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The secret to improving mental health and reducing burnout at work? Lead with listening.



Jim Link is the CHRO of the Society for Human Resource Management. Views are the author’s own.

Today’s workers are being pushed to work harder than ever before, and they’re slowly being squeezed by the increased pressure. 

That increased strain has manifested itself as a global mental health crisis in the workplace — a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Rising rates of worker burnout, dissatisfaction and disengagement threaten employee performance and corporate bottom lines. Employee turnover remains near record highs, and historically low unemployment rates have made it harder than ever for companies to hire and retain talented employees. 

There’s no doubt that work burnout is real. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified work burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from unsuccessfully managed workplace stress. Burnout, according to the WHO, can manifest itself in three ways: as feeling exhausted or drained of energy; as viewing one’s job negatively or cynically in an attempt to distance oneself from work; or being less effective. A new book, “The Burnout Challenge,” reports that an overload of work, a lack of control, low pay and numerous other factors can create mismatches between workers and their jobs that lead to burnout. Burnout, in other words, is a condition that organizations must address.  

The challenge hasn’t gotten any easier over the past several years. The pandemic, the global racial reckoning that occurred after the death of George Floyd, economic turbulence, fierce political polarization, a continuing skills shortage and new expectations of workplace flexibility and agility have increased the stress and strain on everyone.

In the four years since WHO’s codification of burnout, people are bringing this added pressure with them to work. More than 40% of companies say they have made significantly more accommodations since the pandemic began to help their employees manage anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. But more than 40% of human resources professionals say their companies don’t do enough to support the mental health of their employees. Indeed, levels of workplace burnout are higher now than they were during the pandemic — especially among workers, younger workers and workers whose companies have been slow to adopt new technology.

To help their employees survive and thrive in today’s post-pandemic workplace, companies need to proactively help them decompress. It’s about understanding that the need to decompress is as important as eating, sleeping and exercising. It’s about helping employees understand what’s important in their lives and to reconnect with the world outside of work. 

Companies have multiple tools at their disposal to address burnout and mental health challenges in the workplace. But there’s one overarching principle that captures the most important thing businesses can do: leading with listening. 

Everyday progress — for workers, companies and people — requires everyday feedback. That level of feedback requires everyday engagement — and that starts with listening.  

Listening involves gathering information through one-on-one conversations, regular workplace interactions or at scale via technology. Leading is acting on the information collected. It’s leveraging data to inform decision-making. Good leaders listen first — and listen often — and take action second. That’s because good leaders know the solutions to these immense workplace challenges aren’t coming from the top. They’re emerging from the bottom. 

The good news is new, innovative technology is making it possible for leaders to listen in ways they never could before. In our own work at SHRM, we’ve launched both an accelerator and an investment fund to support mission-driven start-ups that aim to solve the most pressing workplace challenges. One of these companies, Mainstay, is taking lessons learned from nearly a decade of success in higher education — using AI-based text messaging to help colleges listen to their students at scale — to enable companies to listen to the needs and challenges of their workforce.

That work has led to some surprising findings. Companies are using the platform to text their employees and learn within minutes what’s on their minds and what problems they’re wrestling with — maybe it’s the commute or a lack of access to wellness benefits — or why they didn’t complete their required IT security training. So often, business leaders who listen learn that it’s the little things that make the difference in the ability of employees to navigate the world of work. Those little things can have an outsized impact on people’s success on the job. But understanding them is the first step to fixing them, and those small fixes can in turn have disproportionately positive results.

By listening to what employees have to say, leaders can respond to minor concerns before they become major issues that lead to job dissatisfaction, burnout and departure. 

Today more than ever, being a good leader at work starts with listening to employees. When employees ask for help to manage their stress and to decompress, it’s critically important that their leaders must listen first — then act. Doing so is a necessary first step toward building a workplace that works for everyone.

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