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Everyone can relate to having a tough day at the office, even a tough week. But what happens when those rough days turn into rough months and the stress keeps piling on? 

The answer is burnout, and its impact on the workplace is massive. 

According to a recent study from Limeade, 40% of workers cited burnout as the top reason for leaving a job. And of that group, 28% didn’t even have a new role lined up. 

As organizations look to work on improving their culture, retention and employee happiness, combating burnout can quickly become a top strategy that helps in all categories. In our post, we’ll outline the common causes of burnout, how association leaders can identify it in their staffers and members, and strategies to implement to help cut down on burnout.  

Understanding Burnout

So what is burnout really, and why should your organization be concerned about it?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Common Causes in Associations

While it can share many of the same traits as depression and anxiety, burnout mainly stems from workplace stress, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller teams, larger workloads and growing expectations have all compounded to create an environment driving staffers to the brink. 

Some of the reasons burnout may be taking over your organization include:

  • Long Hours: Sure, some major projects might require extra work here and there, but routinely working late nights can take its toll. According to a study from World Health Organization, “working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35-40 hours a week.” 
  • Unmanageable Workloads: For associations, accomplishing a lot with a small team is often the norm. However, unmanageable deadlines and workloads can quickly lead to burnout – especially for teams that are currently understaffed. 
  • Toxic Leaders: Your managers often have the most significant impact on a staffer’s mental health and wellness. Toxic or jerk leaders can have unreasonable expectations of their staff, overload them with work and even be unwilling to accommodate vacations and breaks, which can quickly lead to burnout. 
  • Lack of Support & Culture: Just like bad bosses are a problem, so is bad culture. From constant office drama to high levels of stress, workers surrounded by bad culture will quickly find themselves overwhelmed. 
Related: 5 Ways Associations Can Improve Workplace Culture in a Post-Pandemic World Learn More >
  • Zero Flexibility: In the wake of the pandemic, flexibility has become the norm for many organizations. Based on data from a Limeade study, workers who were leaving their jobs for new roles “were primarily attracted to their (new) job based on the ability to work remotely (40%) and other forms of flexibility. An additional 24% reported not being restricted to complete job responsibilities during set working hours as a top attraction.”

Spotting Burnout 

One of the qualities of a good leader is developing your emotional intelligence or EQ. This means listening, relating, and empathizing with your staffers when they’re dealing with burnout. 

However, waiting for your staff to tell you something is wrong is likely what’s leading to the issues in the first place. Combating burnout means taking a proactive approach and looking for the warning signs within your organization. 

For Your Staff

While rising resignation rates are a clear indication that something’s up, many of the signals of burnout are often more subtle and can show up well before your staffer hands in their two weeks notice. This can include:

  • Staffers are often cynical or critical about new projects and work. 
  • No one is excited or happy to be in the office. 
  • During meetings, no one wants to participate or engage. 
  • Deadlines are often missed, or work is riddled with simple mistakes. 
  • Your staff is often critical of themselves or lack confidence in their work. 
  • Productivity is at an all-time low, with creativity following closely behind. 
  • There are constant disagreements or “office drama.”
  • Staffers seemed tired, detached or overall unhappy. 

Essentially, if your staff is distant, dislikes coming to work, and struggles to create the highest caliber work for your organization, don’t ignore it. While approaching them can be difficult, showing compassion and paying attention to their mental and emotional well-being can help start the conversation. 

For Your Members 

Associations are in a unique position as they can face burnout on two fronts – their staffers and their members. On the members’ side, burnout can manifest itself in two ways. 

On one hand, you may have a member who was highly involved in your organization – an active volunteer, never missed a webinar and a significant contributor to your online community. Now that “all-star” member is MIA. For professionals dealing with burnout, taking time to prioritize mental health and taking a step back from excess professional requirements may be a solution.

Ironically, you may also determine your members feel burned out when they start interacting with your content way more than usual. This may be happening because they’re likely looking for a new role – one of the most common solutions for combating burnout. 

So what can your association do in either situation?

For starters, be sure you’re offering as much value as possible to your members in their career journey. That means creating valuable certifications and courses that can help them progress into a new role, facilitating networking opportunities that may lead to new opportunities and even creating a job board on your association website to help them land that next role. 

Also, just like leadership needs to be proactive with staff, the same goes for the way you “show up” for members. Be sure to leverage surveys and community posts to see how your members are doing and ask what they need right now, so you and your team can provide helpful resources.  

Staffers: Take an Active Role in Combating Burnout

While your leadership team should be on the lookout for these symptoms when combating burnout, as a professional, you also need to take a proactive role in finding a solution when work is becoming a drain. 

Do any of the symptoms above sound familiar?

What about constant fatigue, depression, anxiety and a general dread when thinking about going to work? Even having nightmares about work and feeling the effects on your heart and blood pressure are some of the most severe symptoms of burnout. 

Why wait until you’re at that point? Combating burnout starts by talking about it with your manager or organization. While some professionals feel it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help, more often than not, it won’t be a surprise to your manager. 

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner at Navalent said, “If you’ve trained your boss to expect Herculean miracles from you, then trust that you’ve built up enough credibility to ask for help. It’s more likely that they’ll respect the acknowledgment of your limitations rather than think less of you.”

