Burnout is best stopped before it starts, research shows

As the end of the year approaches, companies are feeling the pinch as many employees struggle with burn out. The good news is that new research shows something can be done about it.

According to the latest study from the Top Employers Institute, certified Top Employers in South Africa have a lower than average absenteeism rate, with the five lowest averaging at just 1.5%. This is on a completely different scale to the rest of the country.

HR Future magazine reports that in the average company, approximately 4.5% of the workforce is absent on any given day and in some companies this figure is as high as 18%. The magazine’s independent research estimates that the rise in absenteeism in South Africa is costing the economy as much as R12bn (US$1.2bn) per year.

Not surprisingly, dealing with this challenge is high on the agenda of most HR managers and the good ones are getting it right.

According to Samantha Crous, the Top Employers Institute’s regional director for Africa and Benelux, nearly 50% of certified Top Employers in South Africa have a burnout recovery programme in place, and 79% have a stress management programme. “Furthermore, Top Employers comfortably exceed the legal minimum of leave days (15 annually), with the majority offering between 21-26 days on a sliding scale from support staff to executives, which allow employees ample recovery time to recharge,” says Crous.

Other tactics include flexible work arrangements where employees can either work reduced hours or plan their days appropriately to balance work and life, a perk that is offered to Microsoft employees, says Microsoft’s HR Business Partner Hellen Mabasa. Microsoft is one of the top 10 employers in the country.

“We also offer sabbatical and personal leave of absence for those who need to take extended leave from work. We encourage our employees to take leave regularly to recharge their batteries,” says Mabasa.

At Nestlé the emphasis on employee wellness is paramount. “Our employment and working conditions support our ambitions of being a leading nutrition health and wellness company,” says employee wellness manager Vicky Jowitt. “Nestlé employees in Bryanston (Johannesburg) work in a building that is environmentally friendly with natural light, indigenous vegetation and pause areas to take regular breaks.

“Our crèche with baby feeding facilities allows for Nestlé mums to nourish their babies whilst at work, and work-life balance is supported by flexible working conditions.”

In addition to more broad-spectrum wellness and work-life balance programmes, many of the top employers actively focus on ensuring that immune systems remain strong and that employees do not reach a stage where they cannot cope with their workloads.

At Accenture, there’s an even more creative approach to managing loss of productivity by ensuring employees don’t waste company time on life admin – and that they don’t use precious downtime on it, either.

Spokesperson for the company’s Total Rewards programme Kathy Pillay explains that the company has in place “a concierge driver service that will pick up and deliver dry cleaning, documents, post, etc. for all employees, and on-call PA 24 hours a day that will help source various products and services including travel packages, appliance prices, plumbers, etc.” There is also homework support for the children of employees. In terms of health, there are free wellness checks at least once a year and various disease management programmes are in place.

Measuring absenteeism

Crous says the success of these interventions can be measured by the lowered rate of absenteeism. “There are limited means of measuring the return on investment in an organisation’s work-life balance or wellness programme. But while productivity can be difficult to measure, absenteeism is difficult to overlook – it’s in black and white and it can be costly to companies,” she says.

According to Forbes.com, the total annual cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism in the US is close to $84bn. In South Africa, 3.96m workers took sick leave during 2013, according to Moneyweb. This is up from 0.7m in 2000, representing an increase of 466%.

“In this business environment, companies need to act to ensure lower absenteeism rates. Introducing wellness and work-life balance programmes is an obvious solution,” says Crous. “One study cited in Taylor & Francis Online notes that employees taking part in a fitness and wellness pilot programme reduced absenteeism by 22%, while improving their attitude towards their work environment. Staff turnover was reduced and productivity increased – and this only during a six-month trial.”

Nestlé certainly makes use of this principle. “Our gym and fitness activities, combined with our nutritional communication and healthy staff restaurant, all help to ensure that employees get an opportunity to take care of their personal wellness,” says Jowitt.

Stress can increase productivity

According to wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, MS, periods of intensely demanding work need not lead to burnout, but can in fact do the opposite if managed correctly – these “crunch times” can be invigorating and lead to increased energy and focus, provided there is a recovery period afterwards and sufficient compensation and recognition. Companies can therefore use stress to their advantage. Scott recommends “sprints”, where employees work hard and intensely on stimulating projects, alternating with periods of recognition and recovery.

“The emphasis should be on maximising employees’ drive and focus with a mixture of stimulation, recovery, recognition and health,” says Crous. “We need to remember that quality is infinitely better than quantity when it comes to working hours.”