MBA Students Take On Burnout

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I’ve always wanted to turn elements of Career Renegade into a college/MBA course, but I never imagined one of my first exposures to students would be as the subject of an exam question for MBA students at a New York’s famed Baruch College.

Well, that’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago when Professor Cynthia A.Thompson, Ph.D., made this the last question on her final exam:

From the NYT: “Companies do not usually advertise that they expect employees to work 12-hour days; instead, they nurture a corporate culture of over-achievement and leave employees to make scheduling choices on their own” (4.16.06, p. BU9). Especially in today’s sick economy, employees are highly unlikely to complain. However, long stressful hours will ultimately lead to employee burnout, illness, and ultimately reduced job performance and life satisfaction.

Jonathan Fields, a former hedge-fund lawyer for a large-firm in NYC turned serial entrepreneur, almost worked himself to death before getting out of the law business and into yoga (he founded Sonic Yoga and has since written the best seller, Career Renegade). Imagine that you are the owner of a highly stressful but surviving business, and you want to make sure that your employees are not headed toward burnout. How would you go about diagnosing potential burnout, and what steps would you to take to ensure that your employees do not sacrifice their physical and mental well being for the sake of your company?

A friend put me in touch with Professor Thompson and we thought it would be fun to share the best answers from her students (with everyone’s permission).

So, without further ado, here they are:

Overall Best Answer to Question 7: Mikaela Lee

The sources of stress and anxiety are mounting for employees, especially when uncertainty also comes into the picture.  Increasing demands at work due to advances in technology, our ability to stay connected to work, caring for elderly parents and children and an economy in peril are some of the reasons employees are more stressed out than ever.  As the owner of a highly stressful business who does not want my employees to sacrifice their physical and mental well-being for the sake of the company, some measures need to be taken to diagnose and implement programs to help my employees achieve work-life balance.

Burnout is a psychological consequence of stress that afflicts some employees who experience high levels of stress at work over an extended period of time.  Three key signs of burnout are feelings of low personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion and depersonalization.  In diagnosing burned out employees managers can look out for these signs in addition to diminished job performance.  Managers can also look for behavioral cues such as absenteeism, turnover and disagreeable personalities in normally agreeable employees.  Exit interviews can be reviewed to uncover any potential patterns in reasons why employees chose to leave the company.  If possible, an outside consulting firm can be hired to conduct surveys in order to get feedback from employees on their feelings of burnout, stress and work-life balance concerns.

In keeping with my goal of ensuring my employees have the opportunity to retain their personal non-work lives, considering the stressful nature of their jobs, and desiring to retain my talented employee pool, I would implement the following policies, programs and benefits:

Manager Support & Training- I want to maintain a positive, employee focused environment at my company where managers support their subordinates’ personal needs and non-work priorities.  Employees need to perceive that the company respects their time away from work as well as appreciating their contributions to the company while at work.  My managers also will receive training to learn to identify signs of burn out in their subordinates, while also learning how to manage telecommuting employees and employees working a flexible schedule.

It’s also crucial for managers to communicate and disseminate information about the programs that are available to employees and also work with employees in determining what benefits will yield the greatest positive result for the employee based on their specific needs.

Telecommuting & Flexible schedules- Just the act of commuting can consume several hours of an employee’s day if they live far from work.  Understanding those few hours can be more rewarding and better spent with their families or taking care of personal appointments (especially since the cleaners never stay open late enough on weekdays) I will offer those employees whose work does not require them to be physically at the office at a set time, the option to telecommute or work out a flexible schedule that can be mutually beneficial to both the employee and the company.  If an employee would rather spend part of their Saturday at the office so they can leave a few hours early every day to pick up their kid from work, that is definitely a scenario worth exploring.

Employee Benefits such as pre-tax commuter benefits, health insurance, new parent leave (to include fathers and parents of newly adopted children) at 100% pay, Summer Friday half days, discounted gym memberships, a day care center, company parties, retirement plan, unlimited sick days, and tuition reimbursement will be part of the employee benefit package.  It’s important for employees to understand that my company celebrates their diverse needs, and that we realize this diversity requires flexibility and support in whatever way we can provide it.  Hard working employees deserve to have perks to motivate them to keep up the good work.  There will also be a company-wide intranet with all the company policies and benefits readily available for review so that employees can easily access the information.

