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.

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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.

We’ve Reached the Tipping Point for Remote Work

We might see a day when towns get into bidding wars for remote workers instead of a company’s HQ.

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“Canadians just aren’t work online people,” the twenty-something assured me, as he charged my credit card for my new phone. “I wish more people moved to Canada like you. You already have a job and you didn’t even take it from a Canadian.” 

I thanked the man for my cell phone and left without arguing with him. It was 2014, I was fresh off the plane from California, and I didn’t want my first action as a Canadian expat to be telling a random stranger why he was wrong.

And make no mistake, he was wrong. Remote work is a world wide trend that shows no signs of disappearing. In Canada, 47% of employees work outside of an office for at least half of the week. And according to International Workplace Group (IWG), over half of employees across the globe work outside of their main office at least 2.5 days per week. While the overall number of full time remote workers world-wide is relatively low — Owl Labs puts the number at 16% — it’s one of the fastest growing workforce segments in the US.

While we can probably discount the idea that everyone will be working remotely in the future, it’s pretty clear that remote work — in some form — is here to stay. 

The People Are Asking for It

“It turns out your friend is only MOSTLY dead.”

In the movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ Miracle Max asks the (mostly) dead Wesley “What’s so important? What do you have that’s worth living for?” Wesley had a strong reason for wanting to live. While today’s knowledge workers may not be motivated by true love, many of them have compelling reasons to pursue a flexible work schedule.

The survey from IWG found that “83% of global respondents report that the ability to work flexibly at least some of the time would act as clincher in case of indecision between two similar job offers.” Even people who don’t want to work from home 100% of the time benefit from a work from home policy. No one wants to use a vacation day to wait for the plumber to show up. Working from home means you don’t have to.

While work flexibility is a perk for some, for others, it’s a requirement. For a certain segment of the workforce, remote jobs mean the difference between working and unemployment. Some people have health conditions that they can only manage from home. Others must move every few years to follow a spouse. 

These folks are highly motivated to learn the necessary skills to work remotely and find employers who will accommodate their needs. Employers who are truly interested in diversity and inclusion should consider remote work as one way to further that goal. The technology already exists to let you transition to an ‘office optional’ approach. 

The Technology is Already Here

I was once at a party where another guest said, after learning that I work remotely, “We could never do that where I work. I can’t do my job online.” It’s absolutely valid for people to say that they don’t want to work from home. However, there’s only a subset of knowledge worker jobs that can’t be done remotely. 

Just ask 100% remote companies like Automattic, Buffer,and FlexJobs. Virtual Private Networks, video conferencing, and collaborative project management boards allow companies to conduct business no matter where employees sit. Everything from accounting to people management can be done online. 

In some cases, when people say ‘you can’t do that remotely,’ what they really mean is ‘I don’t know how to do that remotely.’ Many of us learned how to perform work in a traditional office. We developed skills that depended on seeing each other. ‘Going remote’ means relearning how to communicate, how to get what you need, and how to motivate people to do things. 

You might not want to relearn these skills. You may not have a choice. Knowledge work CAN be done online, and knowledge workers know it. Business leadership might keep certain tasks in a physical office, but there needs to be a well-thought-out rationale for doing so. ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’ isn’t enough. Not when workers can interview for a remote job without leaving home. And not when they may have other, more powerful reasons for doing so. 

Cities are Getting Expensive

I love the city by the bay, but I’ll only be a visitor for the foreseeable future. Photo by Zoe Pappas on Pexels.com

I left California in 2014 to move to Canada. I can’t afford to move back. Not if I want to give my children a good life. My hometown is so expensive that people making six figures are living in their cars. While the state needs to resolve the livability crisis, remote work can provide an escape hatch for employees who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to move. 

People are more productive when they aren’t worried about feeding their children or losing their homes. They’re happier when they can break free from long commutes and spend time building a life outside of work. For companies based in expensive areas, providing a remote work option is the ethical thing to do. Not everyone will choose remote work, but for those that do, it can dramatically improve their quality of life. 

