The one skill every manager should build to reduce workplace burnout

Debra Harvey, Operations Manager, World Travel Protection

Workplace managers have become the frontline fighters of an emerging burnout epidemic, according to researchers and business leaders around the world.

Global survey data released by Asana found almost three quarters of Australians and New Zealanders suffered burnout at some stage in 2020, with the average office worker’s overtime nearly doubling and just 15% of Australian workers feeling heard by their organisation.

While the risk of burnout is increasing among more regular parts of the workforce, workers employed in high-pressure roles, such as hospital workers and medical assistance providers, face a greater risk of mental exhaustion, fatigue and feeling burned out.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated this situation

The risks presented by burnout, which can lead to greater staff turnover, disengagement and low productivity, pose a growing challenge for middle and senior managers.

They must balance looking after their team with increasing business pressure to deliver, sometimes while working with altered staffing capacity and budgets due to the pandemic.

It’s a lesson that Debra Harvey, Operations Manager for travel risk and emergency assistance provider World Travel Protection (WTP), knows all too well.

WTP’s Command Centre is a hive of intensive case management with staff helping customers on the phone through confronting and traumatic medical scenarios during the day and night.

Ms Harvey says these calls can take a mental and emotional toll if not managed correctly.

Fluctuating border closures, mandatory COVID-19 testing and diminished airline capacities are also everyday hurdles that Ms Harvey’s team must overcome.

“Strangely enough, it’s not those big dramatic world events, like helping people through a natural disaster, that get you,” says Ms Harvey.

“More often it’s the smaller cases, like someone’s mother dying, that trigger you in surprising ways. Every person has a limit for how many difficult calls they can take.”

The key is to foster a culture where emotional intelligence is an asset and not a weakness.

“The power of empathy is one of the most important soft skills our team members can have. It’s so crucial for them to be able to understand our customers, and it’s just as important how we apply that to our own employees as well.”

Kate Everett from Benestar, a leading Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider of health and wellbeing services for organisations and their employees, says individuals are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of fatigue and fragility in mental health.

“Calls to our support line from people needing immediate and urgent support increased by 240% last year,” says Mrs Everett, Head of Clinical Quality and Innovation for the company.

“There are several things leaders can do to prevent burnout among staff, and leaders on the frontline are often the first ones to recognise when people are not coping.” 

“Preventative measures include creating a supportive environment, increasing check-ins with members and promoting wellness resources like counselling sessions available through EAPs.”

Ms Harvey’s focus as a manager is to know her team, organise one-on-one catch ups with employees to help her know what potential topics or triggers could prove to be distressing.

Crucially, this isn’t to shield or limit her staff, but to help identify when additional mental or emotional support might be needed if the employee is having a hard day.

She encourages managers to be curious and ask questions to really get to the issue at hand.

“A key mistake made by many managers is to work with assumptions, which can lead to misunderstandings and employees feeling like their views are not being heard or don’t matter.”

“Regularly remind staff about access to Employee Assistance Programs which provide counselling and other services that many employees tend to forget or are wary of using them.”

The need to meet performance indicators like answering calls within 20 seconds at WTP means the rest of the team will chip in if a staff member takes a break as per the company culture.

“The pandemic means many businesses are talking about flexibility to work from home, but this seems to shift the onus onto employees to manage their own mental health.”

“We should also be talking about flexibility while in the office, including the need to step out and away from our work too,” says Ms Harvey.

Debra Harvey’s management tips to reduce burnout

Schedule one-on-one conversations 

Employees will feel more comfortable talking about workplace issues, share their perspective on what is happening in the wider team which will build trust between you and your staff.

Don’t take burnout as a reflection on you 

Managers can go on the defensive, viewing staff burnout as a reflection on their management style when burnout is caused by a myriad of factors in and outside of the workplace.

Set the standard 

When managers reply to emails late at night and work weekends, they set the standard of the wider team which can place workplace pressure on employees and lead to burnout.

Try to set an example to your team on what a healthy workplace should look like.

Be an umbrella 

Good managers protect their team’s time and shield them from unnecessary additional demands that might distract or cause additional stress.

Be an advocate for your team and say ‘no’ or push back on additional demands.

Encourage flexible work arrangements 

Life is messy, and sometimes staff may need to arrive late, leave early or work from home.

Communicate with your team to inform them about flexible options that are on the table and this could help them to reduce stress at the workplace or elsewhere in their lives.