Burnout is a choice.
A choice of the company.
If folks are burning out at a company, it’s from deliberate company policies and processes at that company.
I have more bad news.
I’m not going to give you the somewhat easy, low-hanging “burnout best practices.”
If you have burnout problems at your company, there are major, systemic issues that will take an enormous amount of work to solve.
I’ve listed them below. And all of them are solvable. But they take a lot of work, none of them will magically happen on their own.
For those that push through them, you’ll see a complete shift in how often people get burned out at your company.
Stop Saying You Have Work-life Balance If You Don’t
I’m going to try to convince some of you to stop reading this post right now.
Some companies (maybe your company) should NOT even try to prevent burnout. It’s hypocritical and only makes things more stressful for your employees. By spouting off all that “work-life balance” silliness, you’re frustrating employees and making it worse. You’re better off telling everyone: “Hey, this is an intense environment. We work a lot. That’s what you’re signing up for. If that’s not okay, no hard feelings but we strongly recommend you look for a job somewhere else.” As long as you’re authentic from the beginning, the right people will filter into your recruiting.
When Goldman Sachs talks about their work-life balance, EVERYONE knows it’s a joke. And guess what? Hypocrisy is infuriating! It drives employees bonkers! Just cut the nonsense and tell people like it is.
Who should consider something like this?
A lot of the typical burnout offenders:
- Anyone in finance
- Management consultants
- Law firms
- Most of the entertainment industry
- Hot VC-backed startups
With hot startups, there’s a reason that a standard employee stint is just 2 years. Going 4 years at a single company is way above the norm. Why is that? People need a break! They need to take a month or two off, regroup, then join the next hot startup. Working at a hyper growth startup that’s doubling or tripling in size every year is exhausting. It’s definitely not for everyone. And that’s okay as long as founders accurately set expectations on what the journey looks like.
Honestly, for companies in this bucket, you’ll have LESS burnout if you tell people that they’ll likely get burned out. Employees will still burnout and churn, they’ll just do so at a lesser rate. You’ll also do a better job at attracting folks that genuinely want that kind of work environment, reducing the number that churn early.
Focus Your Company Objectives
Want to lock up productivity at your company?
Give your team leads 5-7 objectives at the same time.
Even if a team lead happens to be one of those rare force-of-nature employees, they’ll just barely accomplish them all.
For the average team leads? They’ll hit 2-3 and struggle on the rest.
At least that’s what I’ve seen.
I’d much rather every team have one, difficult goal. The real top performers will completely crush their goal beyond any expectations. They’ll dominate and then run up the score to absurd levels. The rest of the team leads will still make decent progress. More than enough to keep the company moving forward instead of having everything stale out and get locked up.
Best of all, the below-average performers won’t have anywhere to hide. You’ll have lots of signal on who’s truly struggling.
I will warn you, picking a single goal is so damn hard.
Not only is it really difficult to prioritize to just one thing, a lot of team leads will balk at it. Some just can’t let go of having 3-4 goals. Picking that one goal is too daunting.
But in my eyes, it’s worth it.
So how does a single team goal impact morale?
Simple. Winning is fun.
If a team is crushing it, they’ll all look past a lot of toxic stuff. That’s not to say you should accept any toxicity, the point is the company gets the benefit of the doubt when everyone is winning.
By picking a single objective, you stack the odds as high as you can that the team will be in a winning state. With every additional objective, those odds go down. Then when you’re in a losing state, it only takes a few mistakes to push the team into low morale. Which then increases the odds that the losing persists. BAM, now we have a vicious cycle of despair and burnout.
I’d rather skip all that, do the hard work of setting one goal, and stack the odds as high as possible that the team can win month in and month out. The higher morale, the less burnout everyone will feel. Even during challenging times.
Push Top Performers To Take PTO
No matter what PTO system you have in place, many of your best folks won’t take nearly enough vacation.
I know, it’s annoying.
Across all the teams and companies that I’ve worked with, I’d say 20-30% of people have trouble taking vacation on a regular basis.
But I do understand. I used to be one of those folks.
A few things drive this:
- Hard driving folks have a habit of not putting themselves first, they put too much of themselves into their work and don’t take time off.
