Here’s how employers can manage the burnout epidemic

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Last week, the quit rate in the U.S. hit a new record—4.4 million workers walked away their jobs in September, another dramatic chapter in the Great Resignation saga, and a major blow to employers. 

A big factor in that exodus seems to be a widespread sense of burnout. More than half of workers interviewed this past spring by job site Indeed said they were experiencing burnout, up from 43% last year. So how can an employer keep workers from crashing, amid a labor shortage with 10.4 million job openings, and the fact that people are working longer hours than they did before the pandemic?

Pay attention and change the corporate culture, says Jennifer Moss, a journalist and author of the book The Burnout Epidemic. She argues that while employees should speak up and take care of their own personal health, the responsibility of burnout really falls on the employer.

“Although developing emotional intelligence skills—like optimism, gratitude and hope—can give people rocket fuel to be successful, if an employee is dealing with burnout, we have to stop and ask ourselves why,” Moss told Fortune. 

Companies can’t solve burnout by simply telling people to take another yoga class or mindfulness course, she says. The condition stems from a heavy workload, perceived lack of control, lack of reward or recognition, poor relationships, lack of fairness and a mismatch in values. 

A recent survey about returning to the office after working from home highlighted the current disconnect between employers and employees. 

About three-quarters of workers say they want flexibility about where they work, but two-thirds of corporate executives are designing post-pandemic workplace rules without any input from employees, according to survey by Fortune of 10,000 knowledge workers or skilled office workers.  

“Good intentions fail when we stop actively listening to the needs of our employees,” said Moss. 

Organizations should take pulse surveys on internal social networks to find out where people are mentally, says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence and author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. 

“Burnout is worse now,” he said, “because the barriers between personal and professional lives are blending—you don’t know when to stop working.”

Some companies have recently adjusted their corporate policies in small ways to try to curb employee burnout. PricewaterhouseCoopers is paying $250 to employees for every 40 hours of vacation time used, Citigroup has Zoom-free Fridays, and KPMG has no-meeting Wednesdays.

But the most substantial changes to avoid mass burnout must come from employers making shifts inside a company’s culture to address issues like fairness and trust, according to Moss. That includes creating a fair workplace with policies that provide equal paternity and maternity leave, addressing systemic discrimination, and ensuring workers feel valued and properly recognized. Employees should also feel empowered to speak up about burnout, mental health and other concerns with colleagues and managers. 

There are warning signs that employers can look out for when it comes to staff burnout.   

Is someone’s productivity taking a nosedive? Or is the quality of their work declining? Does an employee seem to miss more meetings or take longer to respond to you? 

Employers should check in and ask how they can accommodate their workers. Parents may need more flexibility to drop their kids off at school, while new graduates living alone may need help creating clear boundaries between work and life, Schawbel says. Encourage employees to create more breaks into their daily and work calendars, making room for lunches, phone calls with friends, exercise and rearranging schedules. 

“We’re dealing with what people want inherently: freedom and control over their lives,” said Schawbel. “Listen to the voice of employees and check-in and find out what they need.”

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