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A Chat with Liz Fosslien
Why we should remain vigilant for 'burnout burnout'.
I had the opportunity to speak (via email) with Liz Fosslien, mental health expert, illustrator, and WSJ best-selling author, about "burnout burnout" and how it's impacting C-suite and executive leadership. Liz is the head of content and communications at Humu, where she helps ‘teams and leaders develop the skills and habits that allow them to unlock their full potential’. I’ve mentioned her work several times in recent years, for example in Untamable, Messy, and Reckless, and Deep Pajamaville.
Stowe Boyd: I am looking forward to your prognosis and prescription for people operations staff (formerly called human resources), after the unrelenting strain from the Covid-19 pandemic. Are they more burned out than everyone else? If so, what's to be done?
Liz Fosslien: Many people operations teams are struggling with what I call “burnout burnout.” Over the last two years, they’ve been tasked with establishing stable policies amidst ever-shifting conditions and looking after the wellbeing of their organization’s workforces, all while being subject to the same macro stressors and unprecedented levels of uncertainty themselves. The unpleasant responsibility for dispensing bad news (layoffs, furloughs, etc) was also largely given to people operations teams. That’s going to take a toll.
A couple things that leaders can do: make sure people operations staff are taking real vacations, check-in with these employees individually to see what personalized support they need, and publicly recognize the immense efforts these teams have made over the past two years.
SB: Given the strains on them, do you see greater levels of people operations staff leaving their jobs or even that vocation altogether? We've seen that with medical staff, teachers, and first responders.
LF: I haven’t seen this show up in our data, but anecdotally I have heard many people operations staff say that they want their next role to be in a different function.
Our research at Humu shows that managers became 2x more likely to quit their jobs than individual contributors in 2021 (in 2020, managers and individual contributors were quitting at about the same rates). So there is certainly evidence of people whose primary responsibilities involve supporting others beginning to burn out more quickly.
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SB: Will the growing adoption of hybrid work -- and the backing off of major corporations from previous 'return to the office' proclamations -- be a good thing for people operations folks and the stresses on the workforce in general?
LF: It’ll be a mixed bag! A hybrid model can offer people the best of both worlds--flexibility, autonomy, and opportunities to bond in-person--but it takes more work to get right than the traditional, 5-days-in-the-office model.
Our proprietary research at Humu shows that a 3 + 2 model, where employees are in the office 3 days a week and WFH 2 days a week, leads to the highest levels of happiness and productivity. This model combines social and collaboration time at work with heads-down to focus at home.
But without intentional action by managers and people operations teams, disconnection, bias, culture, mentorship, and burnout are all likely to climb in hybrid. To make hybrid work work, you have to:
Have a clear, consistent philosophy around who gets to work from home, when, and why
Be purposeful about in-person time
Proactively combat the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” bias
Take steps to understand what each person needs–and then act on what you learn
Establish team rituals but mix them up enough to keep people engaged and interested
Have the right tools to make all of the above easier (doing all this without technology is nearly impossible)
SB: I've read research by Prithwiraj Choudhury and his colleagues that suggests 1 or 2 days per week in the office (or equivalent) leads to the best results. And since a sizeable number of knowledge workers in 'superstar' cities have moved beyond conventional commuting range so three days per week in the office may be too much travel. Thoughts?
LF: I’m not strongly tied to a specific number of days in the office as being best. Most research indicates that some amount of in-person time seems valuable, whether that ends up being 2 days a week in the office or 3.
The “ideal” model will also likely vary from team to team. Functions or roles that require a lot of collaboration might benefit from more time in the office, while those that involve more heads-down work (think of a team of writers) might perform at their best with just 1 day a week in the office.
SB: I've argued that the most farsighted companies will move to place wellbeing at the top of corporate aims, side by side with other paramount goals, like building a learning organization and delivering value to customers. How will companies have to rebalance to make that a reality?
LF: The biggest change organizations will have to make is in how they train and reward managers. The traditional approach to management focused largely on productivity-focused behaviors: setting clear expectations, keeping team members aligned, and outlining specific roles and responsibilities.
To improve employee wellbeing, managers have to become much better at the interpersonal aspects of management: offering personalized support, rallying remote team members together, and ensuring that employees find their day-to-day manageable and meaningful. This means organizations will need to find ways to equip managers with soft skills—and incentivize them to act on what they’ve learned.
SB: That sounds like a critical training push, and likely to take considerable time. I've seen other research focused -- as you are -- on managers developing personalized support, which seems to subsume your other points. How to impart that understanding?
LF: It’s nearly impossible for large organizations to do without the help of technology. At Humu, we’ve built a software platform that takes in a range of signals (including what a specific manager wants to focus on and what the team thinks the manager should work on) to automate providing personalized support at scale.
But there are easy wins. For example, our research shows that 1 in 4 employees never have a regular 1:1 with their manager. It’s safe to say that it’s very, very hard to offer someone meaningful growth opportunities or to understand what challenges they might be facing if you never check-in with them. And even for managers who are having 1:1s, reminding them to cover more than just status updates. I’m a big fan of the question, “How can I better support you this week?” And then taking action on what you hear.
Liz is definitely one of the people that business leaders should be listening to, especially in an era of such burnout.