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How HR leaders can mitigate burnout and engage today’s workforce

Jeri Herman
Jeri Herman is senior vice president of HR, Cengage Group.

Move over Great Resignation, the latest workforce trend is “quiet quitting.” Quiet quitting happens when employees, feeling burned out and unfulfilled in their roles, do the bare minimum required. To be clear, these employees are not leaving their job but rather setting firm boundaries around what they will—and will no longer—do.

A rejection of “hustle culture” and a byproduct of more than two years of video calls, remote happy hours and pandemic-related fatigue, quiet quitting is a recalibration of priorities to put one’s own wellbeing first. Think life/work balance instead of work/life balance.

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As HR professionals, it’s our responsibility to devise and implement initiatives that not only help employees find balance and fulfillment but keep them engaged. In speaking with colleagues and others serving in HR, and through our own efforts at Cengage Group, a few common initiatives seem to be successful in helping employees recover from burnout and remain engaged and productive.

Encourage the use of PTO—and push executives to lead by example

Some employees have not taken significant time off work since early 2020. That fact alone—putting aside other stressors like COVID-19, heightened political and social climates and so on—is enough to burn a person out. But the trend seems to be reversing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more people went on vacation in July 2022 than at any time since the start of the pandemic.

Unlike Canada, France or the United Kingdom, the United States mandates no minimum paid vacation or paid public holidays. And sadly, according to BLS statistics, roughly a quarter of private employers do not offer any paid time off to fulltime employees. Those that do, however, have increasingly been encouraging their employees to take advantage of their PTO benefits.

Executives and managers can lead by example, taking time off themselves. Finding a way to carve time away from work can be challenging for remote workers, many of whom have tended to work longer hours—popping online in the evening or substituting an early start for their former commute—while working from home. HR can provide managers with strategies for ensuring employees feel they have permission to take real time off; research shows that happiness peaks on the eighth day of a vacation, meaning a full two weeks of PTO is the ideal length of time away.

In addition to traditional PTO, many employers are offering additional wellness days that provide employees extra time off to recharge away from work. Overworked and stressed-out employees are not productive. Regardless of what they do, employees cannot produce quality work if they are exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally.

Many organizations, including Cengage Group, have implemented wellness days, which are specific days ideally everyone in the organization takes off. These companies shut down for the day, and each employee—from the CEO to the intern—enjoys the same day off in whatever way rejuvenates them. While this approach might not be feasible for all employees or businesses, it’s important that companies evaluate ways to foster an environment where employees can truly unplug and recharge, as that is the best way to keep employees happy, productive and engaged.

Foster a culture of trust and support

According to research published in Harvard Business Review, employees at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout when compared with employees at low-trust companies. It’s clear that creating a supportive environment centered on trust and respect creates happier employees.

Creating a supportive culture is not an activity that can be dictated by HR or the C-suite; rather, it stems from every employee’s actions and attitudes every day. Empathy is a soft skill that is essential to building a supportive culture; if co-workers cannot (or will not) understand and have compassion for each other, trust cannot be established and motivation falters. When people feel understood and that colleagues care about them, they are more likely to be loyal to the organization and feel compelled to go over and above their job description (the exact opposite of “quiet quitting.”)

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Providing forums in which employees are encouraged to share their challenges or offer suggestions for positive change is one way to establish a culture of trust and support. When everyone believes they have a safe space to ask questions or raise concerns in a regularly scheduled forum, they become invested in working toward the organization’s common goals.

Open, honest communication is a two-way street, and department leads and managers can proactively foster a supportive culture by having explicit discussions about team norms. This will help alleviate incorrect assumptions about expectations for staff, especially those in more junior-level roles. For example, before an employee goes out on vacation, a manager can directly tell them they are not expected to read or respond to emails during their time off, and if something is truly necessary, their manager will text them. This is liberating for employees, who may feel compelled to stay connected to work during PTO, and helps create more trust in their colleagues and managers.

Expand professional development

Our recent poll of workers who had either quit their job or planned to quit revealed that a lack of career growth (83%) was a leading factor in that decision. A companion report found that three in four employers (77%) reported that sponsored education offerings are a differentiator in recruitment and retention. Combined, it seems that encouraging employees to expand their skill set and prepare for the next level of their career is another way organizations can improve the engagement and retention of their workforce.

According to the same report, most (78%) employers that offer paid or sponsored education benefits say they offer the flexibility needed to pursue additional educational opportunities. Managers and HR teams can partner to identify personalized professional development paths for individual employees, designate specific “Learning Days” or even tie the completion of a set of courses to a promotion or transfer.

As organizations navigate this new working environment and employees begin to heal from a stressful two years, staff engagement is more important than ever. Empowering employees to do their best work and avoid burnout requires support from across the organization. HR professionals are in a unique position to influence corporate policies that align with staff and business needs. As the quiet quitting trend gains steam, the organizations that invest time and resources into employee support and engagement will succeed in the race for talent acquisition and retention.