I’ve experienced real burnout a couple of times in my career. Both times came with an accompanying feeling of inadequacy and a huge lack of motivation to push forward, almost causing me to quit my job. As if I didn’t learn my lesson the first time, the second time it happened I was waking up too early, drinking too much coffee and not sleeping enough. Irregular heart palpitations gave me a very clear “dammit stop this now” signal that something was not right, so even though I could still work, I immediately took work off to rest, rebalance and make sure that it didn’t happen again.
Fortunately, I didn’t suffer any huge health issues. But many people aren’t so lucky. Especially here in Japan, over-work is infamously rampant and despite rosy labor-statistics, a lot of the overtime isn’t recorded. This leads to serious issues ranging from cardiovascular illnesses, to depression and even suicide— labeled under the term ‘karoshi,’ or death by overwork.
The U.S. isn’s so different, though. More than half of all Americans don’t take their paid vacation, which is a rather unfortunate statistic. The common reason leads back to fear. Fear of getting behind, fear that no one can cover them, or fear of social judgement by peers or upper management. It stands to reason that if you can eliminate these three fears, then you can help reduce employee burnout.
Here are some tactics I used as a manager to create a healthier environment that encouraged work-life balance.
Never send emails to employees on the weekends.
I reckon that a great source of “I want to kill my boss” feelings comes from the annoying weekend-email, especially one with negative feedback during your time off. Oh, and if you are giving negative feedback, it should be saved for a face to face conversation anyways. The solution? I would work on Sunday nights to prepare for the weekday and type up several emails to my team, then use the Boomerang app to “send email later” to be delivered Monday morning. This is much healthier than sending emotional one-off email tirades on Saturdays that effectively piss off your team. (By the way, when I say “work” on Sunday I mean that I would spend 30 minutes in the evening preparing for the week, not the whole day!)
This feature is built into Gmail nowadays, so no excuse not to use it!
Sit down with your employees every quarter and make them plan a vacation.
During my weekly catchup I would take out the calendar and bluntly ask “What days are you taking off this quarter?” — signaling that vacations are part of business. If they said they weren’t taking off, I would emphasise the importance of recharging, follow the next week and bug them until they had planned a vacation. If they were only taking 1–2 days off, I would tell them it’s too short. It furthermore gives them something to look forward to, as at least 1/3 of the enjoyment we get from travel is the anticipation up to the event. People don’t use the full amount of their paid holidays because they feel guilty or inadequate, so stomp these issues when they come up by setting up a strong signal that “it’s ok to take breaks.”
My former company had a great practice where the CEO would shut off the office lights at 6pm every Tuesday and make everyone leave the building. It was pretty strict. I would further follow up and ask my team what sports/activities they were doing that night that were non-work related. Some just hung out with friends, other played a sport or took a run in the park. If someone said they were catching up on work, I would take it as another time to remind them why we had lights-out Tuesdays (and cite the statistics around real productivity and why I do not want them to burnout).
Nice Walks and Cafes.
After 30 minutes of sitting 90% of your metabolism slows down. Simply standing up and walking for 5 minutes restarts it. It’s so simple that it’s absolutely dumb not to get off your butt every few minutes — though it can be easy to forget when you’re glued to a desk. So at least once, sometimes twice a week I would take the team out for a nice walk and head down to a cafe for a couple of hours to work outside of the office. We had a nice office, and the simple change in environment plus walking around helps clear the mind. I’d order everyone a coffee (and expense it) and we’d do some task together as a team for half the time and then work on our own stuff the other half. I made sure that everyone was there. Burnout averted! (Here are a few more reasons why you should work in a coffee shop)
Obama liked walking meetings, too.
Lead by example.
If you’re going home late everyday, not taking vacation yourself, and sending emails on the weekends, it’s going to be difficult to preach “balance” when the incentives are not in place. This one is perhaps one of the most critical pieces of managing burnout. People respond to a good system and good incentives, not just your words.
These are just a few of many that I’ve seen work, but they could be different for your specific company. Even if you have a “unlimited vacation time” policy like Netflix, this doesn’t necessarily stop burnout. People will still generally act in accordance with what standards their manager has set, and will often succumb to their own internal pressures if not unchecked.
As an employer, to manage and prevent fires from happening, it comes down the signals you’re sending — like what is acceptable and not acceptable in the workplace. A lot of the time it comes down to leading by example, practicing what you preach and setting up a good system.
“Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” ~ Paul Wellstone