While it is essential that employees’ non-work lives are acknowledged as important, the jobs the employees hold are important to address as well. Job-related stressors also need to be minimized to the extent possible in terms of role ambiguity and work overload.  Employees should have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how their jobs should be carried out.  Especially in new employees role ambiguity can be high so managers should take extra time in making sure new employees know what they should do and how to do it.  The work that employees are assigned should also be a manageable load, and not too much to handle.  There is no benefit in offering flexible scheduling and summer half days if employees are not able to take advantage of those benefits because of an overload of work assignments.

Runner Up: Grant Fromer

In today’s recessionary economic climate of dwindling corporate profits and rising unemployment, workers are happy that they have jobs at all and are not going to complain about longer hours and higher stress levels.  As the owner of my company, I have seen an increase in this behavior in my staff ever since the credit market collapsed last September and I am starting to get worried that they will begin to burn out and decide to leave my firm.  This is a worst care scenario for my company as I will lose their expertise and my investment in their training.  This will further stress the remaining staff.  I will also have the added expense and time pressure of seeking their replacement.  In order to prevent this, I am going to take a proactive approach in identifying signs of possible worker fatigue and then implement a series of programs designed to decrease worker stress yet keep productivity levels the same.

Unless a set of behaviors is written down identifying possible signs of burnout, I and others will not be able to know how to spot these indicators of increased stress.  To correct this problem, I am going to set up a series of one-on-one meetings with HR representatives and workers of all levels from across the company.  The HR reps have the required background needed to pull the relevant data from these meetings and formulate a set of worker burnout signals that others can look for.  Once this has been completed, any person who manages others would be required to attend a workshop going through this list.  From there, those managers would meet with their direct reports and determine their burnout level and whether not there is any danger of worker fatigue.

As those one-on-one meetings are taking place, I will begin implementing some work-life initiatives aimed at reducing worker stress company-wide.  First and foremost, a flex-time schedule will be put into place in three parts.  Many of the staff’s responsibilities can be completed on a computer and through telephone communication and do not require them to be working 12 hour days in the office.

However, without the use of laptops, many of them are unable to work from places outside the office.  I will help alleviate this problem by purchasing laptops for all senior executives and providing additional laptops that all other workers can borrow in order to work outside the office.  In addition, I will strive to lower the average work week from 60 hours down to 50 hours or less over the next 6 months.  This will be achieved in part by utilizing the location flexibility that laptops provide and giving workers the option of working from home when work schedules permit.  This will not only cut down on the number of work hours, but also save on commute time and subsequent travel costs for my employees.

While 10 hours may not seem like a large decrease to some when still working a 50 hour week, it is important from a profitability standpoint to ease into the reduced hours and not go any further right away.  Additional reductions in hours can be utilized in the future if the initial results are successful.  Tying into this will be in-house sessions on time management and office efficiency.

Thirdly, as a tie-in to the reduced hours, a change in company philosophy will occur around meetings and work commitments.  Since we have clients located across the globe, we have to schedule meetings during non-normal work hours to accommodate the time zone differences.  At present, everyone has been required to be present in the office for these teleconferences.  Going forward, I will give those workers the option of either attending the meeting at the office and then leaving early/arriving late the following day or calling into the meeting from home.

Next, workers’ physical and mental health is always a concern as an owner and an unhealthy increase in stress can subsequently lead to increased levels of illness.  I will contact local gyms that offer a full service of weight training, classes, spa treatments and other amenities and set up a reduced rate to make the membership payments affordable for my employees.  Due to the reduced work hours, the workers are able to spend no more time away from their families than they already are and at the same time can become healthier in the process.

Also, I will set up an employee assistance service with an outside counseling firm.  These firms provide short-term counseling or referrals for issues such as stress, family or marital concerns, depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug abuse, and other personal problems.  My company would assume all costs for the initial assessment and counseling sessions for employees and their dependent family members.  If the counseling is continued, their health care plan might pay for part of this service.