- Those same folks tend to rise up and become leaders. They then accidentally set an expectation that people shouldn’t take vacation. Often, they don’t even release it.
- Many industries and companies have cultures of putting work first. Even last week, I had an employee tell me that having her manager push her to take vacation was a very odd experience that she’s never had before.
Regardless, you absolutely have people on your team that are not taking the time off that they need.
I recommend that every company have a basic process in place for their HR or Ops team to check PTO usage every 6-12 months. For folks that haven’t taken time off, they should get a nudge.
A few things that make this easier:
- Standard PTO systems set you up for success here. They’re inherently trackable so it’s easy to see who isn’t taking enough time off. Unlimited PTO really struggles since most unlimited PTO policies don’t have any tracking in place.
- Set caps on your PTO balances so people are encouraged to use the time instead of banking 5 years of unused PTO.
- Pay special attention to how managers are using PTO. If a manager isn’t taking enough vacation, it’s very likely that everyone underneath them in the org will also struggle to take enough time off.
I consider this a fact of work life: many of the best performing folks on the team won’t get the rest they need. The only thing I’ve found to counteract this is to track their PTO and get a process in place that nudges them periodically. Otherwise they’ll burn out within a few years.
Get a Real Bereavement Policy In Place
During COVID, my Dad passed. While I was on a trip back home to handle all that, my Mom got into a head-on collision with a semi, was flight-for-life’d to a level 2 trauma center, and spent 2 weeks in the ICU.
That was a tough period.
Luckily, our bereavement policy gave me some breathing room. For employees at Stone Press, folks can take up to 10 days off whenever they like within 3 months of them hearing the news about a close loved one.
I’ll be honest, even those 10 days weren’t nearly enough. I had to use 3 weeks of PTO plus 2 weeks worth of company holidays over the next year to process it all. Not to mention months of weekly therapy. It all took a ton of time.
I’m appalled that the “standard” bereavement policy is just 3 days in the US. And that’s for an immediate family member. That’s barely enough time to travel to the funeral and get back. By the time someone’s back at their desk, the shock hasn’t even worn off yet.
All the grief and trauma, that’s still battering around inside them. Mabe they’ve buried it but it’s absolutely impacting them every single day. It definitely impacted me every day and I was actively working on it.
Without a decent bereavement policy, that unprocessed grief will burn people out at an astonishing rate.
Help people process these events. Give them some real time off.
Make Sure Your HR Team Knows How to Handle Emergencies
Even with a team of 10 people, crazy life events will occasionally pop up.
Divorces, sports and hobby accidents, awful medical diagnoses, family emergencies of all kinds.
No matter how good your HR policies are, employees will endure hardships that aren’t adequately covered.
You know what really sucks? If you’re going through one of the worst periods in your life and your company tells you “too bad, the policy is the policy. You’re on your own.” It’s crushing.
Yes, we have to be real careful here. Bending policies can be a real problem if not done extremely carefully. But it’s still worth reviewing everything during those real emergencies.
Here’s how we handle stuff like this.
First, we tell everyone on our team that if there’s a real emergency, drop a quick note to your manager and then go deal with that emergency. Don’t worry about work or calls, deal with what’s in front of you, whatever it is. Once the dust has settled and the emergency is at least stable, we can all figure out next steps. In most cases, our benefits package and standard policies can handle the problem that just came up. And if we need to consider something unique, we then have a discussion on what makes the most sense.
At the very least, I’d make sure that your HR team doesn’t automatically stonewall any real emergencies that come up. There should be a process in place to review what happened. And communicate to your employees that real emergencies take priority over everything else.
Prioritize Company-wide Vacation Over Personal Vacation
Individual vacations always add some extra stress before people get to relax:
- Moving faster the week before to close everything out and make sure the rest of the team has everything they need.
- Low-grade anxiety during the vacation, wondering what’s being missed.
- A mad dash to dig out of the backlog of stuff waiting for them when they return.
While it’s still worth it to take the time off, it does have some drawbacks.
But there is a kind of vacation that’s 100% upside. No low-grade anxiety or stress of any kind. Company-wide time off gives everyone a true break.
