Expert tips for how business leaders can readily address the root causes of stress and burnout and ultimately facilitate a culture of caring.
Employee burnout is one of the greatest challenges facing the U.S. economy to the tune of $300 billion each year, according to the American Institute of Stress. Its studies show that a near majority, fully 83%, of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress, with over half (60%) of worker absences directly related to that stress. Not only is this a significant drain on resources that drives avoidable opportunity loss, but it's also a major contributor to valuable employees' mental and physical health problems. Today's employers need not knowingly or unconsciously undermine their own productivity and profitability. While any number of interventions can address and resolve the employee burnout epidemic, one solution is within earshot... literally: active listening.
Today's modern management must take a top-down approach to support staffers and not just hear what is being said but actively listen to it. For one, a Harvard Business Review study found that active listening is key to improving leadership effectiveness, employee productivity, engagement, and retention. Conversely, failing to do so presents a mission-critical missed opportunity to address and resolve the root causes of workforce stress and burnout. With employee burnout so widespread, aptly addressing the issue can seem daunting for managers. However, the issue's overwhelm can be mitigated with a clarified understanding of common challenges that cause and exacerbate employee burnout. According to Adi Segal, CEO of Hapi.com, five red flags can readily be identified and resolved through active listening. These are:
Social Isolation: When employees feel isolated, their emotional state is compromised, and they are more likely to experience anxiety, stress, and burnout–factors that can erode and impair a company's growth. The work-from-home culture has only exacerbated the issue. In fact, Airbnb's CEO warned that "the most dangerous part of remote work isn't lost productivity—it's loneliness." Active listening can help leaders identify employees who are struggling with this issue and take concerted steps to help them feel more connected to a manager and the team at large. Knowing that you "belong," feeling that you are an important "part of something," and understanding that your contributions are valued can produce a powerful and positive mindset.
Relationship Issues: Whether with respect to friends, colleagues, family, or a significant other, relationship problems can cause significant pain, trauma, and strain that promotes burnout. By actively listening to employees, leaders can identify these kinds of issues and take proactive measures to address them before they become major problems—for the worker, department, and the company overall.
Mentorship Deficits: Mentoring is essential to career development, but it can be challenging for both mentors and mentees. Many companies today are stretched thin, and workdays are overwhelmed with tasks and to-do's that make "free time" elusive, if not seemingly impossible. Even so, leaders must engage in active listening moments to help identify these guidance gaps and provide the necessary support, direction, assessment, and praise to keep staffers on the right track.
Socioeconomic & Financial Strife: Often, an employee pool represents a variety of socioeconomic factors and income levels. No matter one's real or self-perceived stature or actual salary, everyone is at risk of struggling culturally and economically. Active listening can be a profound form of activism, with one report underscoring the extent to which active listening can offer much-needed support to help people deal with intense and distressing emotions in relation to these particular issues that fundamentally impact nearly every aspect of our work, home, and social lives.
Sub-Par Problem-Solving: It would be an understatement to say that problem-solving is a critical capability to uphold in the workplace. Problem-solving skills were cited as the most important soft skill of 2022, with fully 86% of employers reportedly seeking this attribute on student resumes, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2022 survey. Given this vital skill is hampered by communication breakdowns, active listening can help leaders identify these shortfalls and bridge those gaps by providing the necessary understanding, explanation, support, and guidance to ensure everyone is on the same page.
According to Segal, "Even the most significant issues individuals, families, and organizations face can be resolved with active listening, which needs to be more deeply embedded into our society—especially as most facets of our professional and personal lives move at lightning speed. Relative to corporate culture, better listening training is a quick and tactical way to demonstratively and quantifiably improve company culture, increase staff retention and boost the bottom line."
Immediately Accessible Solutions
Addressing employee burnout and related productivity pitfalls need not be rocket science. According to Segal, there are numerous tactical strategies to start addressing the issue right now. These include:
Practice Makes Perfect: As with any skill, listening ability is correlated with the frequency of use. Like working a muscle, it will get stronger over time. Similarly, leaders should regularly schedule and conduct sessions with their employees to practice "the art of listening" rather than just "hearing what someone said." This is in order to fully comprehend the content, meaning, and implications of that discourse. People must embrace the notion that listening is not just a concept but requires intention and action.
Train Your Team: There are numerous emotional intelligence, and active listening courses, leaders can provide individuals or their entire team. Just as the state mandates harassment training, business executives should make listening certification an important part of their and their team's professional development. Go a step further and make it a prerequisite or requirement for the job. If and when needed, expert trainers can be engaged to run active listening exercises, either in-person or virtually. Such professional resources can help expedite the key learning required to put this skill into meaningful practice and start positively impacting people and the business's bottom line.
Recommend Resources: Analysis by NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago reveals that organizations that support mental health see a return of $4 for every dollar invested. They've built a Mental Health Cost Calculator that can demonstrate and quantify the financial impact on your own company. Also notable is how research makes it abundantly clear that talking to strangers can supercharge happiness. With the advent of Certified Listening as a Service (CLaaS), managers can promote mental health apps and resources that increase access to care and human connectivity with 24/7/365 availability, lower the bar to entry, and provide a safe space for team members (from the C-suite to the front line) to vent, relieve stress, get advice, bounce ideas or just have company when feeling lonely or isolated. Such access anywhere, any time mHealth platforms can be a boon for employee retention, recruitment, and organizational transitions.
"Many psychologists even admit that, often, people dealing with work and life issues don't need therapy, but rather they just need someone to talk to," Segal says. "Someone who will truly listen and provide the space for support, validation, and exploration."
Organizationally, leaders need to establish and build upon a culture of engagement, collaboration, and trust. The kind that can only be compelled through true active listening so that employees feel heard, valued, and supported in a way that impedes burnout. In turn, business and industry will realize an array of benefits, from increased productivity and higher staff retention rates to lower absenteeism and presenteeism exemplified by the 'quiet quitting' trend.
Employee angst, stress, and burnout are significant business problems, and one highly viable—and relatively immediate—solution lies in the simple yet impactful act of active listening. By committing to this learned and nuanced skill, leaders can readily address the root causes of these issues and ultimately facilitate a potent culture of caring. Executives will quickly see the ripple effects as these improvements drive employee satisfaction and revenue growth.
Merilee Kern, MBA, is a brand strategist and analyst who reports on industry change makers, movers, shakers, and innovators: field experts and thought leaders, brands, products, services, destinations, and events. Merilee is also the Founder, Executive Editor, and Producer of "The Luxe List" as well and is the Host of both the "Savvy Ventures" business T.V. show that airs nationally on FOX Business T.V. and Bloomberg TV and the "Savvy Living" lifestyle T.V. show airing in top U.S. markets.
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