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Are Your People Burnt Out? Here’s How to Deal With It

Posted October 5, 2021 • Change,Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership,Organizational Culture • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.


Photo credit: iStock

My doctor is burnt out. I can see it in his physical appearance. His once healthy frame now seems hollowed out. He’s lost a significant amount of weight. His happy ‘whistle while you work’ spirit has been replaced by silence. His old smile has not exactly turned into a frown, but it is diminished and much less forthcoming.

His vibrancy is gone. And he’s not alone.

When I saw my doctor for my annual check-up a few weeks ago, he uncharacteristically complained to me about one of his other patients. He told me about an 18-year-old unvaccinated man who’d gotten Covid-19 a few days earlier, after he’d flown to Florida to party with his friends. After he’d treated this patient, my doctor told me he’d gotten so angry he’d started telling his patients, “If you don’t do your part to stay safe, don’t think your healthcare practitioners will be here for you forever. We’ll retire early the way things are going.”

While the particulars of my doctor’s experience are his own, they do not make him unique. In many fields of work around the globe, people are burnt out and ready to call it quits.

Recently, one of my mentors, the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, gave a talk about a phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation. It refers to people who are currently leaving, or planning to leave, their jobs…in droves. Some, like my doctor, are talking about early retirement, while others are actively searching for new, more satisfying jobs.

While many factors are propelling the Great Resignation, one obvious driver is that after 18 months of being pushed to our limits at work and home due to the pandemic, people are tired. And we’re valuing our time and our lives in new ways. We’ve also seen how productive we can be while working from home. People are no longer willing to put up with ‘back to the office’ policies that don’t consider their needs as caretakers, parents, and simply as human beings.

One friend recently told me about her employer’s ‘back to the office’ policy, which included an FAQ page on the institution’s website. One of the questions was “Can I work from home if my children cannot attend school due to Covid restrictions?” The answer was a simple, “No.” This infuriated – and continues to infuriate— my friend and her colleagues. It leads them to view their senior leaders as people who seem more concerned with going back to “normal” (in a world that feels anything but), than with employees’ real needs and ability to do their jobs.

As work has gotten done from home successfully for the past year and a half, when questions like “Can we still work from home?” are met with a blanket “No…Because I said so,” the leaders implementing those policies are being met with resistance and turnover. Answers that once would have been suffered through silently are now being met with the Great Resignation.

So, what’s a leader to do?

The answers are invariably dependent on your particular organization, but here’s a simple start that applies to any leader in any organization:

1.     Acknowledge that your people are your greatest asset. They have choices about where to work and the old incentives – even compelling financial ones – may no longer be worth more to people than their quality of life.

2.     Make it a priority to treat your people well. A good measure is: How would you want your own family members to be treated wherever they work? Create policies and answer people’s questions with those guidelines in mind. As we deal with widespread burnout caused by the pandemic, treating people with dignity and respect will be the key to keeping good people, which is good for people AND good for business.

3.     Learn from others’ best practices. While we’re all learning as we go, some organizations have had longer to experiment with, and refine their responses to, these issues, whether because they were already working remotely pre-pandemic, or because they’ve been a socially responsible workplace, or both. For instance, Quartz Magazine, a mission-driven global business news company, has already done some experimenting with their office policies. They have landed on a set of guidelines that have widely gotten the thumbs up from their employees, and they’ve posted their ‘back to the office’ policies online for others to copy and edit as they see fit. Use what you think might work for your organization and edit or build as needed.

Having witnessed the precariousness of life all around us, people are experiencing burnout and reprioritizing what truly matters in life in massive numbers. People are placing a higher priority on choice, flexibility and respect for their humanity. If we give it to them, we’ll have more humane and more productive places to work. If we don’t, we’d better brace ourselves for the Great Resignation.

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