Americans are notoriously overworked and stressed, but lately employee burnout is reaching epic levels. The pandemic has left American workers anxious, isolated and overburdened, and employers are struggling to retain and recruit talented staff. To support workers, savvy companies are prioritizing wellness, support and empowerment.
"I believe deeply it is important not to waste a crisis," said Samantha Howland, Chief People Officer for Gannett Co. "This is not a new topic or a new challenge, but we're in a position now to be accelerating and improving how we deal with the burnout issue."
On International Women's Day, Howland joined other female business executives on a panel hosted by the Female Quotient to discuss strategies for a healthier work environment and how to promote mental wellness.
To help women -- and all employees -- avoid burnout, the executives said brands should prioritize autonomy and offer generous support. Preventing employee burnout has never been more important, and what companies do now will shape their results for years to come.
For instance, offering flexible scheduling can keep employees engaged and promote better work-life balance, noted Marinda Yelverton, Vice President of Client Services for Whalar. Some individuals are more productive in the early morning, while others can crank out work at night. When staffers can work on their own time, Yelverton said that increases productivity.
Yelverton encourages her employees to take personal time when they need it, and she practices what she preaches. She blocks out time on her schedule for weekly therapy sessions and takes a half-hour afterward to decompress before returning to work. "I lead by example and show if it is important to me, it can be for you too," she said.
At Citi, Sheetal Chanderkar, Citi's Chief of Staff for Personal Banking, said the company implemented several policies designed to reduce stress.
For instance, Citi has encouraged its teams to cut meetings down from 60 minutes to 45 minutes, giving employees 15 minutes to transition between meetings. They can use the time to return e-mails, prepare for the next meeting, or just take a well-earned break. Another practice is Take Time to Breathe Hour, which advocates avoiding meetings from noon to 1 p.m. in your local market and using the time to take a walk, catch up on work, and eat a healthy lunch. On Video-Free Fridays, Citi encourages staffers to turn off their computer cameras and skip video calls and opt for voice-only meetings instead.
"Over the last two years with the pandemic, the demands have just grown, whether it is demands at home or demands at work, that's why mental health and well-being has become such a forefront topic," Chanderkar said. "Sometimes the simple things can make a huge difference."
One time-tested way to reduce stress and anxiety is to talk to someone. At work, those conversations can happen privately or in a company forum. Gannett encourages employees to share their feelings and concerns, and Howland said managers receive training to equip them with tools and language to discuss personal and social issues. "You don't have to be an expert, but you can demonstrate caring," she said.
At many companies, employees are still working from home or on a hybrid schedule, making it difficult to connect and build community. Technology is helping to bridge those gaps. With online groups and apps, employees can gather virtually with like-minded individuals from across their companies.
"One of the things I've seen at Meta and other companies is how they're leveraging tech to create community and to create connection," said Ursula Llabres, Meta's Reality Labs B2B Executive Engagement Global Lead. "Those two things are really important as we are trying to find our tribe for support and also to learn about what policies, what support programs and educational programs there are," she said.
At SAP, employees can access individual and group coaching, there are caregiver support groups, and virtual classes on mindfulness and yoga. To make these and other programs successful, managers need to participate and encourage their employees as well, noted Emma Reeve, SAP's Vice President of Brand Awareness Strategy.
"We really need to be able to make the time for that and [make clear] that it is not a nice-to-have, but it is a way we're going to survive the day," she said.
No one can be "on" all the time, noted Howland. So, from the C-suite on down, all employees need time to reset and regroup. At Gannett, Howland said they have deployed the "Three Ps" to support employees: PTO (paid time off), phases and Peloton.
With PTO, Howland said everyone is encouraged to take their vacation time, block it off on their calendar, and then share their experiences.
The "phases" policy acknowledges that sometimes employees are firing on all cylinders, while, at other times, they need to step back. When they need a break, Howland said Gannett encourages staffers to take time to recharge. That could be an hour or a half-day off. "That's not unproductive time, that's actually huge fuel for the next phase," she said.
Finally, to promote mental and physical wellness, the company brought in Peloton. Through the fitness brand's app, employees can access classes from cycling to yoga to meditation, and they can form teams and participate in challenges.
"From the programmatic to the life self-awareness to the individual PTO promotion, those three things have been important to me to put out to the community," Howland said.
When employees start to feel maxed out, they shouldn't be afraid to request personal time, Chanderkar said. They might need a few days or even a sabbatical, and it should come without penalty, she noted. "There need to be opportunities to onboard and off-board effectively with the same opportunities for growth when you come back," she added.
When companies and managers foster a culture of inclusion and support the "whole person," employees will thrive, the executives said.
"Understanding what is important to each person allows you to be aware," said SAP's Reeve. "That means understanding when someone is in their best self and when they are their shadow self, and being able to pick up on that and aware of the people and the work.
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