We Can’t Solve Burnout Culture with an Email Ban

Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.

Photo by Ashutosh Jaiswal from Pexels

People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.

The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.

The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.

To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.

There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.

Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.

Failing to Disconnect from Work is Also Harmful

Working all the time isn’t as instantly (and spectacularly) destructive as pounding your hand with a mallet, but it’s still harmful. People who don’t disconnect enough are prime candidates for burnout. According Salvagioni, et all 2017 in the article ‘Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies:

Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years. 

These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.

How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout

Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.

It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.

As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.

However, there are some things you CAN assume.

Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking

People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.

If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.

Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do

Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.

This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.

For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.

I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.

Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.

Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.

Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.

One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:

Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree

  1. In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
  2. I have a reasonable workload.
  3. My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.

You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.

Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People

Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.

Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.

I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.

Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.

Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps

When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.

Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.

Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.

Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.

What I’m Learning About Psychological Safety

A tree with autumn foliage next to a beach.
Autumn at a Vancouver beach.

Happy mid-October everyone! Vancouver has reset back to normal, and we’re in for a week of rain. I spent a large portion of the long weekend soaking in the last of the beautiful Autumn sunshine before the rain moved in. It was Thanksgiving in Canada this past Monday and I was thankful for the weather. My kids found a leaf pile and I discovered that I never want to get into a leaf fight with them. They take no prisoners.

I also participated in the first ever Remote Work 5k, put together by Cantilever and Workplaceless. It was big fun. We all jumped into a zoom room at the beginning of the race, and then ran the course of our choice. I won recognition for Coldest run! I hope this is the first of many such virtual races because it was fun completing a 5k with my fellow remote workers. Some of us ran, some walked or hiked, and at least one of us swam the distance.

I also spent time studying psychological safety. A quick internet search showed that I should start with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Her research is at the foundation of this subject. This is the link to the article if you want to read what I’m reading.

This article represents some of the early work Edmondson has done on the subject, and few things stood out:

Psychological safety leads to learning behaviour.

When I started this research I thought psychological safety led to high performing teams. Based on what the article hyperlinked above, it really has more to do with team learning. A team that can learn quickly may lead to high performance under certain conditions. If your team deals with a high degree of uncertainty and complexity, then you want people who can learn and adapt. Most (if not all) knowledge work falls into this category. However, if your team doesn’t work in these sorts of conditions then learning isn’t a good predictor of high performance.

As an aside, I believe we should create psychologically safe spaces at work anyway. It’s the right thing to do. But the problems you’ll prevent are turnover and burnout.

Context support and leadership can impact psychological safety.

This one sounded like a real no-brainer to me. If you give your team the tools and information they need (context support) and act as a coach who sets a direction and helps people get there, then they should feel safe to learn and experiment.

The article I read focused more on whether psychological safety leads to learning, so Edmondson didn’t spend a lot of time proving that these were THE factors that lead to feeling safe. She merely said that there seemed to be a positive relationship between those factors and a healthy team dynamic. Still, there were still some interesting details. I was surprised to see that there were teams who felt safe even if one of these factors was missing. She concludes by saying that more research was needed on what causes psychological safety.

I suspect that it’s a lot harder to experience psychological safety in the remote workforce if you have a micro-managing boss. This paper was written in 1999 and Edmondson studied co-located teams. It’s entirely possible for a team to bond over the shared experience of a bad boss if they work in an office. I’ve lived that experience. The boss says something regrettable, and the team makes eye contact behind his back. Next thing you know everyone is taking lunch together so they can compare notes and vent.

It’s a lot harder to do that as a remote worker. So many of your interactions happen one on one. It’s one thing to make eye contact with your coworker when you share an experience. It’s quite another to call your co worker and ask if they like the boss. I have some theories about how to create psychological safety in the remote workforce despite having a bad boss. I can’t wait to see if some else has studied this as I continue my research.

Do you work in a team that is remote and psychologically safe? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on this post or contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you.