4 ways your managers can help combat employee burnout

UpWork’s chief people officer recommends buffer time between video calls, organization-wide PTO and more to ease employee stress.
By: | October 18, 2021

As the Great Resignation discussion continues to unfold in the HR community, burnout has risen to one of the top reasons for employees leaving their jobs, along with low pay/long hours and lack of recognition from supervisors. While the remote work revolution has allowed employees to avoid long commutes, it has also extended the workday as technology such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other collaboration tools push the limits of the traditional workday.

To learn more about work-life boundaries and other burnout prevention ideas, HRE spoke recently with Zoë Harte, chief people officer for freelance talent platform provider UpWork. Also on the list of topics? Reigning in supervisors and why shutting the laptop at the end of the day is a key ingredient to mental health.

HRE: Technology allows people to not only work from home but to work extended hours. How can HR leaders establish boundaries that encourage employees to turn off their laptops and not check work e-mail constantly?

Zoë Harte of Upwork

Zoë Harte: Technology empowers you to be in constant communication with your colleagues, however, this means “logging off” fully can feel close to impossible. We know that there are drawbacks to burning the candle at both ends as all aspects of life suffer. Without the ease of simply leaving the office, remote workers should be encouraged to proactively set up healthy boundaries to protect work/life balance.

Related: What’s behind the Great Resignation? Blame burnout and more

This does not mean an equal 50/50 distribution of time and effort. Some days work will take much more of your waking hours; other days a sick partner or 3rd-grade field trip should take full priority. To address the needs of our businesses, we must have teams that are fully engaged and supported. In order to do so, team members need to care for themselves. This enables them to, in turn, give their best to their colleagues and customers as well as their lives outside of work.

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HRE: What are some specific steps managers can take to establish work/life boundaries?

Harte: First, make sure your team members are being given time off to completely unplug and take their minds off work. At Upwork, we rolled out “Charge Up” days, which gives company-wide days off to give everyone a chance to relax and recharge at the same time. Knowing that the organization is offline together can relieve team members’ concerns about abandoning their coworkers or taking off at the “right” time. If it’s not feasible to have the whole team or organization offline concurrently, managers can stagger days off or identify a short timeframe for when it’s best to take vacation days.

Related: Collective PTO: One of the ‘very best’ new ways to combat burnout

Another step companies can take is to empower team members to define their own workday. Employees should feel supported to implement calendar blocks to schedule time for heads-down work, breaks and family responsibilities. At Upwork, we schedule meeting times for 25 or 50 minutes vs 30- or 60-minute blocks to allow for transition time between calls. That way team members can let the dogs out, grab a cup of coffee, or just give themselves a break from looking at the computer.

Related: What World Mental Health Day means to these top HR leaders

Next, leverage technology to your benefit. Specifically, if you use communication tools such as Slack, direct your team members to update their status to reflect when they’re online and working or signaling that they are no longer available that day and cannot be reached.   

Last but not least, HR leaders can establish boundaries for their team members by establishing boundaries for themselves. It’s imperative to set an example for others to follow when it comes to closing the laptop, prioritizing self-care, and beating burnout even before it starts to creep in.

HRE: What role do managers and supervisors play in this effort? Does HR have to remind them that the workday is over each and every day?

Harte: Managers and supervisors, in particular, are charged with both driving results and buffering against employee burnout. They are also key to setting the tone for the entire team. Given this, it’s important that managers prioritize their mental health, log off at reasonable hours, and take the time off that they need in order to serve as an example for the rest of their colleagues. Additionally, when managers make every task feel urgent, the real priorities start to get buried or lose importance to the team. By limiting fire drills and last-minute asks, teams can stay focused and prioritize accordingly. 

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If managers are allowing team members to burn the candle at both ends or aren’t addressing burnout properly, this is when HR should step in and provide sound guidance. It’s incumbent upon us to manage workloads so the team has the energy to continue to drive impact. 

HRE: What can HR leaders do to ensure junior staffers are learning mental health best practices early on in their careers?

Harte: Because junior staffers are earlier in their career, they may not know what is okay to ask for or how to draw boundaries. I encourage HR leaders to create opportunities for team members to express what they need, set parameters that are clear, and implement performance management techniques that are based on impact and not face time. Establishing mental health best practices early on is critical, so that young professionals are set up with good habits as they progress throughout their careers.

HRE: What can HR do to mitigate burnout? When should they step in and inform a manager that their staff is overworked, overstressed, under-praised or under-rewarded? 

Harte: First, HR should work to ensure they are structuring their staffing plans accurately. People are putting in more hours than ever before, in part because many organizations are operating with leaner teams due to hiring freezes and layoffs. The most forward-thinking companies are building a virtual talent bench to get ahead of workload issues and prevent burnout from taking hold. The bench consists of skilled freelancers that managers can tap again and again when workloads rise and core team members need relief. 

If a team is becoming overly stressed, it’s critical for HR to step in and work closely with a manager to help the team cultivate better working habits. One of the ways to do this is restructuring time to help employees prioritize. For example, creating a new calendar cadence by banning any internal calls or meetings during one day a week and empowering staff to push back on meetings with too many people. 

Time restructuring can help managers rethink the necessity (“Do we really need this meeting?”) and design (“Can this meeting be an email?”) of all touchpoints, such as time-consuming team meetings and rigidly scheduled individual meetings. In the end, employees will have more time to get critical work done and have the freedom to log off at a reasonable time. 

Phil Albinus is HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children. He can be reached at palbinus@lrp.com and followed on Twitter @philalbinus.

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