Preventing Workforce Burnout: The Importance of Relationships, Creativity, and Inclusion

A conversation with Rita Patel, Health Strategist, Employee Benefits, Hylant

After the disruption of a global pandemic, a lack of support for employee well-being, and debilitating staff shortages, it’s no wonder employees are exhausted and disengaged.

“Burnout is not normal, although it has been normalized in the workplace,” said Rita Patel, Health Strategist, Employee Benefits, Hylant. “There is a growing and consistent request for support related to the mental health of people in the workplace, showing that we are at a really important crossroads.”

Employers can better prevent burnout among their workforce through strong inclusion efforts, creative opportunities, and a culture that encourages daily harmony.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Burnout and stress are not the same. Healthy doses of stress are characterized by short bursts of energy that push someone to accomplish an important task. Burnout revolves around chronic stress that has gone untreated and is characterized by physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.

employee burnt out

The Health Risks of Burnout

A life of burnout drains employees of the vitality needed to care for their physical needs and health. This can contribute to lifelong chronic conditions, including high cholesterol and diabetes.

“When the vitality is gone, your subjective well-being is lower, so that leads to certain behaviors and lifestyle choices,” said Patel. “It could lead to substance abuse.”

The Business Risks of Burnout

When organizations have a large population of staff struggling with serious health issues, the organization can suffer from decreased productivity, engagement, and performance.

Workplace stress causes businesses additional expenditures of anywhere from $125 to 190 billion dollars a year. High demands at work are the largest contributing factor to these expenses, estimated to be $48 billion each year.

The public health crisis of 2020 gave employees clarity on what is no longer negotiable – their personal health and well-being. According to Microsoft’s Annual Work Trend Index Report, 53% of employees are more likely to prioritize health and well-being over work responsibilities.

Organizations that are not investing in the health of their workforce risk losing them altogether. Patel believes the responsibility to prevent burnout falls on both leaders and employees,

“It’s a WE approach,” said Patel. “Leadership controls the demands of work while employees turn the organization’s goals into a reality. One cannot exist without the other.”

Employee experiences form a supportive work environment. Well-being must be integrated into all aspects of the organization, not existing as a separate entity. An organization’s commitment to well-being should influence policies, procedures, and behaviors to create a healthy workplace culture that reduces the probability of burnout.

Why Inclusion is Critical for Preventing Burnout

When an employee feels like they belong, there is a sense of safety that comes with it. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has “belonging” at the foundation of a healthy environment.

“It is a psychological need,” said Patel. “We are wired to want to be with others.”

If an organization does not have efforts for inclusion, it sends a clear message to staff. In turn, the lack of effort can significantly impact mental and physical well-being. Once managers start building relationships, feelings of belonging will eventually come with it, but the effort must be there first.

Creativity as a Tool for Inclusion

“I think creativity is about being and expressing who you are at your core,” said Patel. “If you feel psychologically safe to do that, you are bringing your whole self to work, and that generates a sense of belonging. That’s ultimately where we are trying to get to with our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.”

A recent study conducted in collaboration with Berlin Cameron, Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play, and Kantar found that employees experiencing symptoms of burnout are simultaneously bored. By purposely infusing and encouraging creativity in the workplace, leaders can help employees explore their innate gift of imagination.

“In the workplace, we are afraid of creativity. We are conditioned to do work that can be measured with familiar metrics.” We should be exercising creativity the same way we do our muscles.

In a piece featured in the April 2019 issue of Detroiter Magazine, Patel discussed the role connection and creativity play in healthy spaces, stating that creative expression “is the most consistent and strong predictor of how you feel about your well-being and your actual health status.”

Striving for Harmony Instead of ‘Work-Life Balance’

Instead of finding a work-life balance, Patel encourages others to find harmony each day.

“I don’t know if things are ever fully balanced. Your behavior changes like the weather,” said Patel. “We like to think we want a steady structure and that it makes us feel safe. But the reality is, we actually enjoy variety and change. Certain types of variety and change, we need.”

Employees should strive for clarity in their roles, define boundaries that work for them, and allow for flexibility.

It is also important to build a transition period. While moving throughout the rhythm of your day, make a point to formally complete work, whether it be shutting down your computer, going for a walk, or simply changing your clothes for the evening.

Additional Strategies for Employers

1. Weak ties are strong. Finding common ground helps build social connections and, in turn, creates a culture of caring with a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging. “Everyone just wants to feel seen, heard, and valued – employees and leaders,” said Patel.

2. Reflect honestly on organizational policies. Having policies and norms in the workplace is a great start, but it is important to reflect on who was included in the conversation when establishing them. Are employee experiences at the center of well-being and inclusion efforts?

3. Be clear and model the expectations. “Policies need to be very clear on the way the organization operates,” said Patel. “Part of the burnout felt throughout the workplace is leadership communicating one thing and behaving another way.” This lack of clarity causes confusion, frustration, and can eventually lead to burnout.

4. Invest in manager training to improve communication. The workplace today is not the same as it was before the pandemic. Employee titles may have stayed the same, but roles have changed. The lack of clarity, expectations, and skillsets are contributing to workplace stress. “There needs to be leadership acknowledgment on where these gaps are because it’s not the manager’s fault,” said Patel. “Employees need the support in the roles they are now expected to perform.”

Employers now understand that employees can’t simply leave their problems and personal stress at the door. When organizations have strong inclusion efforts, creative opportunities, and a culture that encourages daily harmony, employee well-being is better supported.