On a recent trip to China, I was introduced to “九 九 六” ( or jiǔ jiǔ liù) or in English, “996”.
No, not “666” like some evil prodigy of Satan!
“Nine Nine Six” refers to the working hours some Chinese tech companies have been adopting to get an edge on their Silicon Valley counterparts - 9am-9pm, 6 days a week!
While admittedly more recently there has been a push in China against such long hours, in the West many workers across all kinds of industries also work hours above and beyond their standard contract hours - in Australia, for example, a 2018 report estimated on average workers were doing 6 hours of unpaid overtime per week.
Now, of course, some overtime is fine and to be expected, but there are limits right?
And without structures or support mechanisms in place to manage the busy periods, stress levels rise and workers can slowly unravel, burdened by how much extra is required of them.
But it’s not just about how many extra hours we’re putting in - it’s also about how constantly connected we are, thanks, in part, to tech and digital devices.
While our smartphones and tablets have become almost like extra appendages for many of us, and they are a bonus in terms of always having access to fun things like Netflix, gaming, social media networks and the likes, the other side of this is the inability to ‘turn off’ from work as emails, texts and other work alerts hit our devices, and we often feel compelled to attend to them.
This “constantly on” aspect of modern life is leading to worker burnout - so much so, that the World Health Organisation has included burnout in the latest version of its “International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health problems”, a handbook for recognized medical conditions.
Not great news for workers, it’s also bad news for employers as with burnout comes a range of negative workplace outcomes, including:
Worker fatigue/exhaustion leading to unnecessary absenteeism
Feelings of workers of distance or negativity towards the workplace or employer
Decreased productivity and motivation
Increased staff turnover
Even worse, in extreme situations it can also lead to
Depression and other mental health issues
Increased accidents in the workplace
Burnout is not only a consequence of working too many hours: It also arises due to expectations being inordinately high or unreasonable workplace demands, workers feeling unappreciated for effort, or individuals being in the wrong role in the workplace (you might want to take a look at our e-book on Belbin’s team roles for some tips on this one!)
Exacerbating the chances of burnout is the fact that the majority of employees, especially those who love their jobs, don’t want to disappoint or live in fear of job loss if they don’t meet every demand made of them.
So, this obviously raises the question for employers: What do we do?
Firstly, let’s be really clear: Stress and burnout are NOT the same thing. The main difference between them is that stress makes an individual feel like there is too much to do - that you are ‘full up’, in a way, but often triggers a response to find a way to manage this. Stress is a normal response to being busy, and, let’s be honest, almost impossible to get away from in life. In many ways, it’s the precursor to burnout - too much of it LEADS to burnout.
Burnout, on the other hand, goes beyond this, leaving someone so overwhelmed that they feel ‘empty’ and, as the word says, burnt out with nothing less to give.
The key to a good employer/management team is knowing when stress is about to tip over into burnout - not an easy task!
But even just referring to the burnout signs we mentioned above should be enough of a checklist to begin identifying burnout markers.
The key then of course is what to do?
Quite simply, ACT. Do something. We know that often management teams are just as stressed as anyone, if not more sometimes, and may even be on the brink of burnout also. The irony of this is that their burnout is partially a consequence of the burnout their staff is suffering.
So, be proactive and think about implementing some of these measures to prevent or manage burnout:
Monitor workloads and remember that silence or (forced) smiles don’t mean satisfaction.
Give feedback, positive and constructive, but most importantly genuine and individualised!
Ensure workers are taking breaks during the day to grab a coffee, lunch or just have a quick chat with their colleagues about non-work related matters. Keeping the workplace HUMAN is super important.
Consider workers roles in the team and wider workplace and be open to secondments to other areas/divisions or roles within a team where they might flourish.
Enable workers to take their holidays rather than be nervous of falling behind in their roles if they do and also be open to flexible work arrangements.
Provide training opportunities that make a real difference to ongoing professional development and make employees feel valued and invested in.
Ensure there are systems in place to reward workers who hit KPIs, work overtime or who are taking on much more than their position description states.
Budget for busy times when getting in temps or offering additional paid overtime/time in lieu will lift spirits rather than crush them under the weight of too much work.
When the crunch comes during a time of project delivery, or following successful completion, provide breakfast or lunch or organise congratulatory drinks on a job well done.
Arrange a digital detox through Stay Unplugged to decouple your workers from their devices and digital lives, allowing them to refresh and regenerate!
Bottom line - your workers are your most valuable asset and will be of most benefit to you if you get to them before they fall over the burnout cliff, so take action today and help them be superheroes in the workplace!