Combating burnout in the Vail Valley (column)
Deep Practices Consulting
Editor’s note: To see this story including links to other studies, visit http://www.vaildaily.com.
It’s that time of year again: With the change of seasons we also witness an exodus of workers moving away from the valley.
High rates of turnover represent a national issue, but the problem afflicts us more than most. According to a recent survey by the Vail Valley Economic Development, 85% of the jobs in the valley consist of either hospitality or health care and social services, which are reported to be the two industries that suffer the most turnover in our country. Given this professional makeup, it comes as no surprise that we would have trouble retaining employees even in jobs that exist year-round.
The question of how to keep good people on the job is a perennial one, and there are tons of articles out there offering solutions for reducing employee turnover. However, these articles often jump straight into action without taking into account the larger context. Before we take action, we need to know what it is that we’re solving for.
If you dig to the root of turnover, especially in full-time, salaried positions, you will usually find evidence of burnout, and if you’re dealing with attrition, it means burnout has reached its advanced stages.
But what is burnout?
I’ve spent the past 10 years researching, working with and reflecting on burnout, and in that time I’ve uncovered some insights that may be of use to organizations in our valley.
Burnout happens when your work is out of alignment with your values, beliefs or vision for who you want to grow into. Parker Palmer, author of “Courage to Teach,” describes the condition, saying, “one sign that I am violating my own nature … is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess.” Often the state of “trying to give what you do not possess” results from working for a company or organization that evaluates your worth based on how well or efficiently you produce outcomes that are meaningless to you.
As a teacher in the South Bronx, I burned out after four years of being evaluated on compliance with policy and my ability to get inner-city teenage students to “produce” test scores. Irrelevant (to me) was the fact that I was actually good at it — in four years I had fewer than 2% of students fail the test on my watch. Getting the test scores back, however, never inspired in me the type of gratitude and joy that I felt when my students asked questions about new ideas, created meaningful projects or clearly and passionately advocated for their own learning needs (none of which happened during test prep). I came to realize that the things lighting me up about teaching had very little to do with the ways my worth as a teacher were being evaluated.
Burnout isn’t just confined to teaching, however. Nationwide, employee dissatisfaction is on the rise with a staggering 66% of American’s reporting being burned out on the job. Not only does burnout undermine new reforms and the implementation of long-term initiatives, but it also creates health crises among employees. According to a recent Gallup poll, workers reporting burnout are 23% more likely than inspired colleagues to visit the emergency room. Clearly this is a growing crisis with serious health and wellness ramifications, especially for our population in the valley.
But what can we do about it?
In my research I found four qualities of workplaces that promote job satisfaction and mitigate employee turnover in schools, and I believe these findings have larger implications for any company or organization interested in stemming attrition and creating positive, inspiring workplace cultures. All four characteristics are interconnected; in other words, it is very hard to have just one or two in a workplace. Usually I’ve found that companies have either all four or none at all. I’ve also found that these characteristics are not an accident but have been deliberately cultivated and reinforced daily by leadership.
This finding was corroborated by Daniel Pink’s account of workplace cultures that build intrinsic motivation in contemporary employees. True autonomy means that employees have control over what they do, when they do it and whom they do it with. This allows workers to develop routines that align with their own styles and preferences. This results in higher productivity, creativity and job satisfaction. In industries such as education, health care and hospitality it can be difficult to implement true autonomy, but it is possible to find or create pockets that hand control over to the employee in arenas that matter to them. In leadership this often means resisting the impulse to micromanage and allowing employees to have a real say in what “success” means to them.
It is impossible to create meaningful levels of autonomy without establishing relational trust among all staff members. Trust means that employees respect one another and have absolute clarity in their roles and responsibilities. Leadership moves that lead to trust include:
Clarity and transparency of vision and expectations
Consistency and follow-through
Open and respectful two-way communication
It is critical for leaders to establish clearly, unambiguously and (ideally) collaboratively, the working structures and expectations of a workplace. This creates a consistent model for employees to work with and goes a long way to validate their concerns without creating fear of retribution, backlash or unfair treatment. For more information on this, see my two-part series on creating a profile of an educator.
Part of cultivating trust is ensuring that your systems are in full alignment. By this I mean that your methods of measurement and evaluation, your daily functional procedures and your company culture are all aligned to accomplish your vision and goals. Employees want to know that their time, effort and motivation are contributing to something meaningful. Failed initiatives, arbitrary (or seemingly arbitrary) evaluation procedures, and consistent undesirable results are all symptoms of a lack of systemic integrity that contribute to burnout.
This one may seem obvious, but it’s shocking how often companies, organizations and even full industries neglect to treat their employees, stakeholders and clients like full human beings. According to Frederic Laloux, the author of “Reinventing Organizations,” the majority of companies and organizations in our country operate like machines, generating outcomes mindlessly and at the cost of both human and ecological resources. A human-centered organization will operate like a community or family, promoting the values listed above. What may come as a surprise is that functional human-centered organizations sacrifice nothing in productivity and efficiency and actually generate more innovation than organizations that act like machines.
This is, of course, only a glimpse into the phenomenon of burnout, but it provides some reflection points for leadership to consider. Some turnover is inevitable, but we have more power than we realize to influence the cultures we work in every day.
Kate Newburgh, Ph.D., is the founder of Deep Practices Consulting, L3C, a social enterprise dedicated to creating conscious collectives. She has over a decade of experience in research and systems change. She began her career as a New York City teaching Fellow in the Bronx. Since then she’s held diverse roles in the field including educational researcher, academic affairs director for a national nonprofit, and strategy lead for transformative learning in Eagle County Schools. She received her Ph.D in curriculum and instruction from the University of Denver with a research focus on systemwide teacher retention and adaptive whole-teacher supports. Learn more at http://www.deeppractices.com.
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