Meaningful relationships aren't just important in an individual's personal life. Experts say these connections are also needed in the workplace.
However, it's difficult for HR professionals to build authentic connections within their workforce when employees are stressed out and burned out, according to Woodrie Burich, CEO and founder of the Integration Group in Anchorage, Alaska.
"I had a client tell me that his conversations with employees are just transactional," she said. "Part of the reason is because our stress levels are rising and our engagement is falling."
There are some simple ways HR professionals can help reduce employee stress and create a more meaningful, inclusive and productive workplace, Burich told attendees Oct. 30 at the SHRM INCLUSION 2023 conference (INCLUSION 2023) in Savannah, Ga.
Research shows that a sense of connection at work can lead to a positive and productive work environment, boost an employee's psychological well-being, and foster a sense of loyalty and commitment to an organization.
Other reports have found that burnout is on the rise worldwide—with members of Generation Z, younger Millennials and women experiencing burnout in higher numbers. Burich has seen how burnout has risen in workplaces and impeded meaningful connections.
She mentioned a report by the International Labor Organization finding that employees who work 48 hours per week are considered "excessively working," yet the average U.S. employee works 49 hours per week.
"If we are drained," she asked the crowd, "then how can we connect with one another?"
How Work Is Contributing to Burnout
Burich listed several factors that result in overwork and stress among employees:
- Tunneling and busyness. "We tend to look at what is directly in front of us and don't step back and look at [the] bigger picture," she said. "The busier we get, the more we tunnel; the more we tunnel, the busier we get."
- Technology. Burich said many employees cannot get through a full hour of work without being interrupted by technology. "Some people get emails late at night when they're supposed to be relaxing," she added. "We lose our focus with technology. How can we foster real presence and deep conversations when we're moving like that?"
- Lack of workplace role models. Burich asked the audience, "How many people do you know in successful positions who are working healthy work lives? They're not out there. How do we learn to work healthier? They say working unhealthy is just part of the job, but it doesn't have to be."
- Massive changes and unknowns. The COVID-19 pandemic "pushed us over the edge when it comes to stress and burnout," Burich said. "But on a positive note, [the pandemic] brought mental health to the forefront, and people are more aware of mental health issues now."
Make Time for ‘Quiet Time’
One way to reduce stress and burnout is to create "quiet time."
Quiet time is anything that clears an employee's mind—even for just a few minutes. Burich said workers can "claim their quiet" by taking a few minutes to stretch or meditate. Employees can also walk to a nearby coffee shop to clear their minds.
In many instances, a person's best strategies and solutions arise from some form of quiet, Burich said.
"This is why leadership retreats are often offsite," she explained. "It's also why we hear jokes about the best ideas for work arising from the shower—or how we come back renewed after a vacation with energy and new ideas."
Burich explained that quiet time and space are the "lifeblood of creativity and innovation," and they are critical for complex problem-solving.
INCLUSION 2023 attendee Danaya Franke, assistant director of recruitment and retention at Saint Paul Public Schools in Saint Paul, Minn., is already thinking of ways to carve out quiet time for her employees.
"As [Burich] said, quiet time allows for teams to be more strategic, and it cultivates creativity and organizational persistence," Franke said. "I'm going to intentionally work with my team on using transition time, such as between meetings, to make space for taking a break to ensure we make an investment in the well-being of employees."
Focusing on Work Structures
Companies can also reduce stress by focusing on work structures, Burich said. Workplaces must start addressing workflows, workload management, program and project ebbs and flows, and the company's fundamental approach to how it engages work at a team and organizational level.
She identified three ways to address work wellness by adjusting work structures:
- Create and commit to strategic space. Burich said workers need the time and space to reflect on themselves, their teams and their work, which could be through mindfulness activities. "Incorporate an hour a week for yourself to strategically think," she said. "If you hold any position of power, it's more imperative that you do this."
- Review work trends for peaks and valleys. Employees who transition from one high-stress and high-pressure project to another without a break are at higher risk of burnout, Burich noted. This is especially true for workers in charge of programs with high-stakes deadlines with no break or buffer in between.
- Honor boundaries. Younger generations entering the workforce are seeking role models to show them how to effectively set work boundaries, yet many leaders don't know where to begin. Boundary work is about seeing, meeting and honoring a person's most basic and intrinsic needs, and honoring boundaries actually strengthens our connection with others, Burich said.
"When we look at meaningful connection in the workplace, we need to first look at how stressed we are," she concluded. "And it all starts with the individual."