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Tackling employee burnout: a quick guide for small businesses

As a small business owner, your team is your powerhouse. Mastering the factors affecting their well-being could mean the difference between a thriving, productive workspace and a gradual, unnoticed decline that harms everyone involved. Burnout is a modern-day enemy lurking in the shadows.

This article uncovers the signs of burnout, explores control measures, and offers actionable tips on averting it, specifically focusing on small businesses navigating the high-pressure environment of South Africa.

What is it?

Burnout is the outcome of persistent, excessive stress, causing emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. It strikes when an individual feels overwhelmed, drained and unable to meet ongoing demands. Though anyone can be affected, burnout is particularly frequent in high-stress environments.

Decoding burnout symptoms

Detecting burnout symptoms early is key to mitigating its impact. Here are some common signs:

Physical and emotional exhaustion

Those experiencing burnout often feel tired, even after adequate rest. Physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension and gastrointestinal issues can also manifest. Apart from frequent absenteeism, be attentive to employees’ comments about experiencing these telling signs, they could be signalling a burnout issue.

Indifference and cynicism

Burnout often breeds indifference towards work, leading to a negative or cynical attitude. If you notice a team member forming habits around seeing the negative side of things or creating obstacles by finding excuses why things won’t work or not to do certain things, as opposed to a positive solutionist approach to tasks, it could be a warning sign worth responding to.

Reduced productivity

Burnout often results in a decline in productivity, impaired concentration and compromised problem-solving abilities. A person with burnout will feel heavy with a ‘dulled’ presence, making it an effort to get even small things done.

Interpersonal conflicts

Burnout may lead to heightened irritability, causing workplace conflicts and strained relationships. Keep an eye out for escalating tensions among colleagues. Left unresolved, these issues can develop into a toxic environment, leading to harmful ripple effects throughout the workplace.

Strategies to Prevent Burnout

Adopting certain strategies can help create a burnout-free and healthy work environment:

Promote work-life balance:

Cultivate a workplace that values a healthy work-life blend. Set achievable expectations, encourage flexible work arrangements, and discourage excessive overtime. This can sometimes be difficult for business owners who are constantly operating on all cylinders. A fixed mindset around ‘all work, no play’ being the path to success causes another layer of stress.

By simply changing the focus to whatever works best for ‘getting the job done’, you can take a lot of pressure off.

Flexible working hours are an excellent example of one simple strategy that has a positive impact on combatting burnout. When employees can blend their everyday life commitments with work in a way that is less rigid, it’s a lot less stressful and often their relationship with the business is strengthened. Mutual respect for human needs builds longer lasting relationships and a commitment to getting the job done.

Take proactive rest:

Putting your focus on sustainable performance without compromising long-term health can be explored through practices such as proactive rest. This is a concept to help employees maintain their emotional resilience and performance, as opposed to having to take a long recovery period after both having taken a dive.

Instead of only relying on paid time off, giving your employees breaks and flexibility can be a sustainable anti-burnout approach. Think of it in the same way as fitness, instead of taking a full day of rest from working out you might opt for a walk or some mild stretching instead.

Here are some ideas for what proactive rest could look like in your business:

  • Zero-meeting blocks
    Designates certain hours or days for no meetings.
  • Flexible lunch breaks
    Your employees can choose when they take their breaks.
  • Mandatory breaks
    And that could be in addition to lunch. It may look like ‘wellness time’ for you to take naps in the afternoon. If the idea of your people ‘sleeping on the job’ makes you feel uncomfortable, remember the ‘get the job done’ approach. For some, a powernap in the office could be the reason why they get the job done faster.
  • Four-day work weeks
    Getting the same amount of work done in fewer days with no pay cut also talks to the ‘get the job done’ concept. The prospect of a long weekend is a powerful motivator for helping staff to focus.
  • Ad-hoc office closures
    If work is going well and things are flowing, giving your staff an unexpected day off can boost morale and productivity.

Cultivate open communication

Encourage an open culture where employees can freely express their feelings and concerns without fear of judgment. Getting this right takes ongoing commitment to truly living an authentic company culture. Get it right, and you gain a superpower.

Offer growth opportunities

Employees who feel stuck in their roles are more likely to experience burnout. Stimulate personal and professional growth with skills development programmes, seminars and mentorship initiatives. Be interested in your employees’ personal career aspirations – a business that aligns with these will discover that there is mutual benefit.  Remember employees are people, not just workers.

Recognise and reward effort

Regularly celebrate your employees’ achievements, both as individuals and as teams, to keep morale high and burnout at bay. A simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way. 

Prioritise mental health

Introduce wellness initiatives such as stress management workshops, mental health days, or access to counselling services. Ensure that you are fully aware of all the benefits your medical scheme offers. Enquire about psychosocial and other mental well-being support offerings and ensure that your staff are also aware of them and how they can be accessed.

Managing Burnout

If burnout does occur, here’s how to respond:

Open a dialogue

Discuss your concerns with the affected employee in a supportive and understanding manner. Encourage them to share their feelings and the contributing factors to their burnout.

Provide supportive solutions

Collaborate with the employee to develop a plan addressing the sources of their burnout, such as adjusting their workload, providing additional resources, or redefining expectations.

Promote self-care

Encourage employees to prioritise self-care, take breaks, engage in activities they enjoy and seek professional help if necessary.

Monitor progress

Regularly check in with the employee to ensure they’re managing their burnout and to assess the effectiveness of implemented solutions.

In conclusion, workplace burnout is a critical issue, often magnified in high-stress environments where it becomes a new normal.

“Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.”

Richard Branson

But what about YOU?

Small business owners carry a lot, often juggling numerous roles and making critical decisions. While it’s a remarkable testament to your resilience, this ‘many-hats’ reality can also push you to the brink of burnout.

Recognising and tackling workplace burnout begins with you. If you’re not at your best, both physically and mentally, your business may follow suit. It’s not selfish to prioritise your self-care, it’s a necessity. Remember, an overworked, stressed-out leader can inadvertently create a similar environment for their team. So, lead by example: adopt the work-life balance you’d like to see in your employees, and keep communication lines open about your challenges as much as theirs. Invest in your team – and in yourself. The only thing more detrimental to the business than burnt-out employees is a burnt-out business owner. When you care for your own well-being, you’re better equipped to support your team, creating a more engaged, productive workforce and a thriving business.

The fight against workplace burnout is real, and you, as a small business owner, are on the front lines. Embrace this role and remember that you’re not just steering a business – you’re nurturing a community. This is your unique position. Harness it, take care of yourself, and lead the way towards a balanced, healthy work environment, primed to face the challenges of today’s dynamic and ever-changing workplace.

CompCare Medical Scheme is a proud Partner of the NSBC

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