While I am going to assume initial start-up costs for these programs, the hiring and training costs of replacing burned out employees will greatly supersede some gym memberships and laptops.  I have always tried to create an environment that people would want to work in and even though the economy is fighting through a recession right now, I want to make sure that my company continues to have a happy and successful workforce.

Excerpts of additional good answers

Stephanie Cronin (excerpt)

Prevention is the key in most burnout situations. Quick fix remedies such as mandatory vacations will not solve the long-term issues. Managers must ensure workers are given time off (e.g., vacation, personal days, comp days) and that they use the time allotted to avoid burnout.   In today’s working environment, employees are surrounded by technology.  Employees should be required to step away from the technology for a period of time each day to de-stress.

Management must support employees and provide employees with the necessary tools to do their jobs and minimize frustrations where possible.  Hiring the correct amount of workers needed to complete tasks efficiently and fostering teamwork enable individuals to feel less isolated and provide an environment for colleague support.   Managers must make sure these teams have a healthy working relationship. Individuals should be given as much autonomy in their work as possible to provide them with the control necessary to overcome stressors and avoid feelings of helplessness. Management will be asked to look at their departments to spot potential process failures and work with Human Resources to help promote efficiencies.  Employees will be asked to participate in the redesign where possible as they are the ones most affected by the change.

Peter Scanlan (excerpt)

To combat burnout and ensure the physical and mental well being of my employees, I would implement a company wide initiative towards encouraging workers to prioritize their wellbeing.  I firmly believe that regardless of position or work environment, a healthy balance can and should exist between work and life.  This balance starts with the organizations stance on such issues, and this initiative is the first and most crucial step towards creating an environment where employees feel valued and comfortable asking for help if they need it.  This initiative would require mandatory participation at all levels of the organization in education and activities designed to help employees find a healthy work life balance while maintaining productivity.

These activities would include those mentioned above as well as special events during the work day to showcase my companies dedication to its employees well being.  An example might include free healthy lunch workshops, where employees can sample healthy foods and are encouraged to use their lunchtime for themselves.  While many will initially be skeptical, a consistent and clear message through a variety of channels will eventually make the company’s message clear.  I would encourage supervisors to implement flexible scheduling, and give them the authority to implement it as they see fit.  This position would be clearly explained to workers, with an emphasis on removing any negative connotation that may exist.  Convincing employees that they will be more productive and successful when they have found a better balance will not be easy, but the same consistency will be there to reassure them.

Shun-Yu Wilson Cheong (excerpt)

Another strategy is reducing job ambiguity; since job functions are fixed, it should be relatively simple to redefine actual areas of responsibilities and roles. This will require the organization to perform job analysis in the short-term, and acquire a holistic long-term approach to the future as part of their norm, such that future forecasts will be more accurate and reliable. No one should be surprised if they were to be fired or laid off; employees should be assured some level of job stability, e.g., employment contract with clauses on specific performance requirements as a way to ensure job security.

Caring for the young is also a significant contribution to employee burnout; companies can establish day care centers and medical benefits for employees’ children. The organization should however, estimate its effectiveness by surveying the percentage of its employees that are parents before conducting such an initiative. Finally, the company should abolish the performance assessment mentality using face time in favor of work output quality instead. This involves giving employees the latitude to determine their own work hours as long as the desired outcome is accomplished…

Christopher Cresci (excerpt)

….there is a systemic problem when the process for charging transportation, food and lodging to the company (who often pass these expenses on to the client) is more advanced than the internal mechanism for keeping track of what an employee is doing all day.  Being able to track how an employee spends their time may seem draconian but it is necessary in order to prevent burnout and to make accountable those supervisors who improperly allocate their supervisees.

Matthew Hanna (excerpt)

…Simply acknowledging that your subordinates are over-worked and pushing themselves can go a long way to making them feel better about the situation.  If their efforts are recognized, it will at least give them the satisfaction that their hard work is appreciated and being noticed.  In some cases when a firm can afford to, it would be wise for the firm to go above and beyond acknowledgment, and reward their employees with extra pay at year end, small gifts, bonuses, extra vacation days, etc.

