Faces of HR

Combating Burnout by Acknowledging, Listening, and Assisting

I asked today’s “Faces of HR” guest if burnout can be solved. He said no, but you can acknowledge it, listen to the needs of employees, and then assist. Individual approaches to addressing burnout don’t work for everyone, but creating a healthy framework for handling burnout can help at least manage it.

Meet Adam Weber, Chief People Officer and Cofounder of Emplify, an employee engagement improvement software company.

How did you find yourself in HR?

I stumbled into HR. Originally, I was an entrepreneur. I started a tech company that was totally unrelated to HR. I built and sold the company. During that process, I realized the part I actually loved was creating high-performance teams, building cultures I was proud of, and creating jobs and opportunities for other people. My next start-up was an employee engagement company. The reason I started the engagement company was because it’s the work I really love to do.

I think there are two parts to doing HR at an employee engagement company. One is our own internal culture; the bar is really high. But I also take that seriously. I view it as kind of a dual role. It’s also a role in which, because the employees expect transparency, I have an open dialogue with them. Everything we do, we should be able to talk about with other people with transparency—and push the market to be more innovative.

Second, in working in the HR industry as a whole, I’ve felt it shift from just an administrative function to this strategic function. And it needs more HR leaders who push the envelope and are transparent about that process. That’s why I got into it and why I love doing it.

What do you think makes transparency so hard for people? Because it’s not natural to be transparent—at least not in business.

I think there’s some imposter syndrome, you know? I think there’s something to people not being comfortable in their own skin—I think maybe feeling like they are a fraud themselves or feeling like they’re doing things wrong. So, to be transparent kind of opens you up. There’s a vulnerability to transparency. And there’s a risk of failure.

The easier path is to hide and to cloak and to do what they’ve always done: Talk down, be authoritarian, and say “my way or the highway” as opposed to “Hey, here’s why I made that decision. Here’s how we’re thinking about the business.” In reality, I don’t think leaders really have a choice anymore because if they’re not transparent themselves, everything else is transparent. You can write reviews about jobs and companies and leaders. You can apply for another job while you’re at your job now. The world changed; it’s just a matter of whether leaders can tap into that and be transparent with their employees.

I really like that perspective on not being sure of yourself because a lot of times, when we look at transparency, it’s easy to look at it on a business scale. This organization is or is not transparent. But it’s made up of all those insecurities of the individuals, particularly in leadership. And you’re right, especially now, especially with Glassdoor and social media. You can have someone who’s treated unfairly at 2:00 in the afternoon, and at 2:10, that person is on Twitter telling everybody about it with evidence. Then outrage can happen; it can go viral. So many organizations get burned that way. It’s just a different world, and we’ve had to adapt, right?

Right, exactly. And yet a lot of people aren’t doing it, you know?

Right?

I do think COVID has been a good wake-up call. It has fast-forwarded changes that were already in motion. And one of those changes is that employees who used to value comp and stability today value the authenticity of leadership, the purpose of the business, and their own personal growth opportunities. That’s a seismic shift of the values of the workforce. Leaders haven’t caught up to that and adapted.

I understand you have some interesting approaches to burnout. And we’ve got a pretty serious burnout situation here. A lot of people have been trapped at home for a long time, and people who haven’t been trapped at home have been under some pretty serious circumstances in the workplace—you know, the frontline workers and essential workers. What’s your overall philosophy for approaching that?

First, I just want to echo what you’re saying. This is one of the critical issues of the workforce today. We’ve seen in all of our data that the vast majority of the workforce is burnt out. Yet, most employers are only truly finding out about it during the exit interview.

I think that deep down, most leaders are also dealing with that same burnout. They just feel stuck. They’re not immune to this season either. Today, I’ve got two kids who are doing school from home while I’m doing this interview. And you know they’re going to walk in in the middle. You’ve got political unrest, you’ve got social unrest, and you’ve got the lack of social interaction. You’re juggling family dynamics and health situations that you’ve never had to deal with before. There’s an overwhelming number of things all of us are dealing with.

I think my first philosophy is to open up the dialogue. Just name it as a truth that exists, knowing—and I have the data to back it up—that burnout is a reality for the majority of the people in your workforce. You don’t need to be afraid that if you bring it up, you’re going to make it worse or that you’re going to plant the idea; it already exists. The only thing that’s not happening is you’re not in on the conversation. We want to create dialogues that align the employees with their employers.

That’s really well said. As you likely know, maybe 2 or 3 years ago, burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a legitimate disorder and not just something lazy employees talk about because they don’t want to work. And it’s a lot like depression in that people don’t necessarily want to talk about it. But it’s also, at the same time, maybe a little bit easier to talk about it.

Just like for mental well-being, I do think there are people who are normalizing the conversation. At its very best, this is still lived out through the manager-to-employee relationship. That’s the relationship that has the most vulnerability and flexibility and nuance to it. I do think that companies need to both acknowledge it and create safe spaces for those dialogues. But in really healthy, robust cultures, I think that happens between the manager and the employees being willing to talk about where the individuals are.

And how are you approaching this in your organization?