Of course, discussing burnout with your manager also requires some thought. While they may be the source of your burnout, that doesn’t mean you necessarily want to blame them. Instead, Carucci says being specific about the symptoms you're experiencing, acknowledging the impact it can have on your team and removing any words that may seem to put the blame on others can be the best ways to start a productive conversation. 

7 Strategies to Burnout-Proof Your Association

So, now that we know how burnout affects your organization and what it looks like, what can leadership teams do to address the problem? Here are seven strategies to combat burnout and empower your team. 

1. Schedule Temperature Checks with Staff

The first step to addressing any burnout concerns in your organization is to understand the current state of work. From one-on-ones to anonymous surveys, you need to make a concerted effort to understand your staff's feelings. 

It’s also important to note that there needs to be a sense of security for staff to feel comfortable discussing these issues. They can’t feel as if they’ll be reprimanded or even fired for their honesty – which is all a part of creating a safe and transparent company culture. 

Additionally, as you’re asking your staff to help you understand what the problems are in the workplace, you should also be considering their solutions. Find out what they need, and what they think can help the situation, and make adjustments accordingly. 

2. Leverage Technology to Streamline Tasks

Combating burnout means figuring out ways to work smarter. Heavy workloads are a common cause of burnout, so organizations should be looking for ways to streamline any redundant tasks. 

One way to do this is with automation

From using chatbots to help handle customer service needs to using AI tools for scheduling and even writing your association’s social media posts, technology can help alleviate bottlenecks in your day-to-day operations. 

3. Don’t Ignore Understaffing

Just about every industry has dealt with some pandemic-related shortages – whether that was because you needed to reduce staff or had staffers join the Great Resignation. Either way, organizations have pushed the limits of what can be done with a limited team.

The healthcare industry is already showing how to combine two of these strategies to better support your team. In response to layoffs and staff shortages at hospitals, Advocate Aurora Health, a hospital system in the Midwest, used symplr, a workforce management tool, to help fill staffer gaps caused by positive COVID-19 results. The new program helped reassign 5,000 furloughed staff members, alleviating severe understaffing concerns with existing resources.

Of course, while some staffing issues can be fixed in the short term, organizations also need to understand that full-time hires may be necessary for a long-term solution for burnout. While this can mean adding a team member, it can also mean offloading tasks, like marketing, to outside agencies.

4. Focus On Expectations & Clarity 

Your staff may be feeling overwhelmed because they don’t know what you expect of them. While setting expectations and goals happens most during onboarding and those early days in a new role, it should actually be an ongoing tool that helps your team measure success. 

Additionally, clarity is crucial for staffers in newly appointed roles. While you may want to avoid micromanagement, giving them large projects and critical responsibilities without clear expectations is a recipe for disaster. 

Instead, work to create standard operating procedures, helpful guides and even checklists that allow for your staffer's autonomy while still ensuring all tasks are completed the way your association needs them done. 

5. Create as Much Flexibility as Possible

Today’s workforce craves flexibility – from hours staffers can change on the fly to the ability to work from home – or just about anywhere. While this can be an impossibility for some organizations, there is room to compromise. 

For example, if fully remote work is not an option, consider hybrid options or allow staffers to arrive earlier and leave earlier if it helps their workflow and accommodates things like spending time with family or dropping off kids. Remember, combating burnout means finding a healthy balance between work and life. 

6. Encourage Breaks & Actually Unplug

When looking to keep burnout in check in your organization, start with breaks and vacations. The days of boasting about how you’ve never taken a day off are over, and just like you enjoy disconnecting, so do your staffers. That means encouraging staffers to use their PTO and creating an environment where they feel they can be out of the office without everything falling apart. 

Additionally, when they’re out of the office, allow them to actually take that time away. Not only should you encourage them to unplug completely, but you should also make a concerted effort to avoid sending any emails or messages – because really, who actually stops checking notifications just because they’re out of the office?

7. Invest in Employee Wellness 

Finally, the most active approach to combating burnout is investing in employee wellness. For some organizations, that can mean helping pay for a gym membership, adding healthy snacks to the kitchen or even adding access to mental health solutions as part of an insurance plan. 

This can also mean adding things like on-site fitness centers, meditation rooms, and even regular fitness classes for larger organizations.

Of course, this can also be an opportunity for team-building activities. Consider starting workplace wellness challenges or monthly outdoor activities that help get your staff outdoors and away from the stresses of the office. 

Burnout Is Real But Fixable

Combating burnout takes strategy and commitment from your staff, leaders, and organization. For starters, acknowledge that it’s a real problem and likely affecting your organization. Next, look for signs of fatigue amongst your team. Is everyone complaining about stress? Are people just over being in the office and around each other? 

Once you see a problem, take an active role in fixing it. Whether that means hiring a new staffer to help alleviate some of the workloads, encouraging breaks or using wellness programs to improve the health and wellbeing of your staff, combating burnout can have a lasting impact on your organization.

From increased employee retention to an overall better culture that people are excited to be a part of, the better everyone feels, the more you can do to serve your organization and members.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
May 4, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.