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

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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.

How to Break Bad News

Whether the change is big or small, you can bring people through it with a minimum of complaining and your credibility intact
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

My husband ate a lot of hot dogs growing up. It was his mother’s go-to dinner and she always put mayonnaise on the hot dog buns. My husband hated mayonnaise as a child. He ate it, because he assumed that it was healthy. Why else would anyone eat something so disgusting?

And then one golden day he discovered the truth–mayonnaise was not healthy. He told his mother that he never wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog ever again. She agreed to his request. And then the next time they had hot dogs for dinner, and there was mayonnaise on his hot dog. When questioned about this unreasonable turn of events, the elder Mrs. Douglas said “Well there isn’t that much.”

This probably wasn’t the only time that my mother in law forgot to do something for her opinionated son. However this is the instance he remembers–and he will never let her live it down. I heard this story again last night, and it occurred to me this morning that those of us in business can learn how to break bad news from the story of the hot dogs.

Learn the Lesson of the Hot Dogs

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To put this family situation into business terms, leadership introduced an item that bothered the line staff. Staff complained, and leadership promised to fix it. Then they forgot, and excused themselves by saying that it wasn’t that big of a problem to begin with.

Most of our business problems have nothing to do with hot dogs (unless you work for a hot dog company) but many of us have run into similar situations. Perhaps IT has introduced two factor authentication or a VPN portal to your computer systems. Perhaps the payroll department now requires all payroll approvals to happen on Mondays, even on holidays, no exceptions.

Unless you own your own business, (and sometimes even then) you have probably had someone tell you that you have to do a new thing that takes more time than the old thing you used to do. If you own a process or manage people, you may also have to break the news about the new thing to the people around you.

For the purposes of this discussion we will assume that the company must implement the change. We will also assume that leadership carefully weighed all possible pros and cons before moving forward with it. Even taking these assumptions into account, there is a right way and a wrong way to communicate bad news–and deal with the fall out.

Your Audience May Not Have a Problem

Kitten pictures are cute, but don’t send them instead of an explanation for a coming change. Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Unless you know for sure that everyone in the company hates the old system, assume that some people enjoy using it. Of the people who didn’t enjoy using it, there is a subset that can perform the clunky process without thinking about it.

These folks don’t recognize that there’s a problem to solve. They will need to hear why their system or process has to change. Saying something like ‘We need to change our payroll day to align with the parent company’ may not fill anyone with joy, but your employees will appreciate knowing the actual answer.

This approach is much better than trying to get people excited about your solution to a problem they don’t have. For instance (and apologies in advance to all graphic designers) when I get an email announcing the ‘new look and feel’ coming to my favorite website, it fills me with dread. I assume this means someone is going to break (or take away) my favorite features. At the very least I’ll have to spend extra time learning where all the buttons went. The more cheerful your email, the more I assume this is going to hurt.

Watch Your Tone

Take your time crafting your message. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Most people hate delivering bad news. It’s no fun telling people things that will make them feel bad. It’s even less fun listening to people complain about it. Most of us think we’re pretty good at handling change. The sad fact is that we’re all very good at handling change so long as no one changes the things we care about. It’s human nature.

You can’t eliminate the human tendency to complain, but you can lower the number of people who feel the need to do so if you adopt the right tone. Keep these tips in mind as you prepare to tell people that something is changing.

Don’t tell people that the change is ‘no big deal.’

Let them come to that conclusion for themselves. Some changes create unforeseen consequences, and you don’t want to lose your credibility as a trusted source of information. This is especially true in larger companies, where it’s impossible to truly understand the way work flows through different departments.

For example, my work portal signs me out of the system every twenty minutes or so. This isn’t a big deal when I’m composing an email or working on a google doc because the computer saves my work. It’s a very large annoyance when I’m using a certain system that has to query a database several times over the course of a few minutes. In some cases, I have spent time adjusting numbers and fields, only to have my work erased when the system logs me out.

I don’t have polite things to say when this happens.

Assume you are dropping this change into a complex system.

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When you go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled, your pharmacist asks for a list of other medications you may be taking. This is to make sure that the prescription meant to help you doesn’t kill you when it interacts with the other drugs in your system.

When you change a work process or system, that change isn’t happening in isolation. You or your colleague may not die because of a harmful interaction between two changes, but a small change can lead to a large amount of frustration. Let’s go back to the system that signs me out every twenty minutes. I interact with this system on a computer that freezes up every time I change tabs or try to load data rich documents. Often, when I get logged out of my portal, my computer will lock up. This is also a very busy time of the year at my job, and it’s harder to work faster when my entire computer seizes.

In this case, I have a new computer wending it’s way to my home office. Relief is coming. I may have to learn to live with the twenty minute sign out, but I’ll do it on a computer that doesn’t freeze up if I look at it funny. Where possible, leadership should provide relief from the unintended consequences of changes.

Lead with empathy.

After you explain why you have to change something, acknowledge the annoyance. ‘We need to use two-factor authentication to comply with new security standards in our field. We realize this may mean you will log into the system multiple times over the course of the day. Thank you for your patience as we make our customer data safer.’

Acknowledging the annoyance helps everyone to feel seen. For many people, that’s all they need to keep them from complaining to you. Others might reach out to complain, but they will usually acknowledge that you weren’t going out of your way to ruin their lives.

In my work as an analyst, I decide who gets to run certain programs, and who doesn’t. I break bad news on a daily basis and I am here to tell you that leading with empathy is often the difference between someone flipping out, and someone telling you they understand your decision.

None of us like breaking bad news. It can be tempting to throw our hands up in the air and give up attempting to craft our message. Take time to strike the right tone, provide context for a change, and lead with empathy. If you do, you can bring people through the change with a minimum of complaining–and your credibility intact.