Be kind and completely understanding
One thing I’ve learned though, especially in the last 2 years, is that everyone has the same emotions, the same amount of time in a day and other priorities in life. This is why, both individually and as a business, you need to understand someone’s feelings and practice kindness where possible. I say this, because, controversially, the best way for someone to avoid burnout, is to understand themselves and make decisions that, ultimately, will help them take care of themselves.
1 person may be able to work on 6 projects at once with no issue, yet another person can only focus on one thing at a time – it doesn’t mean one employee is better than the other, it just means each person has different ways of coping and working. That’s why encouraging self-help is crucial because a blanket fix for everyone will not be a long term solution.
If someone’s burnout is caused by general exhaustion/feeling overwhelmed, that person should be encouraged by their line manager to take more breaks for self-care, go for walks, cook a nice meal or take a nap. Obviously, this is a short term fix, but if a business can encourage their employees to look after themselves and find a routine/time every day that they self-care, it becomes a long-term fix.
We offer flexible working but, being in a client services industry, we have core working hours, which is a couple of hours in the morning, a couple in the afternoon, and then people can work around that based on their needs. We also encourage taking a “personal care day” once a quarter, which is separate from their holiday allowance.
Of course, these may be seen as all “small things” if someone really is overwhelmed. But, if a business can start building a culture of transparency and support, then no matter how small the support, it helps to start a conversation on how people can start looking after themselves and opening up about how they’re feeling, which really does help relieve pressure.
Reducing the workload
This one can be hard. Especially in an agency world, it is fantastic because it’s dynamic, fast-paced, and has plenty of opportunities. However, the consequence of that is people are constantly busy, and it’s clear why it may lead to people becoming burned out over time.
Obviously, on a business level, we can become more efficient at recruitment and managing capacity. I feel like this is a constant improvement that will happen as a business grows rather than an overnight solution, which then allows the workload to be spread out more. Equally, however, overheads can quickly spiral out of control and then there’s too much staff for the amount of work you have. This really is a difficult balance that as an owner of a business, appears to be a consistent challenge across every business I know.
Ideally, you want enough staff so they are comfortable and the work is being done, but equally, you don’t want too many staff that end up being bored, unmotivated and feeling like their skills are underutilised, which results in a lack of confidence. We’re using data now to monitor efficiencies in the company, and at what point we need more staff and which areas can be improved, so I would always recommend to every business owner to try and be led by data where possible, but, nevertheless, it’s a consistent challenge for the resourcing team.
The other option is to explore how much delegation can be improved. Taking stock of responsibilities and what is wearing someone down and then exploring how that can be either delegated or communicated so someone else may be willing to take it on.
In general, a lot of my reading has helped me to understand that in many cases, a burnout culture isn’t necessarily only due to a high volume of work – as there are solutions for this if needed. It’s more with the emotional engagement and social connection aspect. If people don’t see the value in their work, aren’t emotionally engaged, see their days as the same with no substance, and socially feel isolated or alone, as many have during the pandemic, this will naturally appear in day-to-day work, then work can be blamed as the culprit.
Set some boundaries
This leads me to my final point around setting boundaries. Before, we would go to an office, be engaged, do some great work, then head home and relax. Now, people have Slack on their phones, some work different hours than others due to other commitments of flexi-working etc.
I’ll be honest – I am a workaholic. But that works for me, and I’m okay with it. It’s my business, I take on the pressure, I’m young, and I’m thinking about it all the time, which is fine for me at this stage of my life. I have no expectation that anyone else in the company should be anywhere near the same because there is absolutely no reason to. However with us all working from home and having Slack on and emails, it would be easy for me to send messages out at strange hours. This would inadvertently cause people more stress than they’re already feeling.
So from the perspective of the business, it’s crucial that a leadership team sets boundaries, become role models for this way of working and then let it trickle throughout the company. I don’t email or Slack post-6pm, or before 9am. I’ll schedule messages, which has become my go-to. I use this time to focus on work that I really want to do when I don’t have back-to-back meetings. I put my Slack notifications on pause from 6pm to 8am, so there’s a clear recognition that if I’m not available to talk to in those hours, no one else should be either. We take regular holidays, as it’s important to go away and reset, and everyone should be encouraged to do the same.
From a team perspective, everyone needs to set their own boundaries. When they finish or start work, if they go to the gym in the middle of the day, shutting the laptop over lunch etc. It’s so important that people are able to set their own boundaries, and with a little aid and support from the team around them, they can then find a routine that works for them to help with the feeling of burnout. If an individual is struggling consistently and with extreme burnout, this needs to be recognised by managers and the appropriate support should be provided. Furthermore, we have in-house mental health first aiders who can be there to talk to and support. I’d encourage every company to have a clear escalated mental health support system because I have also used it myself.
Finally, do whatever you can as a business to prioritise your team’s mental health. Offer any benefits that you can, from unlimited holiday allowance and access to mental health tools to building a truly transparent and understanding culture. Doing this will never avoid burnout, but it can set some foundations to help us get on the journey of helping people before it becomes an issue and slowly adapt to the new way of working in a better way over time.
Antonio Wedral, the co-founder and COO of leading e-commerce agency NOVOS,