This is true not just for employees, but also for rural geographies.

Revitalizing Rural Communities

People have been leaving the country to move to the city for hundreds of years. The rate of movement is on the rise, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that nearly 3 million people are moving to cities every week. This has left many rural areas without the needed population to keep their economies afloat. 

A few of these rural areas are attempting to reverse the tide. Towns inside and outside of the US will pay you to move in. Some are even specifically targeting remote workers. In January of 2019, the state of Vermont started accepting applications for the Remote Worker Grant Program. If you work for an out of state employer, Vermont would like to give you $10,000 over two years to move there. 

Governments aren’t the only entities trying to revitalize rural communities. There are a growing number of grassroots movements dedicated to bringing remote work to small towns and villages around the world. Grow Remote is just one of these community-based groups. Their mission is to help repopulate rural areas, to employ those already there, and to give remote workers a connection to the larger community. 

It’s a little too soon to tell if these initiatives will bring people back to rural communities. CNN reports that as of May 14, Vermont has approved 33 remote work grants and people are moving in. And rural communities aren’t the only ones trying to attract remote workers. Tulsa, Oklahoma has followed in Vermont’s footsteps and is also offering $10,000 if you move into the city for a year. 

Will people stay and put down roots? Only time will tell. If these programs help Tulsa and Vermont to grow their tax base, it’s likely more places will set up programs to attract remote workers. 

The man who sold me my cell phone had one thing right. More people should have the opportunity to move to a new place, secure in the knowledge that they have a way to support themselves when they get there. Fortunately, a tool with this much potential isn’t going anywhere. As more companies embrace a flexible work policy, people will have the opportunity to improve their quality of life while potentially revitalizing their communities for years to come. 

Are In Person Retreats Necessary for Remote Workers?

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to see the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams.

Photo by Rebrand Cities

I finally got around to unpacking my suitcase from my last business trip. The presents for the kids came out right away. The rest of the stuff sat in the suitcase for a week while I picked up the pieces of my work/home life and tried to catch up.

I’m convinced that Newton came up with his first law of motion (objects at rest tend to stay at rest) because he was procrastinating about unpacking his suitcase. The inertia on that suitcase was high, let me tell you. However, I managed to break out of it on Saturday after breakfast. In the quiet that comes from the gentle tedium of putting things away, I couldn’t help but wonder if my work retreat was really necessary.

I loved it, I enjoyed it, and as an employee I want to go every year, forever. But was it necessary? At Kaplan, I decide when it makes sense to run a class or cancel it. This isn’t a straightforward task with check boxes. Instead I use a framework to make decisions. Deciding to hold a company retreat is also complicated, and it makes sense to develop a framework for deciding when to hold an in person retreat and when to design a remote retreat. Here are some non financial factors to consider.

Is Your Company New to Remote?

In the Fall of 2010 Kaplan transformed from a company with full time staff working in centers into a company whose staff worked from home. While we were motivated to succeed, most of us lacked prior experience working remotely. We really needed the annual retreat we went to that summer. Over the course of 3 days we built relationships with our colleagues in the way we were used to. Those face to face meetings built goodwill. That goodwill carried us while we learned the skills we needed to succeed in our new working medium.

If your company recently went remote, or employs people new to remote work, consider bringing your people together. Your employees are likely hungry for face to face human interaction with their colleagues. Hosting an in person event is the relationship equivalent of feeding cheese to a starving person. It’s a stimulus rich experience and will leave your employees more satisfied with both the company and their colleagues. Veteran remote workers like retreats too, but just as babies need to eat more often, remote newbies need to meet more often.

Does Work Get Done Efficiently?

You can look at this question in multiple ways. Does information flow freely within and between departments? Are colleagues willing to lend a hand to meet company goals? Are people getting promoted from a variety of departments, or is it always the same half dozen players? How high is your employee churn rate?

