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How to Handle Employee Burnout During a Recession

Employee burnout has become so problematic within the workplace that the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. It’s officially a workplace crisis.

While no phase of a business’s journey is without employees who experience burnout from time to time, a business that’s going through a recession can be particularly vulnerable.

Staff might be asked to take on extra responsibilities or pull longer hours to support the business. Plus, there’s the added stress that comes with just being part of a company that’s trying to survive, and perhaps even still aim for some growth, during difficult economic times. Sometimes it’s an invigorating, ‘good’ stress, but other times it leads to burnout.

Truly growing your business with success means first having three components in place:

  • a good product

  • the systems to be able sustain business and support growth, and most importantly

  • a fantastic team.

But too often, the people component is overlooked when times get tough.

Signs you’re experiencing employee burnout

Employee burnout isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it one that’s exclusive to businesses amidst a recession. A Gallup study of around 7,500 full-time America employees revealed 23% feel burned out at work often or always. An additional 44% feel the burnout sometimes.

And a recent survey by Cigna revealed that Singaporeans are among the most stressed at work globally. As a result of the “always-on” work culture, a full 92% said they are stressed at work, and nearly one in eight said they consider their stress unmanageable.

WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And in the organization’s news release announcing the official classification, it was quick to clarify it’s specifically workplace-related, and “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

The following are four signs to watch out for that may indicate your business has a true burnout situation on its hands.

  • Employee exhaustion

The demands of carrying a business through a recession can put employees under a lot of stress at work—not to mention the fact that employees may have nagging concerns about their job security.

And if your team is mentally bringing work home, it can affect the quality of their downtime and even their sleep. As a result, employees experiencing burnout will often start their job each day still exhausted.

People need to be able to shut off at the end of the day, and they need to be able to leave work behind them, both physically and mentally. But when burnout starts to take hold, it becomes difficult.

  • Mistakes are increasing

When employees are asked to do too much, too fast, or they’re asked to take on additional functions to help support a business in survival mode, they may begin to make mistakes more frequently. And these mistakes can be costly—both monetarily and from a safety perspective.

For example, if your business runs on a recurring revenue model, one simple mistake could easily become a recurring mistake that keeps costing your business until someone takes notice. From a safety perspective and in line with government targets, it’s up to employers to take ownership and ensure safety is prioritized over speed.

While the country’s workplace fatal injuries rates have already fallen from 4.9 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to 1.1 in 2019, the goal is to reduce that to less than 1. Only four other OECD countries have been able to attain and sustain this goal.

  • Absenteeism becomes more prevalent

Absenteeism is when an employee calls in sick all the time without a good reason. Some estimates put the cost of chronic absenteeism at $1,685 per employee per year. In the U.S. for example, this was one of the major components of employee burnout that hit businesses more than $300B a year in costs. And by 2030, absenteeism from work is expected to cost Singapore around $3.3B—a 43% increase from 2016.

Beyond the fiscal impact of chronic absenteeism is what happens when other people are forced to pick up the pieces for an employee who’s never there. When a business is struggling, this can be even more overwhelming because everybody’s already ‘all-hands-on-deck’.

  • Presenteeism becomes more prevalent

Presenteeism is when an employee may be ill, whether physically or emotionally, but shows up on time, stays all day, and doesn’t leave early. They also don’t get much done. They’re disengaged.

When employees are overwhelmed and burning out, productivity goes down—even for the most efficient employees. Deadlines are missed, and employees just don’t act like they’re ‘there’ anymore.

Employers in the U.S. lose nearly $226B—or $1,685 per employee—per year in productivity due to presenteeism, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Singapore, employers lose around $12.1B.

If you start noticing any of the signs above—from employee exhaustion to a rise in mistakes, customer churn rate, absenteeism, or presenteeism—it may be time to check in with your employees and make some changes.

Five ways to address employee burnout

So how does a business go about ensuring its employees don’t burn out during a high-intensity, high-stakes recovery phase?

1. Be clear about employee responsibilities

Just because your business is coping with economic challenges, it doesn’t mean your employees should burn themselves out trying to keep up with the increasing demands. One way to mitigate employee burnout is to make sure each role is clearly defined.

And ensure there’s a back-up plan in place to manage expanding roles and responsibilities. For example, if Alex gets pulled into a new project, Nora can help with his regular responsibilities, so he isn’t overwhelmed when that new project is complete.

When workers are asked to help out on someone else’s tasks, communication is essential. Make sure Alex and Nora are both comfortable with toggling between these different positions as necessary. Allow them to say, “I’m not okay with this” if they need to… and respect that as an employer.

2. Focus on the positive

It’s amazing how far a compliment or recognition for a job well done can go toward ensuring an employee’s state of well-being.

You hired your employees because you recognized what they bring to the table. Keep in mind their talent helped see you through the early phases of your business growth, and that same talent can continue to help your business navigate through tough times and into the recovery and regrowth process.

3. Communication

Communication isn’t just about praising someone for reaching a goal or tackling a project. Sometimes, it’s about asking for feedback and promoting open discussion.

What did your employees like about a new project, or what didn’t they like? Would they be willing to take on similar projects in the future? And most importantly, how are they feeling about, and coping with, these current economic times? Are they managing their responsibilities within a work-from-home environment? And how are they handling their role in supporting your business through the pandemic?

Actively seeking out an employee’s opinion validates their feelings. It also giving them an outlet for comfortably dealing with the stresses of a changing work environment, which could be affecting their performance and your bottom line.

And showing your concern, and perhaps being transparent about where the business stands and your employees stand within it, can provide the piece of mind needed to stay focused on the task ahead.

4. Build your company around your culture

A recent article by Brian Halligan, Co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, discussed his company’s difficulties surrounding team and culture.

“When you have 20 employees in a startup, and you lose 15 percent, it’s just three people,” he wrote. “That’s manageable. But, HubSpot had around 600 employees and was growing fast. Losing 90 people while trying to grow by another 120 head count would be a body blow.”

In order to deal with this, HubSpot formalized its business culture and hired a chief people officer to help institutionalize that culture.

Even if you’re in a maintenance phase as opposed to a growth phase, ensure your company culture is completely intertwined with your employees. It isn’t just about making a list of best practices or core values for them to strive toward. It’s about connecting with them, making them feel valued, and giving them a place to want to come to every single day.

5. Give employees an outlet

Navigating a company through a recession is serious business, but it shouldn’t always be blood, sweat, and tears. Provide some ways employees can take a mental break. During typical times, this might involve contracting a masseuse to come in on occasion, providing discounts for gym memberships, or holding an employee luncheon to entice people away from their tasks. Amidst a work-from-home environment, this might mean providing more flexible working hours or giving employees a few extra mental health days if you can.

At the same time, celebrate the small wins! Ron Antevy started e-Builder with his brother in 1998. When asked how they prevent burnout, Antevy said, “Celebrate the successes, and not just the big ones.”

He also added they focus on the fact that the process is a marathon and not a sprint.

“We often joke that ours is the 25-year overnight success story.”

Burnout is a pervasive issue in business. And the costs associated with employee burnout can be incredibly draining in terms of reduced revenue, lost MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue), and potentially lost talent and institutional knowledge if employees decide they’ve had enough and leave. These are challenging costs in good times.

When your business is trying to cope and move through a recession, keep your focus on your product and your processes. But most importantly, keep your primary focus on your employees. Because if burnout is left unaddressed, it can ultimately be the barrier that prevents your business from emerging successfully on the other side.

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