The World Health Organisation now officially recognizes workplace ‘burnout’ as an occupational phenomenon, this is the first time it’s being directly linked in its classification of diseases as a work hazard. Why has it become such a prominent issue?
If you look at the last ten years of the global economy, you’ll see it’s been a pretty wild ride. The economy had nearly collapsed by 2009, and since then it’s been rebuilt to new heights. That was the same year when smartphone and social media adoption began accelerating rapidly, and these technologies put enormous pressure on brands to move far more quickly than ever before.
Brands were expected to deliver amazing customer experiences and drive revenue from new, digital channels. In fact, some people call our current era the “Post-Digital Era” because consumer expectations have reached a point where a rapid digital experience is a barrier to entry into any market, meaning brands that can’t deliver, likely one won’t survive. These new forces have put pressure on workers to stay connected to their employers via their devices from anywhere.
Unfortunately, technology has developed faster than etiquette. There’s still a perception that because we can connect with our work 24/7, that we must. Even when you’re not actively working, notifications and vibrations from phones are a constant reminder that there’s work to be done. After a decade, all this stress has proven to be unsustainable to the point that countries, like France and Japan, have instituted right-to-disconnect legislation and other reforms to help employees find balance.
What role do you think business leaders should play in managing employee burnout?
There has been a proliferation of tools that were designed to improve employee flexibility, but they’ve since reached a point of diminishing returns where instead of consolidating communications, they are overwhelming us with messages and notifications. Business leaders need to think proactively about the role technology plays in the stress of their employees and try to streamline their stacks to make sure technology is supporting your team, and it’s not just another distraction or burden.
Rather than enabling your team to work 24/7, your technology should encourage flexibility and allow employees to disconnect. Leaders need to lead by example on this front as well, and support boundaries for their teams. In a survey we conducted about stress in the workplace, over a quarter (28 percent) of UK workers said receiving texts or emails from their boss outside of work hours has a high impact on their stress levels. Of course, this also means organizations need to adopt better practices for planning projects, so there’s less need for last-minute scrambling to hit goals.
What role does enterprise technology play in relation to employee stress and happiness?
When information is structured and accessible to people who need it to do their jobs, enterprise technology can reduce stress and accelerate work at the same time. People like to be productive, and they get frustrated when they feel technology isn’t enabling it. But when technology gets in the way of productivity, it’s going to add to stress – and there are a few common ways that technology prevents productivity.
- Communication overload: There’s so much communication going on within a system or across a stack of systems that it’s nearly impossible to separate the signal from the noise;
- Fragmentation: You spend a good chunk of your day trying to find information that you’re pretty sure you’ve seen – you’re just not sure where. This slows down projects and causes teams to operate off different sources of information, meaning some may be outdated, incomplete, or irrelevant;
- Usability: Technology that is difficult or slow to use, which leads to frustration for anyone trying to operate it. In today’s post-digital age, enterprise technology should be as intuitive as the personal apps we all use daily on our phones.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of reducing stress and frustration around execution. We recently conducted a survey that found that Collaborative Work Management (CWM) software users in the UK were 61 percent more likely than non-users to say they have a “very good” relationship with their managers. They were also 152 percent more likely than non-users to say their company’s mission resonated with them “very strongly,” which goes to show that if you can enable people to work smoothly, they’re going to find happiness in the workplace.
How can companies declutter their tech stack to help address employee burnout?
A decade ago, bottom-up adoption of technology was a fast-growing trend, and as a result, companies went through a period with a vast array of overlapping and redundant technology that varied from team to team. It was a good trend at the time in that it re-engaged workers when enterprise technology was woefully outdated, but it led to problems with privacy, security, and information fragmentation.
CIOs need to audit their systems and see how many apps are in use within their teams and examine the gaps created by those systems. It’s in those gaps that painful, manual processes exist for workers who need to ensure information is synced between them.
In an ideal world, the various teams in a company will plan projects and collaborate in a single, unified solution. Realistically, it may take multiple systems, but they should be integrated in a way that effortlessly allows work and updates to move from team to team and from system to system to support cross-functional collaboration, and use automation to break down silos and eliminate routine tasks.
Collaborative work management helps companies provide flexible working. But how else does it help to manage employee burnout?
There are some psychological forces behind burnout, and one of them is the concept of perceived control, which means people experience less stress when they feel they have some ability to control their situation. CWM software actually does give people control over their work, giving them the ability to intake work in the way that works for them, design workflows, and also view projects and assignments in a customized way.
Another major cause of stress is the frustration of waiting for people to do what you need them to do to move projects forward. The challenge is that people often don’t know the priority of work, or have the context they need to get started. And CWM provides clarity to priorities and can keep all relevant conversations, documents, and schedules in one place.
There’s the issue of what I call hidden work – or tasks that are work but aren’t necessarily tracked in a project plan. Scheduling meetings, responding to emails, versioning documents – these are all tasks that take up a lot of our work time, whether we realize it or not. CWM can automate or reduce a lot of these functions, giving people more time to focus on the work that drives results.
Unrealistic expectations are also a struggle, and the challenge is that management doesn’t have visibility into their team’s workload. CWM platforms can provide a clear picture of an employees capacity for delegating tasks, setting deadlines, and prioritizing work. Fifty-one percent of UK workers say that receiving assignments with unrealistic deadlines has a high impact on their stress, and resource management can help keep tasks balanced across a team.
Since realistic deadlines are achievable deadlines, resource management can actually increase team capacity. They also track work further down the pike, so teams can begin planning further out and reduce last-minute panics about unseen deadlines – which should help reduce those late night emails and messages.
How can companies make sure that they’re utilising all their tools properly to make sure they’re not wasting their employee’s time?
Most workers have lived through at least one failed technology deployment in their careers, so when you introduce a new tool, there’s going to be some eye-rolling. Change management is vital in any transformational program, and especially in one that requires a daily habit change from a large number of people. You can spend a lot of money on technology and have it fall flat because no one adopts it, so you need to have a plan. Context and clarity in communicating with your workforce about why you’re implementing a change are critical.
Start with “why” and look at it through the lens of “what’s in it for me,” to help sell the idea to your workforce. The better you can define the connection between the application and outcomes (business and personal), the more supportive and enthusiastic your users will be in adopting it. We always encourage our users to start with critical use-cases – solving an immediate need first and then build upon that success to broaden the use through other use-cases.
It’s also critical that a solution is flexible enough to accommodate the diverse preferences of your workforce. You probably aren’t going to have much luck forcing people to use a tool that makes people work the way it works, you need a tool that works the way they work, but with optimizations.
Putting the work in upfront to select the right tool and deploy it effectively will pay dividends in the long term.
Andrew Filev is the founder and CEO of Wrike, a cloud-based work management platform.