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Your Best Employees Are Burning Out: A Framework for Retaining Talent

Burnout, retention and renewal of work organization are critical challenges for leaders, especially in the context of COVID-19 and an impending recession. Leaders need to ask themselves: What is it in my organization’s culture that contributes to such a high level of mental stress among my employees? Why are people leaving my organization or refusing to return to the office in such large numbers? What is my answer and how do my employees receive it?

At a time when people are becoming more demanding of where they work and employees who feel burnt out flee their jobs during the Great Resignation, business leaders must step up their game to attract and retain top talent. they need to stay competitive, productive, and consistent to get through this tumultuous time.

“Leaders must realize that their employees are their greatest assets in their quest to achieve institutional goals.”

Over the past four decades, organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to federal, state and local governments have cut benefits, pensions, job security and worker protections. These actions have saved companies trillions of dollars and increased shareholder value. Yet at what cost? While the gains were concentrated at the executive and investor levels, these cuts fostered a transactional relationship between companies and their workers.

So, it should come as no surprise that in recent years the power dynamics have shifted in favor of employees who would not forget the past transgressions of their former employers.

Generational factors and burnout

Leaders must realize that their workers are their greatest assets in their quest to achieve institutional goals. Instead of caring about employees or issuing a well-crafted public relations statement, organizations need to make sure their actions follow their words. For individuals to stay in an organization, they must have confidence in their leadership and in the organization’s mission and goals, and organizations must be sensitive to the needs of their employees.

Workers’ sentiments will vary by generation, depending on each group’s experience in the workplace, including everyone from the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers to Gen X, Millennials and Generation Z. Consider these differences in employment conditions for different generations:

Employers have given the silent generation substantial benefits. Due to the agreement between employee and employer forged at the start of the industrial age, the silent generation, born between 1928 and 1945, generally benefited from guaranteed pensions. The ability of companies to provide pensions created a workforce that remained loyal to the company. Labor incentives were further strengthened by strong union protection. Additionally, employers focused on maintaining a more competitive minimum wage, making sure their employees could actually live off those paychecks, and making sure the amount grew with inflation. All of these environmental factors have generated a permanent, decades-long professional workforce that has experienced less burnout and often remained happy at one company for their entire careers.

Companies have treated baby boomers as a social responsibility. After World War II, baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, benefited from the prosperity of their parents. They began their working years with guaranteed pensions, strong union protections, a more competitive minimum wage, and spent several decades at one company. However, when their working years ended, the pensions disappeared in favor of a new instrument, the 401k retirement plan. Corporate lobbyists influenced new policies that ultimately weakened essential union protections and caused the minimum wage to stagnate, failing to keep up with inflation. Baby boomers experienced conditions in which companies began to identify their staff as their greatest responsibility, triggering layoffs and layoffs near retirement age so companies could avoid paying pensions. Additionally, instead of staying with one company for life, it has become the norm for employees to change companies and roles over the course of their careers. This, in turn, increased personal stress levels and employee burnout began to creep in.

“Generation X entered the workforce after the tumultuous economic recovery of the 1970s and took advantage of the roaring 90s, to experience the dot.com crash, followed by the financial crisis of 2008.”

Generation X was expected to change jobs. Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, became beneficiaries of the 401k, weakened union protections, an uncompetitive minimum wage, continuous layoffs and layoffs near retirement and an expectation of corporate change and role in their career. Generation X entered the workforce after the tumultuous economic recovery of the 1970s and took advantage of the roaring 90s, to experience the dot.com collapse, followed by the financial crisis of 2008. The need for employees to changing jobs, along with the requirement to increase shareholder value by downsizing, has created a perverse incentive for employers to exponentially increase the pressure on employees. This contributed to widespread employee burnout.

Millennials and Gen Z focus on social good. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, work with the 401k, weakened union protections, uncompetitive minimum wage, layoffs and layoffs near retirement, expectation of changing companies and roles five to seven times during their career, higher minimum entry requirements in companies and low salaries. These generations have expressed greater interest in entrepreneurship and increased attention to environmental and social good.

It’s time for leaders to dig deeper

In this new climate, job seekers have more power and flexibility to find a job. Therefore, organizations and leaders need to reassess their value proposition to attract and retain talent. Each generation has experienced burnout differently. Organizations currently include multiple generations of employees simultaneously and need to understand how each group may perceive the incentives companies offer to encourage people to stay with an organization.

In June, Business Insider reported that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz begged workers to get back to the office, saying, “I’m going to get down on my knees and do whatever you want.” While more than a few employees would like to see a CEO crawl on his knees, the key lesson here is that Starbucks employees vote with their feet.

“Employees want real change, not performative actions.”

Schultz is not the only business leader to take up this challenge. Many employees do not want to return to the office. So what should business leaders do?

First, as a leader, it helps to listen to people in your organization and work together to develop a plan. Consulting firms and the media conducted surveys and interviews about return-to-office policies and future work. Leaders need to leverage easily accessible data to better understand their employees.

Second, employees want real change, not performative actions. Schultz offering to take a knee does not bring the real change that employees need. Instead, Schultz should focus on things he can bring to the workplace to make it more appealing to workers coming into the office. These elements could take many forms, such as daycare offers, meal and snack options, yoga studios, or other services that encourage people to come together in person.

Using TRIAL to combat burnout

As organizations evolve and innovate during this rapid transition, they must continually experiment and pilot initiatives on a trial basis until they see what works to mitigate burnout. . Leaders would benefit from leveraging what I call the TRIAL framework:

Trust: Leaders must recognize that trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. They must therefore communicate realistic expectations and frequently check that their business objectives are consistent with what employees are reasonably capable of accomplishing.

Reflection: In order to move an organization forward, leaders need to reflect on past activities to avoid making the same mistakes again. One way to codify this thinking is to develop an after action review process, a structured debriefing that the U.S. military leverages to analyze what happened, why it happened, and how it could be done better.

Insight: Leaders must draw the best ideas from their teammates and obtain their ideas in order to produce the best results for the organization.

Stock: If the team is aligned on goals, it will be much easier to take appropriate actions that are tied to meeting or even exceeding expectations that were previously communicated.

Conduct: Leadership is a contact sport. This requires leaders to be present, engaged and accountable.

Above all, workers need to trust that the organizations they work for are looking out for them. Trust cannot be bought or sold on Amazon. It’s not attached to a well-crafted email, or simply accompanied by a reactionary bonus, especially at a time when pay disparity, burnout and employee retention are at the forefront. Trust is earned the hard way through consistency of words and actions that repeatedly show that companies respect and care about their most important assets: their people.

about the authors

Hise O. Gibson is a senior lecturer in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School. Shawn Wilson is a technology operations leader and former management consultant specializing in growth strategy and operational efficiency. Gibson and Wilson both served as officers in the U.S. military, peaking at the ranks of colonel and captain, respectively.

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.

Image: Unsplash/Arif Riyanto

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