HR leaders crack the code on employee burnout

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Executives share insights on tackling employee burnout as mental health awareness month comes to a close.

As the country closes mental health awareness month (May), CHRO South Africa gathered leading HR executives to find out how best they deal with employee burnout and how they understand the role of leadership in mental wellbeing and destigmatising mental health.

Sungeetha Sewpersad, chief people officer at Rand Merchant Bank says organisations need to ensure that their leadership is equipped with spotting behaviours associated with burn-out and mental unwellness. “We must equip our leaders with skills that make people feel seen and heard, have empathy and develop their EQ.”

She adds that addressing the six dimensions of wellness – physical, mental, spiritual, financial, emotional and social – has proven to be drivers of performance, fulfilment and engagement among employees. “With the rise in remote work and hybrid work arrangements, wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important topic. With our ‘always on’ culture this unfortunately leads to unintentional impact on an employee’s health and wellbeing.”

Elke Mackridge, chief people officer at Pragma, says in her experience employee burnout is frequently not driven by the organisation or a line manager, but more regularly than one would expect it’s inflicted by the employee themselves. “Individuals that have high expectations of themselves and to their own detriment need to learn skills to better manage their own work expectations. Taking on new tasks and always saying yes, or more commonly doing work on behalf of others is not sustainable.”

Her advice? “Individuals diagnosed with burnout should work closely with a psychologist to help them re-enter their work environment and change their ways of working.”

2022 Young CHRO of the Year Phil Tshikotshi, who is the vice president – human resources at Startek, is of the opinion that CHROs have the responsibility to investigate the root cause before suggesting any employee interventions so as to ensure that they are solving the right problem. “There is absolutely no point in introducing wellness programs and other related interventions without understanding and dealing with the root cause of the problem. As an example, burnout or mental breakdown can be linked to unfair treatment, higher workload and lack of support and therefore introducing wellness initiatives without addressing the root cause would serve no purpose.

Workable solutions

While more frequent leave may not offer a complete solution to workplace burnout, it certainly helps to take a break. These HR leaders suggest ways to reduce exposure to workplace stressors.

Burnout prevention and recovery activist Judy Klipin says introduction of a four-day week is an opportunity to deal with burnout crisis levels in the workplace. “Burnout is a sustainability issue for organisations. Longer work hours increased demands at home, Covid-19 introduced new stressors to nearly every domain of life. People are emotionally, mentally, intellectually and spiritually taking strain.”

On a more practical and immediate level, Sungeetha recommends that organisations introduce practices like taking leave at shorter intervals rather than one long holiday at year end as means to mitigate employee burnout.

“We have noticed that employees who burn out often do not have periods of rest. Sleep is often underrated and downplayed. We have learnt over the last few years that it is in fact the most important part of one’s day – to recharge, rest the mind and be productive.”

Meanwhile Caroline Sewell, head of people and culture at Tractor Media Holdings, suggests creating a healthy corporate culture could be a possible antidote for employee burnout, “ A positive culture results in more engaged, motivated employees; a high standard of work and good productivity. Being in a healthy company environment can help staff achieve a healthy work-life balance that could prevent a high employee churn and make for happy, empowered employees.”

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