Tell your employees not to work hard so you can get the best out of them. Already in 2023 burnout has become a major workplace theme. Jacinda Ardern’s resignation as New Zealand prime minister highlighted the need to pay more attention to everyone’s mental health in the workplace.
She was followed by Nicola Sturgeon, who cited the “physical and mental impact” of recent years in the job when she stepped down as Scotland’s first minister. Both showed openness and honesty in admitting it was time to go, and should be praised. While experiencing burnout is nothing new, it’s still so rare to see people admitting or even alluding to it, particularly in public, and particularly people with such a high profile.
Burnout was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in 2019. As of 2022, almost half (46 per cent) of workers in the UK were close to burnout – a situation exacerbated by the pandemic, research conducted by Westfield Health shows. Stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 17 million of the days lost due to work-related ill health in the UK in 2021/22, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds to the economy, according to Health and Safety Executive statistics. Time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders has written that it is caused by factors such as taking on excessive work, lack of support from colleagues and the sense that the time and effort put into a job isn’t matching the reward.
While burnout is not an inevitable consequence of working in a high-powered or challenging job, it’s worrying that it is increasingly affecting people across generations and across sectors. I find, even for myself, it’s hard to know when to slow down, or even stop, and that’s why burnout is something I take extremely seriously in the workplace. For too long there has been a stigma around even discussing the problem. There is a sense that by doing this you are attempting to shirk responsibilities. But it can take a huge toll physically and emotionally and ultimately means the whole workplace operates less efficiently.
I have taken steps to safeguard employees’ mental health by making one of our business goals to not work too much. We don’t want people working too many hours and we always make this expectation clear. We have employees across many time zones, so in the age of mobile phones – when our emails can be accessed anytime and anywhere – working all of the time is all too easy.
For one employee who has a tendency to work very long hours, we have had to agree that he needs to cut down the hours he works per week, and importantly that he doesn’t engage in work outside work hours. This may sound easy to achieve, but breaking free of that mindset is not easy for some people, even when they are told directly they’re expected to work less. Many of us come from a corporate background and, in that competitive environment, working long hours is something we’ve been encouraged to do for many years. It’s become a way of life, but it’s becoming increasingly worrying.
In reality, a balanced life – time committed to a life outside work – makes people more effective at work, so this is something we actively encourage and support each other in achieving. And we don’t take this approach to simply be nice. For people to be their best selves at work, they need more diversity in life than just a focus on business, so this is the best way of managing their potential. Plus, a happier workforce is a more motivated workforce.
Another approach we take to avoid burnout and ensure the welfare of our employees is looked after is making sure we are respectful of everyone’s time, something that I think is overlooked in the burnout conversation. If you do something and you think it’s meaningful, it’s less stressful to work hard on it. But if you are working on something that is meaningless – like preparing for an unnecessary presentation or meeting for the sake of somebody else – you are wasting each other’s time.
Perhaps in the corporate world, a presentation is deemed necessary because it saves the time of upper management, but it doesn’t show any respect to the time of the person who’s preparing that presentation. Equally, we always keep discussions to the essentials. If we have a meeting, there’s always a clear purpose as to why we are meeting: we know what we want to discuss, we talk, and more importantly we listen, and we are done. We have gotten used to these unnecessary things because they have become the norm, but eliminating them is already a strong step towards a burnout-free working environment.
Over years of experience, I’ve learned, if an employee comes forward and says they are struggling – that they need more time away from work for the sake of their health – to never try to convince them to keep going. I wasn’t always like this. When I worked for a corporation, if one of my juniors came to me and asked me if they could move to an easier job because the workload was too much, I’d always try to convince them to stay in their position. And they would stay, because I was someone they looked up to.
This is something I’ve left behind now. I want to use my influence for the best, and create an environment where people can openly say what they need, where they have the space to share how they feel without any hesitation. It’s key to ensure people are being correctly managed in terms of the time they are committing to their job, and the time they are committing to looking after themselves. Both they and the employer will reap the benefits if this can be achieved.
A frequent reaction when I tell people about how we tackle burnout is that we are being too easy on our employees – that our approach to team management is too humanistic. But I would argue that what we do is absolutely necessary to get the best out of people. That’s what I do – get the best out of people – and as a result I am able to do my own job more effectively and efficiently. Hopefully, the conversation is starting to shift around this issue, and more people will speak up when their time is disrespected, more people will admit when they are struggling, and more people will get the support they need so they can be at their best.
Pinar has founded two businesses aimed at changing both the beauty and business worlds. The first is TAKK, an ethical beauty care business which fights plastic in landfill, beauty hype and big brands' focus on excessive consumerism. The second is Punk Business School, a new type of business education aimed at creating more empathetic and intuitive business leaders. TAKK is a stripped-back range of personal care products that are gender-free and suitable for men and women.