Why a push for profitability combined with layoffs is a perfect recipe for burnout in 2023, and how managers can take action now to support their teams.
In 2022, tech companies have laid off 120,000 employees. Microsoft announced 1,000 job cuts in October. Salesforce, Brex, and dozens of other high profile companies have made the same tough calls. Over the past few days, we’ve seen the latest hits with Amazon and Meta laying off a combined 21,000 employees.
In addition to cost-cutting, many company chiefs are calling for increased productivity from their teams. In July, Google’s Sundar Pichai made a call for a 20% increase in productivity and highlighted a need for more focus during an all-hands meeting, saying “There are real concerns that our productivity as a whole is not where it needs to be.” Zuckerberg told his employees to prepare to do more work with fewer resources, given the pessimistic economic outlook.
For those that understand the management practices that cause burnout, the writing on the wall is clear - expecting teams to produce more with less resources is a one way road to burnout.
How Burnout Happens
Burnout occurs when job tasks outpace the resources that we have to complete those tasks.
In this definition of burnout, “resources” include objects (e.g. money), personal characteristics (e.g. self-efficacy), environmental conditions (e.g. macroeconomic conditions), and especially our energy (e.g. emotional or cognitive energy, time).
As we work, we deplete our resources. When we rest, we recover these resources. When this cycle becomes off-balance over a long period of time, we see the three hallmark symptoms of burnout begin to emerge (often sequentially): 1) exhaustion, 2) cynicism, and 3) hopelessness. The results are bad for both people and businesses. Burned out employees miss an average of 9.5 additional days each year and see turnover rates 2.6x above the average rate, costing U.S. businesses an estimated $500B annually in lost productivity.
Burnout is a chronic issue within many industries, especially tech. The current market instability and leadership reaction means that burnout will be exacerbated in the coming months if companies don’t take action.
Why 2023 could be a perfect storm
In 2021, burnout hit an all-time high, with 83% of full time employees experiencing at least one symptom of burnout. Shifts in working norms due to the pandemic are likely to blame. While working from home provides flexibility, it comes at the cost of many other key resources: less professional community, less separation from work, more cognitive strain from “Zoom fatigue,” more demands from family at home, more time spent working (3+ incremental hours per day on average), the disappearing sick day, and so many others. Tech workers and workplaces are still working out the kinks of what the transition to remote and hybrid workspaces means for the sustainability of workplace culture.
If you’re like these 83% of employees, you’ve likely experienced it: you start a new job and want to make a good impression. You work at what is likely an unsustainable pace. Soon, you’re tired. But the work doesn’t stop. You begin to resent the work. You start having negative feelings toward the people you work with and even those you’re working to impact. You try to make changes. Maybe you talk to your manager, try to delegate some tasks, or let a few balls quietly roll away. If that doesn’t work you begin feeling hopeless. You begin to feel like nothing will ever change in this job. The only solution seems to be a different job. You begin applying, get an offer, take 6 weeks off between jobs (if you’re lucky), and begin the whole process all over again. This cycle lasts anywhere from 1.5-3 years at most tech companies.
Now, macroeconomic headwinds are adding further pressure to these new working conditions before managers have had a chance to lay a strong foundation for this new hybrid way of working. Layoffs have a big impact on employee productivity, with 74% of employees retained seeing a decline in productivity in the wake of layoffs due to emotions like “survivors guilt” and 69% reporting a decline in the company’s product or service. Calls for increased productivity mean teams are trying to achieve more with less - less headcount, less stability, and less optimism. This will not be sustainable.
What managers can do to prevent oncoming burnout
1: Audit and take action on the six drivers of burnout on your team
UC Berkeley researcher Dr. Christina Maslach outlines six drivers of burnout in how work demands are structured. These are:
- Workload (i.e. number of tasks)
- Control (i.e. capacity to influence decisions)
- Reward (i.e. how valued your work feels)
- Community (i.e. personal and professional social supports)
- Fairness (i.e. quality of decision making by leaders)
- Values (i.e. alignment of ideals that motivate someone to take a job)
Take stock of each of these factors on your team. Which are your relative strengths and weaknesses? How might you improve? Select one or two (at most) that you believe are highest leverage, and take 2-3 concrete actions to improve these conditions. For example, if your team is dealing with too many meetings, you might:
- Consider moving your daily stand-ups to Slack. This is as simple as scheduling a daily/weekly message at 9am that says “@here What’s on your plate today?"
- Do you need input from your team on a project or plan? Test out asynchronous options, such as a document review. This is especially helpful for global teams straddling multiple time zones.
- Conduct an audit of your recurring meetings. Is everyone crystal clear on the purpose of this meeting? Once you are clear on the purpose, determine whether meeting is the ONLY or most effective way to meet the outcome (consider other mediums such as emails, slack, or 1:1 check-ins). If you determine that the meeting is the most effective way to achieve the outcomes/purpose, then make sure that the right people are included and that those who are not essential to meeting the outcomes are not included.
Lean on mentors, managers, and your team to generate solutions to improve. If you use Slack, Burnout Bot is an app our team built to help automate solutions to these key burnout drivers.
2: Help your team anticipate seasonal peaks
Working when you weren’t expecting to work is a major factor in feeling out of control, the #2 cause of burnout. If you have visibility into the ebbs and flows of work, let your team know in advance. Whether it’s a Q4 ecommerce peak, a major event, or a big deal closing, give your team a heads up that they may need to work overtime during that period. Something as simple as a calendar can make a huge difference in anticipating an increased workload.
3: Ensure your team takes time-off before they need it
Leverage down time to ensure your employees are able to disconnect and replenish their cognitive resources. Coordinating PTO amongst your team ensures that work output remains consistent while simultaneously preventing burnout. If you do have a calendar for peak work periods, ask your team to think through their vacation plans in advance and commit to taking a proactive break.
4: Make sure your team is making time to disconnect
Every employee needs physical, emotional, and cognitive distance from work to maximize their physiological resource recovery. It’s in your best interest as a manager to ensure your team is setting boundaries with work to fully disconnect during non-working hours. While this looks different person to person, ensure each employee has a good understanding of their own needs around time-off. Do they need to fully unplug once a day? Week? Month? Year? Model this unplugging yourself and push your senior leaders to as well. Consider strategies for ensuring time-off achieves a full distance from work.
5: Manage workload with your team
It’s your job as a manager to help your employees understand the priorities of the business. It’s your employees job to decide what can and cannot get done given the time and capacity they have to complete work. Empower employees with information about what is and is not a priority. Empower your team to recognize their own responsibility in accepting and declining work tasks. Clear priorities can go a long way in leveraging the resources that are available responsibly and effectively.
Want to learn more about burnout’s causes and best practice solutions? Cultiveit is available to support you. We’re launching a Slack App, Burnout Bot, that automates burnout prevention in your workspace. Waitlist sign-ups are now open here. If you have additional questions, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.