Also, allowing an employee to come in an hour later than usual after working until midnight one night would help.  The employee would feel more refreshed with the extra rest, and also be satisfied with the token of appreciation.  Businesses and their employees are in a very difficult situation right now with a struggling economy, but business owners and managers need to remember that a high level of performance is critical right now to stay competitive, and working your employees for all hours of the night is only going to haunt you in the long run as performance will eventually suffer.

Jonathan Zuckerberg (excerpt)

…Next, I would suggest having … an apprentice who can fill in for the short term on projects that require unusually long hours in the office. At my company, a small firm, we spend a certain amount of time learning each others jobs so that should someone be absent (or reach their “threshold”) someone else can pick up the work in the short term. …spending a long day working from home instead of in the office, or providing employees with a “yoga break” or some alternative, required relaxation/stress reducer during long days.

At the end of the day you have to put multiple preventative measures like these in place, and insist on employee feedback to try and help manage the well-being of your workers better. Personally, I certainly think it is quixotic to believe that the majority of employers would try to prevent their employees from sacrificing their physical and mental well being for the sake of their company, but like I hear all too often at my job: “This is a volunteer army.”

Rakesh Patel (excerpt)

Set challenging, yet attainable goals of employees

When employees are aware that they are working toward a clear-cut goal, with a clear-cut deadline, they tend to regulate their workday in order to meet it. If Max knows he has to boost revenues in his department 5 percent by July 1, he will stay focused on that goal. He will be less likely to get off track by other tasks that are less important.

Make the workday meaningful

When employees are fully involved with their work, they’re less likely to perceive intensity as “stress.” They will be motivated by their task list rather than feeling subjugated by it. Therefore, it becomes necessary to give employees challenging and meaningful assignments that stimulate and inspire them. It is important to understand that employees today want more than just a job and that they want to contribute to the big picture and help sustain the company through difficult times.

Abhas Kashyap (excerpt)

  1. Enhance the role: The organization should look at redesigning the positions of high volume/high stress groups and look to investing in tools that could ease their workload.  They should go into the depth to figure out why employees have to spend additional hours to get their job done and what sophisticated systems could aid in easing their load.
  2. Do not hide policy: The management should adopt a policy of sharing all the legible information with their employees.  The biggest fear for an employee today is the fear of getting laid off and it’s a pity that most employees do not know their fate until they walk into their office on a certain day only to learn that their position has been cut short.  The companies should make it a policy to give their employees a notice well in advance and help them transition into a new role during this period.
  3. Talent development: It may seem futuristic and unrealistic but organizations might eventually benefit from developing their employees in the field of their choice.  They should setup a mentoring committee that aids employees in developing the skills that they are interested in.  Ex: This committee should provide guidance to a financial analyst who likes to cook and provide him with resources to get more involved in his hobby.  This will aid in reducing their work stress, give them an option for an additional future career and make them more loyal towards their company and they would actually see their stress levels drop.

Nirav Modi (excerpt)

If the organizations want to change this situation and make sure that their employees are not headed towards burnout, they should implement several changes within the organization. According to Deming, “change can come only from the management.” Changing the culture needs a top down approach as employees will not change their workaholic behavior if they observe their supervisors overwork themselves.

Adarsh Abraham (excerpt)

…Job autonomy can be increased for each worker. Studies have shown employees with higher levels of autonomy were more likely to be satisfied with job, family, and life in general. A strong link was also found between job autonomy and job satisfaction. The positive effects of job autonomy on an individual’s health cannot be understated; both mental and physical health is influenced positively. Autonomy for our employees will also help our company’s productivity…

Jonathan Bolton (excerpt)

…I will work to create a physically friendly environment where my employees will be able to join a company softball or volleyball team in order to not only build comradely but also help loosen internal stress. Secondly, it is important that my new company be a dog friendly environment where my employees will be able to bring their dogs to work.  Animals in the workplace are surprisingly fun, and promote a lighthearted escape from mundane and tension filled projects. Animal socialization will also allow employees to let down many previously created guards and maybe even help employees to socialize with colleagues that they previously may of not of connected with.

Thanks so much to Professor Thompson and all of the students in her Management 9300 course.