One of the things we’re doing is just trying to constantly have the dialogue. We’re kind of coaching our managers in general and making sure that their one-on-ones are every single week, that they’re not missed, and that they’re doing a personal check-in in addition to priorities. So there are a few parts. I think with burnout, priorities really do matter. One is making sure that the manager and the employee are really aligned on what the most important things to get done are because I don’t know what fire is going to come up in my life outside of work this week. Are we both aligned on the top priorities? We’re making sure those are reviewed. And we’re making sure that every single week, we do what we call a “color check-in.” Saying, “Hey, what color are you showing up as today?” It’s on a scale between green and red. You can get as creative as you want. Green is “I’m doing great, I’m showing up, I’m here, and I’m present.” And red is “Things are on fire”; maybe it’s work, or maybe it’s home. But we’re just making sure there is that “seeing the whole person” being baked into those interactions.

Then, practically, early on during COVID, we looked through our data and saw that our employees were really burnt out. In addition to that, they felt guilty about taking time off when there was nowhere to go. We ended up just shutting down on Fridays for a season and just said, “Hey, there are no meetings, no Slack.” What it did was create permission. It actually opened up the dialogue. We are saying, “Hey, you need to take the time you need to take. And it’s OK to advocate for yourself. We’ll write our priorities, but let’s also make sure that you are taking care of yourself during this season.”

Actually, I just shared a really good video with our company. It’s one of the things I’ll do. If I share a video out to the company, sometimes I’ll post it online. I just did one right after the Capitol riots as a template for how other companies could talk to their teams. That is another example of how to make sure there’s permission for employees to take space if they need it, basically.

You talked a little bit about how, because you’re an employee engagement company, you have to preach what you practice and practice what you preach. Do you find that you have any difficulty getting other organizations to get on board with your approaches, like having Fridays off or mandatory paid time off (PTO)? Stuff like that?

I’m always cautious when I share the practical tips because there is an endless number of ideas you can do. The reason we don’t have a huge issue in getting people to follow our advice is that we follow the data first—even the Fridays off decision It was rooted in data. People actually reached out to me saying “we should do this, too.” I was like, well, maybe. But that may not be your actual issue. I think the key is when you center it on and root it in data, you’ll be more confident to make bold decisions. That’s really what we view our role as—we align executives so they can make those bold leadership decisions.

And these data you collect—is that through employee surveys? Or do you guys have a more advanced way of looking at things?

We run scientific assessments. Surveys. Regular feedback. It’s like a scientific assessment followed by coaching executives and then guiding managers on what to do. Then, we have those statistics. We have a standard engagement assessment, and then we also have ones we built since COVID that are really topically relevant. So we have the core assessment, but then we also have micro-assessments—things like a well-being assessment, a diversity and inclusion assessment, and a burnout assessment.

These are very practical to the season an individual business is in, and they help the company inform what specific action will align to its workforce.

Do you think it’s possible to “solve” burnout?

No, I really don’t. I think it’s more something to manage as opposed to something to solve. An individual company’s job is not to solve the global unrest of a pandemic. But its role is to create cohesion and conversation and put the business in the very best position possible based on open dialogue, shared respect, and policies and actions that align to the actual lived experience of the employees.

As opposed to the inverse of that, right? Like the companies that are trying to pretend it’s business as usual. They’re not actually talking about it. They’re trying to sweep it under a rug, waiting for it to go away. And they’re losing. If they’re not physically losing their people to turnover, they’re, at a minimum, emotionally losing their best. They’re not getting all they could from their employees.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been burned out plenty of times, even before COVID. I’m on a production schedule, so when I have to take time off, I often have to do twice the amount of work ahead of time. That makes it even more serious. Then you get the time off, and it can be great, but sometimes, it’s a mixed bag. When it’s over and you’re back, the expectation is, well, I’m not going to take another week off right away, right? What if that didn’t do it? And sometimes, it doesn’t. What if that doesn’t help enough? That’s a difficult thing to experience because now, you feel like you can’t say anything and you can’t really bring anything up, even if management would be receptive. I hold myself accountable.

Like “I should be fine. I took the time.”

Yeah.

Sometimes, the time doesn’t take. One interesting thing we were talking about is forced PTO. The way we do it is we kind of have a minimum—“you have to take this much time off.” But we recommend taking this much time. We set the framework in a different way to also create dialogue around time off, to make it not taboo. This has been the kind of funny swing of our culture. We went from a “log your PTO world” to unlimited time off that nobody actually takes because everybody feels like they don’t have permission.

One of the things we’ve been doing is talking about what we’re doing during our time off because there really is actual confusion on what to do right now with time off due to the pandemic. So we’ve been having people share what they do to restore themselves, just to create dialogue and make it very normal in our culture—like hey, we take time off, and here are some of the things. Are you picking up a new hobby? Did you go on a hike? What are the things that have been actually restful during your rest to you?

That’s a great idea, offering a library of activities.

Yup. Exactly.

I also happen to be fairly introverted. But even for me, it’s getting to be a bit much. Like, I almost miss my in-laws a little bit. That’s how far we’ve come.

That’s pretty far. I think a lot about that introvert concept right now because I feel like for introverts, before the pandemic, they all lived their lives in this like “Gosh, if I could just get more alone time.” And they were kind of confused about the role of other people in their lives, you know? I’m like right in the middle. I’m probably a 51% introvert. But now, you start to see introverts go “Oh!” It’s not like they’re going to go and turn into extroverts. It’s more like, I think, some level of appreciation for the value other people are bringing to their life. But it took a pretty extreme example to see that.