It is nearly impossible to build an innovative, disruptive company if teams silo information. It’s hard to stay agile if the next generation of thought leaders feels invisible, because you’ll spend a significant amount of time training their replacements when they leave.

Use Retreats to Resolve Interpersonal Issues

In person retreats aren’t magic bullets. But they do give you a chance to audit the personal dynamics that play out within and across teams. It’s just as important to notice the teams that sit together and ignore everyone else as it is to notice which teams never sit together. If you already know that there’s a problem between certain departments or people, use the event as the first step in an intervention.

Some interpersonal problems can be resolved simply by making people spend time with each other. It’s hard to continue thinking that Joe from sales is an idiot, for example, if you have a conversation about his four step process for overcoming customer resistance.

Realistically, not all interpersonal issues will go away just because you bring colleagues together. You may, in fact, decide that Joe is still an idiot. But if people know they have to talk to each other face to face on a regular basis, it does tend to keep things more civil.

I’ve seen this affect both inside and outside of work. I live in a neighborhood where people attend the same community barques, where children go to the same schools, and where you are very likely to see your neighbor at the community laundromat. We have occasional blowups on the neighborhood Facebook group, but we don’t have internet trolls. It’s hard to behave too badly when you know you’ll have to deal with the person you’re yelling at later.

Use Retreats to Assess Your Future Leaders

If you think your company lacks a deep well of talent to draw from, spend time with your line staff. You may discover that you have plenty of talent–the problem is that your all-stars lack visibility.

There are a couple of ways to use an in-person event to assess your bench. You could hold a couple of round table discussions with people your management team label high-potential. If you can’t meet with everyone, you can also do this more organically by sitting with different groups of people during mealtime, and engaging in conversation.

Incidentally, most employees know they should say something intelligent to impress the boss. Not everyone can come up with something witty before the first coffee of the day. If you’re a leader and you choose to sit with people who are lower in the power structure than you, it’s your job to set the tone and put them at ease. You’ll get a more accurate impression of someone if you don’t spook them.

In-person retreats are a great way to get a feel for your remote employees, and to course correct where needed. That’s not to say that in-person retreats are only for companies that need an intervention. High-performing remote teams benefit from getting together. Incidental conversations at dinner can lead to an innovative product down the line. But if you’re on the fence about whether the benefits of a retreat are worth the expense, you might use the state of your interpersonal dynamics to make your decision.

How Much Time Do You Have to Rededicate People to the Company Mission?

Think of company retreats through the metaphor of food. Remote events are like fruits and vegetables. With planning and skill, you can turn them into tasty interludes that feed your employees’ need for human interaction. Like fruits and vegetables, you need a steady stream of them on a regular basis to keep the company juices flowing.

In-person events are like steak and cheese (or peanut butter for my vegan friends)–you need fewer steaks than carrots to hit your calories for the day. Was it a rough year? Are you pivoting? Did you empty the company well of goodwill? An in-person event can fill the well up again very quickly. If the prevailing company culture is competitive and demanding, then in-person retreats can be one way to keep things on the right side of the functional/dysfunctional line.

Does Everyone Need to Go?

I work for a large company. So large, that we stopped holding company-wide gatherings around 2014. Instead, different groups gather together on an as-needed basis. If you can’t swing an all-hands retreat, maybe certain departments should get together. If you’re worried about creating hard feelings, plan a separate remote program for the employees who don’t get to go. In some instances it may make sense to hold an annual meet up and rotate who meets up.

It didn’t take very long to unpack my suitcase from my business trip. I like to travel lightly (with plenty of room for presents for the kids). But I’ll feel the benefits of this work trip for months to come. While I am a veteran employee, I am new to this particular team. Meeting together with my new-to-me colleagues has already made my remote day to day duties easier and more pleasant.

Do remote employees need in person retreats? This one did. Yours may too. Keep this framework in mind as you decide whether the benefits are worth the expense. By thinking through your answers to these questions you can come up with a meeting cadence–in person and remote–that makes sense for your particular situation.