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Beat staff burnout and enhance employee engagement

Beat staff burnout and enhance employee engagement

If you read popular business magazines such as Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, or “non-business” publications such as Psychology Today, The New York Times and The Atlantic, you may have noticed recent articles about burnout. While it is a very real, contemporary topic, burnout can be found in scholarly literature back in the early 1900s. So, while many modern practices may be linked to burnout, the cause of it goes much further back than a workplace full of intense competition, bosses that are hungry for profit and employees with smartphones connecting them to many places at once.

Burnout, sometimes called disengagement, is found at the opposite end of the spectrum from engagement. While those who are burnt out are described as producing less and less, stressed, anxious, irritable, cynical, disinterested in work and at an increased risk for illness, those who are engaged can be described as involved, committed, passionate and empowered. These two conditions are indeed polar opposites. Of course, there is an obvious connection between employees in these two states of being and the results achieved by their department or employer.

There is a relatively new and heavily researched theory about these workplace dynamics called the Job Demands-Resources theory, or JDR. This theory, which has also developed into a model used in workplaces as a diagnostic tool, is very simple but very far-reaching. Its basic tenets are that all jobs have both demands and resources. It further shows that demands, when excessive, lead to burnout and that resources, when adequate, lead to engagement.

So let’s talk about demands. They are defined as physical, psychological, social or organizational parts of a job that require sustained physical and/or psychological (cognitive and emotional) effort. Every job has them. In exchange for their pay, it is very reasonable and necessary for an employer to expect productivity from his or her employees. That productivity is what contributes to the goods and services produced by the employer and the revenue on which on the organization exists. More broadly defined, demands are anything expected of an employee--time, quality of output, quantity of output, etc. While necessary, demands can lead to fatigue, exhaustion and burnout.

There are two elements of demands that must be taken into account. They both stem from the fact that each employee is an individual. First, demands on a person are not only those that he or she has at work; they are the total demands on him or her in life. Someone with a job with very low demands could become overwhelmed completing a small amount of basic tasks if, for example, they have a loved one that is seriously ill and for whom the family cannot afford treatment. The relatively limited demands of the job may be beyond their ability to meet, given the totality of the situation that they face. If their life circumstances were different, the demands of the job would be handled with ease.

Secondly, people respond to stressors or demands in different ways. What is a source of “distress” (or a hindrance) to some is a source of “eustress” (or a challenge) to others. Some shirk from a situation, while others rise to it. That may be part of each person’s nature, it may be how they see themselves in relation to the particular issue at hand, or it may be situational, with the reaction based on the concepts in the first part of our example. In any event, people respond to demands in different ways.

The other workplace dynamic in this discussion is resources. They are the physical, psychological, social or organizational aspects of a job that help achieve goals, that reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs, and/or that stimulate personal growth and development. There is a lot of variety in where resources may be. For example, they could be organizational (salary, career opportunities, job security), interpersonal and/or social (support from coworkers and supervisors) or within the task itself (performance feedback, skill variety, task significance, task identity, autonomy). 

In the natural products industry, particularly in the retail world, I think that task significance is a major resource. As its name implies, this refers to one esteeming a task that one performs as significant or important. Given that our stores sell the building blocks for a healthy lifestyle and not just products, there can be a lot of significance to mundane, routine, non-glamorous activities. (Anyone up for cleaning the yogurt cooler?)

A key to recognize about resources is that, just like demands, they are evaluated personally or individually. If one of your employees doesn’t find that your assistant manager is a resource, he or she will not be one to that employee. It doesn’t matter if you think that you pay your staff well if they feel undercompensated. Pay will not be a resource that helps them perform well if they do see it that way. The employee perception determines the value of the resource.

The big takeaways from this information are these:

  • Realize that even good employees can get burned out if the demands on them are too excessive.
  • Similarly, mediocre employees can become engaged and productive if adequate resources are made available to them.
  • Employee perceptions of both demands and resources determine if they are excessive or adequate.
  • Communication is a key. It helps you learn if the demands on your employees are seen as a hindrance (distress) or a challenge (eustress).
  • Communication can also help you see if the resources that you are employing to help your employees are being seen as such.
  • There are steps that you can take to enhance engagement and to beat burnout.
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