Have you recently felt exhausted for no apparent reason? How about having trouble focusing at work, being unable to relax even during your leisure time at home, or struggling to shut off your brain when trying to sleep?
If you can relate to any of these scenarios, you may be feeling the symptoms of burnout - and there's a good chance that your employees are feeling it too.
According to a survey from 2021 of 1,501 adult workers in the U.S., employees reported:
- a lack of motivation, energy, and interest in their work (29%)
- emotional exhaustion related to work (32%)
- physical fatigue related to work (44% - a 38% increase since 2019)
Although the coronavirus pandemic can take a portion of the blame, the truth is that many people have been working far beyond their physical and mental capabilities for some time. Folks are experiencing burnout, and it’s taking a significant toll on their motivation.
How do you keep employees motivated when they’re already mentally fatigued? How do you ensure that employees feel supported and engaged in maintaining productivity?
Beating Burnout: Tips for How to Keep Employees Engaged, Motivated, and Productive
- ASK THEM WHAT THEY NEED.
Often managers will assume what employees need rather than asking. Unfortunately, those assumptions will miss the mark. Managers aren’t living the same day-to-day work lives as their employees (and vice versa). Having open and honest conversations with employees can be a challenging part of the process. Still, it’s crucial to discover the root of any issues, whether within the company or between colleagues and managers. Communication is key for gaining a clear understanding of where effective changes can be made.
If you’re concerned that employees may feel intimidated to give honest input, send a survey that allows them to select from multiple-choice answers anonymously. The feedback you receive is a great place to start.
- SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGE POSITIVE BALANCE AT WORK.
Rest is just as important when it comes to motivation and productivity. One study used a program application to measure the time employees spent on various tasks and compared that data to their productivity levels throughout the day.
The results were interesting, albeit unsurprising: those scrupulous about taking short, intermittent breaks throughout the work day were significantly more productive. This was compared to their coworkers who clocked long, unbroken hours in front of their computers.
Many employees feel guilt or shame about taking breaks, especially when the culture of work considers rest “lazy” or unproductive. When employees see their coworkers or supervisors working late or eating lunch at their desks, it’s a silent communication about the values that are expected of them. Communicate to your team that your work culture supports breaks, and work to remove any negative stigma at your company that is associated with rest.
- STRENGTHEN YOUR PTO POLICY.
In 2020, American workers still left about one-third of their paid time-off unused in the throes of a pandemic when stress was higher than ever. At the same time, over 60% of respondents reported that they desperately needed a vacation.
In a New York Times piece, Ariela Safira, CEO of the mental health care start-up, Real, spoke about her decision to give employees a week off every quarter.
“We live in this world that’s like, work work work until we’re nearly burned out, and then we take a vacation...The point of vacation isn’t to save your burnout. Offer yourself preventive care."
- Ariela Safira, for the New York Times piece “Take a Vacation. Boss’s Orders.” by Emma Goldberg
Offering more PTO or mandatory time off (as long as people aren’t doing work when they’re supposed to be resting) is something to consider offering to increase productivity. If there is concern about employees abusing a more open policy, consider the stat above again - many employees do not take their vacation time. If it supports their health, and their ability to work and function well in their job, then what is there to lose from giving it a try?
- REMIND THEM ABOUT THE "WHY."
A dentist will always ask you if you are flossing when you go for a teeth cleaning. You guiltily say no, but you flossed that morning before your appointment. The dentist tells you that you really should floss, then sends you on your way. Does that make you feel motivated to start flossing? Probably not.
Now consider: what if your dentist had explained the purpose of flossing, why it’s so important, and then gave you tips and tools to help you succeed?
This is an important way to view work and motivation. Why does this work matter to the company? What does it mean for the employee when the company does well or when the employee performs well? Why is their work important to other team members and co-workers?
Supporting employees with foundational reasons as to why their role is important, then giving them ways to succeed in that role will go a long way in helping productivity and reaching goals.
- PROVIDE MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES.
Does your company health plan cover online or in-person therapy? If not, it may be worth looking into other tools or subscriptions that support the mental health of your employees. Burnout can also be linked to an employee’s personal history, such as issues with perfectionism, people-pleasing, the need to overachieve or overperform to prove their worth, and the belief that working longer hours equates to a better status.
These tendencies can be navigated with support from professionals.
- SUPPORT EMPLOYEES OUTSIDE OF WORK.
Burnout, fatigue, and decreased motivation isn’t just a symptom of work itself - it is also connected to everything that goes on outside of work, such as:
- Getting kids ready for school before work, coordinating pick-ups and drop-offs, and getting them to doctor’s appointments
- Frequently working late from home
- Lack of healthy meal planning due to fatigue
- Lack of exercise due to fatigue
- Poor sleep habits
- Not enough connection to work values
Many companies may see these struggles as a problem of the employees rather than something an employer should solve. However, the day-to-day busyness of modern life is a struggle that many workers share. If you want to boost motivation and ensure the dedication and loyalty of your employees, consider what changes you can make to support more balance.
Changes to make in the workplace to help employees outside of work (as solutions to the problems listed above):
- Flexibility with time in-office and working remotely
- Communicate company values, and encourage respect for “working” hours and “off-work” hours, or encourage scheduled email sends for things that can be handled the following day
- Provide an array of healthy snacks at the office
- Start a monthly wellness challenge to encourage more exercise with healthy competition between colleagues
Consider allowing flexible work hours to promote more natural sleep that works with their chronotype: allow employees that are natural “night owls” to begin work slightly later and work a bit later, and “early birds” to start slightly earlier and leave work earlier
- See above for why the “why” is important
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It grows over time and compounds as we take on more and more while continuing to ignore signs of fatigue. If employees constantly feel tired or unmotivated, we must reexamine company practices and take action to support a healthier work environment. When burnout is addressed head-on, it can be reversed and lead to more motivated employees.
Employees are whole people leading full lives - not cogs in a machine built solely for work. When you offer them a work atmosphere that promotes a healthier balance in their everyday lives, they can devote more energy to their work and feel more fulfilled at the same time. Happy employees are happier people, more productive workers, and more valuable to your business.
American Psychological Association: "Burnout and stress are everywhere." Abramson, Ashley. Jan 1, 2022.
WebMD. "Burnout: Symptoms and Signs." Brennan, Dan, MD. Dec 3, 2020.
Sleep Foundation. “Chronotypes.” Pacheco, Danielle. Apr 29, 2022.
The New York Times. “Take a Vacation. Boss’s Orders.” Goldberg, Emma. Dec 24, 2021.
Business News Daily. “The Key to Increasing Productivity? Employee Breaks." Daniel, Chad. Mar 3, 2022.
Quartz at Work. “There's an optimal way to structure your day - and it's not the 8-hour workday." Dr. Bradberry, Travis. Mar 4, 2019.