I love the creativity and bigger picture approach that many of the students took. And, with the additional pressure being heaped upon so many employees in this economy, the students’ solutions couldn’t come at a better time.

Curious, how would you answer this question?

Share your thoughts in the comments…

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7 responses

7 responses to “MBA Students Take On Burnout”

  1. Brandon W says:

    Replace them all with computers, robots, and outsourcing to Asia and Latin America. You can’t hear whining from 12,000 miles away.
    (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

  2. Many of the ideas posted here are great, and I like knowing the next batch of MBA’s is heading into the workforce with their minds running in the right direction.

    What I wonder is how some of these changes would effect the company. For example, offering an amazing benefits package can help a company get the BEST people. At the same time the total cost of these benefits is huge. Would hiring better people and keeping them cranking out great stuff pay for the benefits, or would profitability be at stake over such a move?

    If anyone can come up with a case study for that, I’d love to see it. (Hopefully the better people + better benefits = win in the $ column)

    Another thing to consider is what’s great for you, or what you think would be great, may not fit the rest of the employees. A dog-friendly workplace sounds great until you factor in a large part of the population who is allergic to dogs. A guy I once hired had allergic reactions from a dog in a different company on the same floor as us.

    I would say the best points were:
    – Acknowledging the problem when it exists
    – Meaningful work
    – Job autonomy
    – Some form of company benefits to allow employees the ability to stay healthy

  3. Burnout in companies is a large and complex issue. I’ve worked with it (and done it once) for many years and what really makes a difference is the culture.

    Now that’s not to say a culture of stress and pressure and long hours compared to a culture of relaxed short days. The way I look at the culture is how the specific employee(s) are empowered (or not).

    Take for example one company where the GM would arrive at 7 am every morning, and leave at 7 every night. You could set your watch by it. Nothing at all wrong with that, except the culture was one that if the GM didn’t see you at your desk working, he thought you were slacking off (it took a while to notice this, btw, as it was never explicitly stated). None of that caused directly any burnout. However, most of the employees were stressed and felt pressured at work.

    The company tried training, extra time off (which no-one took), in office massage (which was poorly attended), free gym membership and many other things. Yet most employees still felt pressured. It wasn’t until I convinced the GM to leave the office at 5 for one week that the pressure changed.

    In this case it wasn’t that the employees didn’t have company supplied solutions, it’s that they felt unable to make the changes needed to relieve the pressure because of the unstated expectations of their boss. In other words, the power of responsibility was out of their hands. (The few that didn’t subscribe to this were generally unliked by their peers and their boss).

    Once the responsibility was returned to the employees by changing the GM’s beliefs, the employees enjoyed a much less stress. And the interesting thing is, the actual work being done didn’t change…

    I’ve seen many companies initiate a ‘work-life balance’ program that don’t achieve the desired result and in some cases make the issues worse. It’s not until the employees are showen (not told) how they can be, and are, responsible for their own wellbeing that the programs make a real difference.

  4. Johanne says:

    Mikaela Lee’s answer was really good.

  5. Andy Hayes says:

    Wow – quite an extensive article and really interesting. There are some great tidbits that even solopreneurs can take on board.

  6. Pat McAnally says:

    Michael V makes a very valid point about the CEO or other senior management setting implicit expectations of behaviour and how that causes stress if there is dissonance between what they say and how they act.

    One of the students introduced the concept of work-life balance. A strategy from which I have personally benefitted is coaching (paid for by the company) which can be offered to high value and/or burnout-risk candidates. Having someone from outside the firm to hold your personal agenda and to work with you on strategies to handle life balance issues is an extremely powerful benefit. Because it is one-on-one, it is not one size fits all and becomes a “custom” benefit.

  7. The reality is that most employees want to feel like they are working on purpose. That their skills, talents, and contributions are being appreciated and that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

    I think in general, that all of the students got some aspect of the problem right. I think that because these are MBA students, they may have overlooked one key factor to stress in the work place- MANAGEMENT. Management is, in my opinion and experience, the biggest and most common cause of employee burnout. Too many managers glorify themselves with their title, and fail to understand that the entirety of their job description is to serve their subordinates.