Overcoming Burnout to Create a Thriving Corporate Culture

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If you’ve felt that the pace of change has only accelerated since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, then you’re not alone. Businesses were forced to pivot overnight to navigate regulatory upheavals, disrupted supply chains and shifting consumer behaviors. These adaptations, driven by necessity, transformed years of projected changes into immediate actions.

While changes during the pandemic were necessary to meet the needs of the moment, the reality is organizations have been pushing more changes to employees for almost a decade. In fact, Gartner research shows that in 2022 alone, the average employee experienced 10 planned enterprise changes.

This pace of rapid change has put tremendous pressure on employees, leaving a palpable “hangover” effect in its wake. In our work with clients today, we often hear how their workforce is burned out, fatigued from change and unable to catch their breath — but the path to addressing the root causes to ultimately improve employee well-being is unclear.

And so, at the beginning of this year, we set out to better understand the state of employee well-being in the U.S., seeking to uncover the main drivers of burnout (and conversely, what leads to a state of thriving), barriers to employee well-being and what we as communicators can do about it.

Our research, conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll, revealed three critical findings:

  1. Widespread burnout is real. 76% of employees and 63% of managers feel burned out or ambivalent in their current position. However, while managers report their own high level of burnout and ambivalence, they’re doing a poor job of recognizing burnout in their own employees — 89% of managers say their employees are thriving, while just 24% of employees feel a sense of thriving (a more than 3-to-1 discrepancy).
  2. Constant change is the primary reason for burnout for both employees (43%) and managers (50%). For employees, other drivers of burnout include unnecessary work from leadership, high turnover and limited mental health benefits. 
  3. Managers play a critical role moving employees from burnout to a state of thriving. For employees who say they are thriving, the top indicator is a manager who is “invested in their success” followed by having an empathetic manager and senior leadership that respects work/life boundaries.

This alarming rate of burnout should be a wake-up call for all employers. Why? Because the cost of burnout is simply too high to ignore. Additional research from The Harris Poll indicates that 33% of U.S. hiring managers predict employee turnover will increase at their company this year. Multiple studies find turnover often costs companies 50%-200% of an employee’s annual salary in lost productivity and rehiring costs. 

In contrast, the ripple effects from focusing on employee well-being are profound and far greater than just about anything else leadership can do to build a thriving culture. When well-being is prioritized, employees are simply happier and just about everyone who encounters the organization — customers, business partners, prospective employees — feels that. 

Sustained burnout and ambivalence come at a high cost for organizations, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed on many levels. So, what can we as communicators do to help move our organizations from a state of burnout to create a thriving corporate culture? 

I recommend starting by focusing on the following three areas in our control as strategic advisors to our organizations:

First, enable senior leaders and managers to be successful communicators. Put a strategic plan in place to elevate the voice of senior leaders to provide ongoing clarity and context to employees. Arm next-level leaders with resources, such as a communication toolkit, that they can customize to cascade consistent messaging across the organization and support them with ongoing training.

Most leaders are put in a role because they’ve demonstrated the chops to successfully perform at a high level. But as we know, communication is a skill that must be honed, as well.

Second, work with senior leaders to help plan for and manage change fatigue. One of the superpowers of internal communications is having a bird’s-eye view of everything happening across the business. With this view, it’s imperative to help leaders prioritize what’s most important for teams to focus on, as not all updates can carry the same level of importance. Pull the pieces and right stakeholders together to help make decisions about what happens when, while keeping in mind the impact that the changes taken together will have. 

Above all, don’t rush bringing employees along the change journey. Remind leaders that they have been digesting the change long before employees are exposed to it. Planned communication must incorporate change management principles — emphasizing the end-state, new behaviors needed, clarity of path and strategies to create readiness — to drive awareness, understanding and, ultimately, the desired change. Effective communication is your strongest tool to compress the change curve for employees.

Third, make it a priority to communicate about well-being and create an environment for feedback. Most organizations have robust well-being resources, but they don’t often get talked about enough. It’s important to let employees know there’s a place to turn to if they need help and that resources are available — both in the day-to-day and when major change occurs.

At a leader level, encourage managers to conduct regular well-being check-ins with their employees. Simply asking how an employee is doing and demonstrating empathy goes a long way in positively impacting employee well-being. 

Providing ongoing feedback

At an organizational level, put mechanisms in place for ongoing feedback with clear actions to demonstrate the company is listening and acting. Traditionally, this is done through an annual employee survey. However, an important watch-out must be avoided: communicating survey results and an action plan once, and then putting it away until the following year — which leads to a sense for employees of being duped.  

As communication professionals, your role is pivotal in transforming workplace culture from one of burnout to one of thriving. By effectively bringing together key stakeholders, you’ll not only enhance employee well-being but also drive the organization toward its broader goals.

Embrace your power as strategic advisers: You have significant influence to shape outcomes and lead change. Move forward with confidence, leveraging your unique perspective and skills to make a meaningful difference.

Return to Current Issue Culture & Well-Being | June-July 2024
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