Three sources of staff burnout in your NFP – and how to tackle them

Burnout is a common problem in Australian workplaces – and in the NFP sector in particular.

Among the “most at-risk occupations” for mental heath claims, community sector workers – “social and welfare professionals” and “health and welfare support workers” – occupy two of the top five positions.

Too much stress at work costs the Australian economy over $3 billion each year. But the true costs to NFPs – from high turnover costs, low productivity, and the loss of high-performing staff – are surely much higher.

So do your organisation’s leaders recognise the role that your own processes might be playing in creating a high-stress environment?

Bain & Company partner Eric Garton is the author of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. Having worked with hundreds of organisations, he’s observed three common three common pathologies in organisations that lead to staff burnout:

  1. Excessive collaboration;
  2. Weak time management disciplines; and
  3. A tendency to overload the most capable with too much work

So how should you deal with these issues in your organisation? In a recent article in HBR, he gives some valuable advice for how to tackle them:

1) Excessive collaboration 

Excessive collaboration can be a particular problem in the NFP sector, where there are strong traditions of democratic decision-making, and more consultation before decisions are made.

While these processes can have huge positives for an organisation, they can also mean too many meetings and conference calls, too many decision-makers, too many different priorities to focus on, and too much time emailing back and forth.

Research by Bain’s Michael Markins has found that organisational leaders can now receive 200 or more emails every day. And in Australia, research has found that “the average office worker spends 28 hours a week – or nearly 1500 hours a year – writing emails, searching for information and attempting to ‘collaborate’ internally”!

Garton suggests that organisations start to tackle the problem of excessive collaboration by focusing on:

Reducing the number of “nodes” in the organisation. Nodes are the “places” in an organisation where a decision maker sits. When organisations are too complex, they have too many nodes, which can act like speedbumps, slowing down action and decision-making. Making a map of your organisation’s decision-making nodes is a good place to start to reduce them.

Examine how people go about meeting and collaborating. Consider and create guidelines on:

  • which meetings are really necessary;
  • who really needs to attend each one;
  • how regularly they should be scheduled; and
  • how long they should last.

Consider “Agile” principles. Agile is a methodology that’s been adopted in software development, advocating “adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.” Not all the ideas are transferable, but Garton suggests adopting tools like “Initiative backlogs” – task lists which are used to set priorities, and then reprioritised whenever new tasks are added.

He says “This provides a mechanism for sustained focus on the most important priorities and constant pruning of less important ones. Projects are time-boxed and focused so that there is more doing and less energy-draining process.”

2) Weak time management 

Are your staff left to figure out how to manage their own time, despite increasing organisational demands on them?

As a leader, how do your know how much time employees spend on productive activities vs how much time is lost or spent on unnecessary ones?

Garton says that collecting data from employees on this question can help organisations to target groups and reduce the organisational demands of meetings, emails, and online collaboration that can lead to burnout. This can “liberate at least 20% of their employees’ time by bringing greater discipline to time management”, and giving them greater autonomy too.

3) Overloading the most capable 

Funding cuts, regulatory uncertainty, excessive workloads . . . these are familiar sources of stress to most in the NFP sector. But these stresses can be compounded for the most capable people, or the ones whose knowledge or experience is in greatest demand.

Garton suggests again that you can’t know how serious the problem is without first collecting data to measure the excess demands on the time of your organisation’s best managers.

Once the demands on the best managers are understood, the data will also enable their bosses to redesign workflows, hire additional staff, distribute knowledge more widely or take other steps to reduce overload and burnout.

Everybody wins when burnout is reduced – or eliminated. If your staff are suffering, your organisation probably is too. And it’s likely that change needs to start with collecting data and then redesigning processes with a clear focus on reducing the demands of collaboration, strengthening time management, and reducing the demands on your most capable and important staff.

Image credit: flickr/gsj11berlin

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