Burnout has made it to the center of HR parlance. The shorthand term may be best defined as a synonym for overwork, a familiar concept to most, but thought leaders in HR pay attention to burnout because of the devastation it can reap on productivity and revenues.
That awareness appears to have reached new heights; in a recent study by Kronos, 95% of HR managers, administrators and executives surveyed said burnout is a threat to keeping employees onboard. What's more, many of them said they didn't see an end in sight.
One category of workers is a prime candidate for burnout: Billable workers. They’re used to high-pressured competition, long hours away from the office, pay tied to performance and quotas to meet and hopefully surpass. Their association with stressful work is so well-known that it seems normal. Mark Robinson, co-founder of Kimble Applications, a Boston-based professional service automation firm, says America’s billable workers are seldom in the office. But regardless of how far or how long they're in transit, they have billable hours they must track, record and report.
In a closer look at billable workers and burnout, Kimble discovered that they’re putting in long, possibly grueling hours that aren’t reflected in their timesheets. The Billing and Burnout Report found that 22% of billable workers underreport their hours. The result is that they feel overwhelmed, full of resentment and burned out.
Another unsettling discovery? Billable workers saw their excessive hours as a normal way of working. Even when burned out, 35% of workers said they were unwilling to change jobs, outnumbering the 21% who said they were passively looking elsewhere for work. Burnout would force many employees to look for another job, maybe even another vocation — but not the billable workers in the survey.
Why has working 24/7 become the norm among employees who track billable hours? Robinson says they might feel pressured by the firms they work for or by customers’ demands. “It all comes back to workers getting the job done,” he adds.
Road warriors join the stressed out billable workers
The Kimble study focused on remote billable workers. Culture IQ, an HR software management firm, has broadened its research of remote workers to include work-at-home staff, salespeople and business travelers, among others. The company wants to uncover: 1) How remote workers handle the stress of working off-site; and 2) how employers can keep them engaged.
CultureIQ’s founder and CEO Gregory Besner says that remote workers, or “road warriors,” account for 1.3 million business trips a day. Their explosive growth poses challenges for management, he told HR Dive.
Today's organizations have fewer management layers, says Besner, which means remote workers must perform their jobs with little to know supervision. This also means that employers might overlook remote workers’ problems — which can lead to burnout.
Remote workers often struggle with pulling away from assignments and other work-related activities, Besner said. The need to work excessive hours becomes a major stressor over time.
Some remote workers report feeling disconnected with the home office and “out of the loop” when opportunities like promotions, training and coveted assignments come up. And they cite poor communication as another reason for feeling isolated.
Whose fault is burnout? Employers or workers?
“Too many businesses have no idea how much they are pushing their employees, because many [workers] fudge their time to create the right optics for client bills,” says Robinson. As a result, businesses don’t know how much time it really takes to complete a task or project, and businesses don’t recognize burnout in employees when it happens, he adds.
The Kimble report found mixed feelings among respondents who felt burned out. About 35% attributed their burnout to the excessive number of hours they worked, while nearly another third (33%) said the long hours were necessary to get their work done.
"We talk about ensuring that employees are challenged, appreciated, and in sync with strategic objectives, said Mollie Lombardi, co-founder and CEO of Aptitude Research Partners, "but even when they have an intellectual or emotional engagement with their work they sometimes still feel overwhelmed."
It's that same sense of feeling overwhelmed that leads some workers to sacrifice hard-earned time off to fulfill their duties. Employees who don’t take their vacation time, leaving unused days to accumulate year after year, can’t expect to avoid burnout.
What can HR do to curb burnout?
Robinson advises employers to use the data billable workers submit to improve their working situations, if necessary, rather than just for invoicing customers. Workers might need twice as much time to complete a job than anticipated, but they may also take longer to complete a given project than necessary. Employers should ensure performance issues aren't getting in the way.
Robinson recommends that HR:
- Encourage workers to take off time to relax and regroup. Workers at Kimble Applications aren’t allowed to have more than three vacation days left over at the end of the year, and “we won’t pay for vacation days employees won’t use,” Robinson said.
- Discourage employees from always keeping devices turned on and opening and sending email day and night to help them avoid being accessible 24/7.
- Promote exercise through formal or informal company-sponsored wellness programs.
- Instruct workers to take frequent breaks so they won’t always feel overworked.
Besner says “road warriors” can experience health problems, including depression and burnout, which aren’t always visible to managers in the home office. He says HR can minimize "road warriors'" risk of burning out by:
- Training managers to look for possible signs of burnout or depression.
- Including health club and massage discounts in employee benefits plans. Besner travels often and always takes his workout clothes with him.
- Making on-site days as communication-oriented and collaborative as possible through such events as lunches and happy hours.
- Assigning new “road warriors” a mentor with whom they can talk weekly or monthly to feel connected.
- Suggesting optional competitions in the company, such as walking a certain distance to stay active.
- Recommending the use of Slack, Yammer or other mobile apps to communicate with colleagues while traveling.