Employee burnout: what bosses need to do to act like they care

A note to bosses: accountability, recognition and praise

The pandemic brought about a rapid increase in interest in wellbeing

From podcasts to newspaper articles, to company policies — it seemed like everyone, everywhere was advocating for the need for us to invest in our wellbeing. This included a shake-up of our diet, our morning (and night) routines, and our mindsets. Life coaches suddenly became a regular part of discourse, as did therapists on Instagram, as many seemed to realise that nothing was more important than their wellbeing. But when workplaces don’t keep up with cultural shifts, that’s when tensions rise and disappointments flare.

This is also why burnout continues to pervade our industry in particular. And we know that Asian agencies have a reputation for having terrible working cultures. In fact, in October 2022 McKinsey pointed out that the burnout rates amongst employees in Asia are higher than the global norm. 

It’s been said by experts that going on vacation doesn’t cure burnout. 

‘Taking a break’ doesn’t cure burnout. The only thing that may be able to cure burnout is an entire shift in your environment. Your company providing you with online therapy sessions, Summer Fridays, free booze, and TGIFs isn’t going to help you, if you’re still expected to do the job of at least 1.3 people. And if you’re expected to be okay with the culture of working past midnight and into weekends, and if you’re expected to ‘hustle while you still can’. It’s definitely not going to help if your boss thinks you’ll feel better if you adopt a more positive mindset. If that were so easy, we’d all be adopting it already. 

Here are three things that I think should be done to protect employees from burnout, or to help those already burnt out:

1. Make bosses accountable for their employees’ burnout

Bosses need to stop taking the easy way out of pushing the burden of burnout recovery onto employees, when chances are those bosses are the ones who created the environment that led to burnout in the first place. Earlier this year Fortune Magazine declared that preventing burnout is now the biggest priority for bosses. Around the same time Deloitte published a survey that showed that Gen Z and millennial employees around the world are still plagued by stress, anxiety, and burnout. What’s more, Gen Z and millennial employees that are women are more likely to feel it. 

Burnout needs to be addressed head-on by management and managers, and then followed up with precise action. I’m tired of seeing organisations have one single day out of the entire year dedicated to giving employees time-off for ‘World Mental Health Day’, only for employees to return back to the grind after a mere 24 hours (and how many of them were on their phones secretly checking their emails so they could ‘prepare’ for their workload the next day?).

I’m tired of seeing organisations do the bare minimum, and then harp on about how it is now the employee’s responsibility to take care of themselves. 

Having an anonymous helpline or free access to an online therapy facility isn’t really going to do much if the helpline is meant for extremely specific issues (‘big’ and ‘serious’ issues, that don’t include burnout or workload management, typically). Or if only the first online therapy session is free and subsequent ones don’t guarantee that you’ll be with the same therapist. Provide valuable help and support and avoid the metaphorical lip service.

2. Bosses: start working on your active recognition

What people who are struggling with burnout (or are on the verge of it) need is a boss who wants to make sure their team is thriving emotionally. Sometimes all it takes is a quick ‘Hey, you seem really down these days. Want to chat about it?’ or a ‘I know things have been hard, but I just wanted to say that you’ve been doing such an amazing job. Your hard work is really paying off.’

Provide recognition, even if it’s about something small. Actively be on the lookout for signs of someone struggling. Research shows that reducing recognition makes it 48% more likely for employees to report feeling burnt out. But in today’s day and age, it feels really difficult to get a simple ‘well done’. And no matter how experienced or senior someone is, they’d always appreciate a heartfelt ‘thank you’. Is that all it’s going to take to reduce the burnout epidemic? No, but it’ll be a step in the right direction.

On a similar note, stop dismissing your employees’ concerns and painting them over with broad strokes of unhelpful ‘advice’. I’ve noticed numerous times that when a female employee raises her concerns to a male superior, she’s told that she should be more positive, stay away from negative people, just ‘focus on the work’, and engage in less ‘workplace gossip’. Before you know it, that employee decides she’s had enough and quits, leaving her bosses scratching their heads.

3. Start praising the right people

Another reason why people burnout is because they realise that their hard work and commitment pales in comparison to the politicking animals all around them at work. Going back to the example mentioned earlier, ‘workplace gossip’ is likely rooted in some type of toxic office politics. Toxic office politics likely stem from insecurity. Insecurity is often the manifestation of an underachieving and/or incapable employee who wants to save their job at the expense of others — likely those who prioritise effective work to make their team and their organisation look good. 

When the latter type of employee realise that their blood, sweat, and tears mean nothing in comparison to the sweet-talking of the former, it’s going to lead to them feeling demoralised — as if their efforts are never going to be enough.

In fact, Rebecca Pollak, a therapist and clinical social worker, has said that ‘to climb the ladder, employees feel they need to exceed expectations while navigating complex office politics. Office politics become a heavy second load to carry. This places employees at risk of burnout. It often also leads to feelings of resentment and disconnection from their employer.

So bosses — start recognising the political animals from the hard workers and start attributing praise where it’s deserved. 

Featured image: Isabella Fischer / Pexels

Simran Gill, Freelance Strategy Director

Simran was born in India, raised on the seas and bred in Singapore – and has worked on 3 continents. She’s a brand strategist & certified yoga teacher with a keen interest in the sticky issues of culture + diversity + inclusion, human behaviour, romance novels & true crime. She has a strong love for Jane Austen, music from the African subcontinent, taking too many photos of her dog & always putting the voices of consumers first

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