Hareta McMullin was a senior HR manager when the ‘perfect storm’ of unmet resource needs pushed her to burnout. Shelley Johnson was back from parental leave, working full time and studying for her master’s degree – she hit a wall. Both returned from burnout crises to help transform the companies they were part of. Here’s what they did to beat burnout.
At a glance
- Ensure managers have frequent one-on-ones with employees and upskill them to identify the signs of burnout.
- Provide autonomy and offer flexible work options so your employees have the space to operate on their own terms.
- A culture of trust and psychological safety is necessary to prevent burnout.
- Find out what your employees want and need before crafting your wellbeing strategy.
- Wellbeing is about more than health, Financial education and benefits can help your employees develop skills and resilience.
Hareta McMullin was working as a senior HR manager in the tech industry when the ‘perfect storm’ of unmet resource needs pushed her to burnout.
“My boss had gone on parental leave, and we weren’t replacing her,” she says. “Then my colleague went on maternity leave and another resigned.”
Between managing multiple employee relations cases, covering all bases in her team and recruiting to fill the gaps, as well as collaborating with colleagues in international time zones, Hareta found herself working 12-16 hour days.
She hit rock bottom.
“After I cried for the 10th consecutive day, I realised I had to reprioritise and restructure what I was doing,” she says.
Hareta went one step further by leveraging her story to bring about organisational change, beginning with ending the glorification of overwork.
While the organisational culture had never enforced clock-watching, long hours were par for the course – partly as a way of managing the challenge of collaborating across time zones.
Change, says Hareta, started with education about the negative health impact of working long hours over a long period of time.
Managers were trained to keep their expectations in check, maintain frequent one-on-one meetings and look for signs of burnout.
The organisation also made it easier for employees to access support by simplifying the process for flexible work requests, such as condensing hours into four days a week, going part-time or job sharing.
“People would go to their line managers and, if the request was simple, [the line manager] was empowered to approve it,” she says.
When employees did put in long hours, managers could reward them with unofficial days off – a move that can help to shift the way an organisation and its people think of long hours from the norm to an uncommon necessity in particular periods.
The treatment of sick leave also changed.
“We repositioned the language to call it personal leave,” says Hareta. “It’s a small tweak, but psychologically it made a big difference because you didn’t have to be physically sick to take it. You could just be tired after a big week.”
The impact of the cultural shift was clear. Employee survey data showed an increase in engagement, health and wellbeing, and staff turnover dropped below 7%.
Co-designing your wellbeing strategy
Along with survey insights, organisation-wide focus groups were used to learn more about the challenges employees were facing and the benefits they would like to see.
“We used that information to look at what was realistic, and what we could implement and grow from there,” says Hareta.
This meant the buy-in rates were strong, with benefits such as massages and running clubs actually being utilised. Education sessions to improve financial wellbeing were also a hit, particularly related to investment, mortgages and superannuation.
Whenever a new event or benefit was introduced, the organisation made sure to spread the word.
“We would send a note out to managers to say, ‘This is going on, this is why it’s great. Talk about it with the teams in your next one-on-one,” she says.
Bouncing back with benefits
When Shelley Johnson’s first child was five months old, she went back to work full-time as an HR manager at a not-for-profit while doing her master’s degree.
After a year of disrupted sleep, new-mum duties, full-time work and study, she hit a wall.
“I was running a staff meeting for more than 100 people when I hopped down offstage and realised I was not okay,” she says. “I left work within an hour and had three months off.”
When she was ready to go back to work, Shelley eased back into her role by working part-time and gradually building up her days from there.
She credits her manager’s support and the organisation’s wellbeing program for her recovery, which included sessions with a psychologist through the Employee Assistance Program.
“They also got me a coach who dealt specifically with burnout to help me rebuild resilience,” she says.
Learning how to set boundaries
The key to preventing burnout from happening in the first place is a culture of trust and psychological safety.
“Without that, it’s very difficult for any employee to feel like they can have conversations about their health,” says Shelley, who has since founded her own HR consultancy and Boldside Consulting and hosts the podcast My Millenial Career.
Psychological safety can be assessed through both risk assessment tools and anecdotally. For example, leaders can pay attention to how open team members are in conversations and identify any topics that might be off-limits.
“It starts with conversations to help people identify within themselves and others what they look like in their healthy zone,” says Shelley. “If I’m getting irritable, fatigued or tired, I want to be able to raise that with my boss, so I can make sure that I’m coming back into alignment with what healthy looks like.”
Helping your team set boundaries is also key. This is often a tricky area for employees to navigate, particularly if they are new and feel like they haven’t built up enough equity yet.
To overcome any awkwardness, Shelley recommends a team brainstorming exercise. The conversation should start by agreeing on expectations, such as not needing to respond instantly to every email, then explore people’s personal boundaries.
“For example, one of my team members would say, ‘When I’ve got my headphones in, I really don’t want you to interrupt me because I’m in my deep work mode’,” she says.
Shelley also recommends steering clear of mandates in teams, allowing people to buy in on principles rather than policy. This might mean allowing an employee to work from home on a day the team usually convenes if they’re feeling flat. Granting autonomy is particularly important in both preventing and recovering from burnout, she emphasises.
“When you go through burnout, you feel like you’ve had a loss of control because all of a sudden your body checks out,” says Shelley. “So it’s important to give people autonomy over where they work, as well as their work hours and schedules.”
Engaging a mentor can also be helpful. You could encourage employees to participate in the organisation’s structured mentoring program or to pursue their own mentor.
“Having someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in your performance can give you insight into things that might help you in your whole life, not just at work,” says Shelley.
For more guidance on upskilling managers, giving employees autonomy and identifying your team’s wellbeing needs, download the ebook: The race for talent: How to protect your teams from burnout.