than ever before in the history of the industrialized era. What to do?

Vacations are not just a benefit, where the employee can choose to use the vacation or cash it in, so to speak.

Employers need to require every employee to use all vacation time every year. They need the rest, the break, the opportunity to slow down. Employers will soon be booking vacation trips such as cruises and camping trips to make sure employees are using their vacation wisely in a restful way, to get the desired effect.

Discourage employees from checking-in while on vacation — they need a time completely free of work responsibilities to recharge their batteries. Hold a “pre-vacation planning meeting” where the two of you think of everything you might be tempted to call them to ask about and ask it or document it now. (This is a useful exercise to conduct periodically anyway, in case that worker suddenly becomes ill or leaves on short notice.) Define under what conditions you will call them while they enjoy their vacation. Let them know you expect their vacation to be a useful time of relaxation and recharging. Slip them a gift card for a favorite ice cream shop and encourage them to indulge in a special treat on you!

Cross-training is essential, with benefits that go both ways.

Keeping employees involved in learning new skills that interest them is a great way to prevent boredom with already-mastered job duties. Sometimes the new education opens doors for a promotion or new responsibilities which also benefit the company; sometimes it helps the employee better appreciate the job he already has when he discovers that “cushy job” Joe has isn't so cushy after all.

Not only are employees looking for new stimulus to energize their minds and their desire for trying something new, but the employer can create redundancy of skills and diversify that human capital portfolio. Savvy investors don't select just one stock to hang their hopes on, and managers shouldn't rely on one person to have the majority of knowledge or skill for an important job duty. An employee learning a new set of skills has an open mind to the process and may discover improvements that can be made, benefitting both customers and company, as well as giving that person a great sense of accomplishment and a self-esteem boost.

Cross-training becomes a security system for the employer who will be losing good help not because of the company or the job, but because the employee feels burned out and just wants to “not work.”

Wellness programs.

Right now employers are developing employee wellness programs to encourage employees to take better care of their health, thereby reducing health care coverage costs for the employer. These programs will take a giant leap forward from suggestions and contests, to a benefit where gym memberships will be paid for, monitored and strongly encouraged to be used — on company time, in some cases. Progressive employers are looking for a healthier workforce not just for the reduction of health care coverage costs, but also to create a workforce that is more physically fit, thereby more mentally fit, and able to handle the stresses and demands of life longer before reaching that burnout stage. More fit people experience less health-related stress, which means better on-the-job performance and less work-related stress, which contributes to a higher level of fitness. It's a self-propelling cycle that runs off its own energy once you can get it started.

In the stories of Sorenstam and Henin, two champion athletes are stepping away from their games at the peaks of their performance because their financial success allows them to do so. Your employees will probably not have that luxury. Therefore, some employees may quit because of burnout but never leave, continuing to collect that much-needed check until they are removed from the workplace for poor performance. Firings, reduced productivity and horrendous morale create an environment that cannot support great success and performance, but that's what awaits the managers who are not taking a proactive stance in preventing employee burnout.

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