No fomo, no wondering, no catching up. Just a complete relaxation and unplugging.
If you’re looking at your benefits and thinking about expanding the total amount of time off, I’d encourage you to consider adding more company-wide breaks instead of just upping the personal vacation. It’ll have a much larger impact on your team. And there’s plenty of ways to do this:
- Pick a few lesser known holidays during periods of the year that don’t have any time off already. It’s a good way to sprinkle 3 day weekends throughout the year.
- Add a Winter Break with 1-2 weeks off. No one works that hard over the holidays anyway.
- Start a Summer Break or other mid-year event with a few days off.
- Have a 4-day week for 1-2 months during the summer.
Scope Your Job Descriptions For Mortals
I could rant for hours about how bad most JDs are. I’ll save that for another day.
At the very least, scope your JDs down. Please.
For my career, I came up through the marketing department before starting my own company. Occasionally, one of my former colleagues will send me a marketing JD to spot check.
I should just save this response as a template reply because I have used it every single time:
That JD is a mess. It’s at least 5 full-time roles and any experienced candidate is going to run in the other direction. For the few naive candidates that think they can do it, they’re going to drown within 30 days. The hiring manager needs to pare that thing down by 80%, I’m not joking.
JDs like that could make sense if the person was being hired to build an entire team from scratch. But I always see them as a mid-level IC that’s being expected to do it all themselves.
I know this is going to be a shocker… but feeling like you’ve been set up for failure leads to burnout. It takes the employee about 6-9 months to figure it out. Then maybe another 6 months to come to terms with it. And if they’re not fired during their second year, they’ll usually leave before they hit their second anniversary.
Now imagine you have multiple ICs going through this cycle, all at various stages. Burnout, discontent, and lots of backchanneling.
I can’t blame them, they were asked to do the impossible and weren’t set up for success.
That’s why I’m maniacal about every responsibility item in our JDs. Even as the CEO, I still require that every manager run a new role JD by me before publishing. And it’s one of the few areas where I redline it to death. Until the hiring manager and I both feel really great about the JD, we’ll do as many drafts as it takes.
I push our JDs that hard because it has an enormous impact on where or not that new employee gets a chance to succeed at their role.
Get Employee Satisfaction Scores and Focus On Managers that Lag
Unfortunately, some managers will sap the morale of their entire team.
As the adage goes: people leave managers, not companies.
If you have 10 managers, one or two of them are likely burning through morale. Maybe they don’t have the skills to navigate through an early or difficult program. Maybe they have a bunch of neuroses that are impacting their team. Maybe they’re just a bit of an asshole.
By the time you hear about it, the team will be pretty far gone. Folks don’t typically speak up about this sort of thing until it’s gotten really bad.
And the worst part is these morale-destroying managers often manage up really well. So everything looks fine to you but their team is really struggling.
I’ve only seen this get resolved in a few ways:
- The whole team gets so burnt out that there’s a revolt and they start speaking up. In this case, you really only have one chance to fix the problem before the whole team starts to leave.
- You happen to have a strong relationship with one of the manager’s direct reports and they say something early.
- After running a company-wide survey, it’s clear that you have a team that’s way behind your average satisfaction.
Waiting for a team revolt isn’t ideal and having trusted relationships across every team isn’t practical.
That leaves the company satisfaction survey as the only way to route out managers that are chewing through their teams.
As soon as you have 2 layers of management, I’d highly recommend that you start these surveys.
Don’t overcomplicate them, even 5-7 total questions is more than enough. Just make sure that one of the questions is a satisfaction score like NPS. Then keep that question consistent across the company and across time.
If it looks like there’s a few teams that are negative outliers, time to dig in. Do a few 1:1 calls with folks on the team. You can even be direct with the manager and explain why.
Quick tip. If you’re asking people how they’re feeling about their role and the team, most will say “fine” even if they’re super frustrated. Instead, ask them “How do you think the rest of the team is feeling?” You’ll get some honest answers right away. Then if you ask a few people on the team that same question and they give similar responses, you know without a doubt that you have a serious morale problem.