The role of culture in mitigating employee burnout

John and Lerato are coworkers at the same organisation. Lerato has been feeling chronically stressed at work. She thinks her manager expects her to be available 24/7 and she becomes anxious if she steps away from her desk. She’s fighting with her partner and feels she is neglecting her kids. She’s working 12-hour days but feels unmotivated and increasingly frustrated.

John is suffering from constant exhaustion. He no longer feels excited about anything, especially his career. He’s been feeling unsatisfied and is thinking about looking for a new job.

Lerato and John’s stories are all too familiar, and the cost of losing good people cannot be overstated.

From a leadership perspective, this represents a failure to support employees and to show a genuine concern for their wellbeing. This could lead to the additional hard costs of hiring new employees and onboarding them into the business’s culture, and, of course, the customer service cost, because when a company’s focus is on internal issues, it isn’t on the customer.

The steady and persistent rise of burnout

In reality, all employees run the risk of burnout, but the pandemic and the increasing anxiety of an “always on duty” response to working from home has exacerbated mental health issues.

In the early months of Covid-19, there was a large and immediate focus on mental health. Lockdowns, isolation, and learning to work remotely had a noticeable impact on mental wellness. HR departments and managers scrambled to find support mechanisms to help employees cope with the drastic shift in working conditions and the very real fears associated with a pandemic.

And then, like most things, businesses slowly went back to business as usual. The problem is that stress levels, anxiety and burnout rates are still at a record high, and, while most business leaders believe that all organisations can benefit from employees who are healthy, resilient, focused and who deliver excellent job performance, there are still many question marks around how to support mental wellness, particularly during a pandemic.

The power of purpose

I’ve spent 40 years building businesses and at no point did I imagine that a strong culture would eventually be what carried companies through a global pandemic — and yet that is exactly where we have found ourselves.

Culture ensures a business delivers obsessive customer service; a culture that is aligned on a shared purpose that pulls people together in times of heightened stress, emotional anxiety and depression.

In a culture built on trust, respect, transparency and support, Lerato would not feel she needs to be available 24/7 or that her manager doesn’t trust her when she steps away from her desk. She is able to have an honest discussion with her supervisor about the challenges she is facing, how she is feeling, and her lack of motivation.

At the heart of a strong culture is an underlying sense of belonging and a common desire to serve people. This purpose can carry employees through extremely difficult times because they pull together to support each other and their customers. In this scenario, John would not feel unsatisfied with his career, because he would know that he was having a positive effect on the lives of his customers and colleagues.

The role of culture in mitigating the cause of burnout

According to research conducted by Mindful Revolution — a thought leader in the area of mental wellness — there are organisational practices and job characteristics that consistently contribute to burnout, but which a strong culture will mitigate. These include:

Role ambiguity: If an employee is unclear about their responsibilities at work, or there is a lack of understanding around what they are expected to deliver, it can cause heightened anxiety. This is even more prevalent in remote workforces. Clear, transparent expectations and a shared purpose are critical.

Role conflict: Employees who experience conflicting demands at work are more likely to suffer from stress and burnout. However, there should be no conflicting demands if the business has a clear reason for being, a defined purpose and a set of core values that everyone in the business supports. This is what culture achieves.

Work overload: This is the cause that we are most familiar with. When there isn’t enough time or resources for employees to meet the demands placed on them, burnout is the natural result. This can be difficult to judge, but employees who feel safe are more likely to speak up if they are overwhelmed.

Businesses and higher purpose

The workplace will always place demands on employees. Obsessive customer service requires dedication and a willingness to work hard. But a business is also a source of resources. Leaders have the means to promote employee growth, to create environments where colleagues and managers offer each other social support, to give employees autonomy and the ability to participate in decision-making, and to foster a sense of purpose that is beyond personal needs.

Higher purpose and our basic human need to serve others are the foundations of mindfulness, and they are how, as business leaders, we can support the mental health and wellness of our employees.

Culture-driven leaders have a genuine interest in the wellbeing of their people, which means they are authentic when they ask, “how are you”, and they listen to what their employees say. If a leader doesn’t know where their employees are in terms of their mental wellbeing, they cannot make any meaningful interventions. It’s critical to start the conversation in a safe and transparent space.

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Ian Fuhr
Ian Fuhr is the chief executive of The Hatch Institute, a personal and business leadership coaching company. He is known as a serial entrepreneur who founded the Sorbet beauty salon chain

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