I was concerned about where the civil engineering industry was in March 2020 as shutdowns and emergency directives from the government sought to limit the spread of COVID-19. My mind reverted to the housing bubble pop of 2008. I remember the lack of development engineering work that was experienced, lasting well after the initial collapse. Yet as we move toward two full years of a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 800,000 Americans*, the engineering and construction industries are strong and growing. For many, 2021 proved to be a year of challenges to deliver the work on time to clients. Keep in mind, that as workload increases, so does the possibility of employee burnout.
Recognizing Burnout in You and Your Co-workers
(The mental health information is based on research from various sources and is supported by my personal experiences. I am not a mental health professional nor am I am not an expert in the condition of burnout. This is my perspective.)
Burnout can happen to anyone at any point in their careers, at all levels of professional success. It can be the result of prolonged stress, lack of sleep, and unreasonable workplace expectations occurring over a period of time. Burnout is a diagnosable psychological condition. It often presents as emotional exhaustion, with feelings of reduced personal accomplishment, and sometimes cynical feelings toward work.
For me, I feel like I have flirted with burnout from time to time, especially in 2021. My attitude has shifted to be negative more often and my motivation to do engineering design work has diminished. This wasn’t an overnight change in my personality but something that has happened over time. Ultimately, I found it to be affecting my physical health with an increase in my weight and blood pressure.
The fact is, I have felt the impacts of burnout and actively work on a daily basis to maintain a mindset to manage the impacts on both my life and the work I produce. Recognizing the need to do this for me has opened my eyes to those around me. I have been more aware of the off-the-cuff comments (in person and on social media) and the emotions that those around me exhibit. I realize that they too are dealing with the impacts of continuous overtime demands and potential burnout conditions.
Common Ways to Combat Burnout
Treating and dealing with burnout is different for everyone depending on the degree of the condition and the individual’s ability to take action. One of the best ways to combat burnout is to disconnect from the thing that is causing it. For many, this is resulting in a desire to quit their job! This is obviously a less desirable pathway for employers as finding employees is hard enough, why would you want to lose the ones you have now? For employees, it is hard to contemplate change when they are emotionally exhausted. This is a cycle that has to be broken.
This Entrepreneur Article suggests “5 Ways Leaders Can Fight Burnout Culture” which includes:
- Foster safe spaces.
- Lead by example.
- Show empathy whenever possible.
- Support immediate needs.
- Focus on mental health and wellness through the lens of sustainability.
Leverage Your Quality Control System to Combat Burnout
My 5-part framework for producing G.R.E.A.T. quality work is focused on engaging with employees, leveraging the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of each and every person on your team and in your organization to produce the best and highest quality work possible. From elementary school through college, 70% is acceptable and the standard for passing, yet the expectation for a set of construction plans is perfection. Obviously, 100% perfection is virtually impossible, but we should all be shooting for the high 90s!
Employee engagement is not simply about salary or recognizing a co-worker for their contributions. It is about developing a drive for their work and commitment to the company’s goals. The G.R.E.A.T. framework solicits interactive stages of a project’s deliverables and an after-the-fact review of where things went well and where improvements can be made.
Use this to benefit your team tomorrow by opening your eyes to the possibilities around you.
Beyond just going through the steps, leaders should consider a philosophy where they lead by engaging the Mind, Soul, and Body of their team.
- Mind. Each and every experience you have ever had led you to become the person you are today with the knowledge you have stockpiled over time. Consider how you have been influenced by others throughout your career and those who helped you along the way. Cultivate the talents of your team members, learn about their aspirations, and challenge them to take their own actions to achieve them. It is your job to support them along the journey.
- Soul. Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Knowledge and technical experience is one thing but passion is the key to exponential success. Think about the underlying factors that brought each team member to your organization. Why did they make the choices they did to arrive here in life? Connect with them and fan the fire that burns within them!
- Body. Action is the gateway to realizing the value of your Mind and the influence of your Soul. We have a lot of things that bounce around our heads but doing something, anything, feels good. Having a physical thing that you create in your hand proves your effort is not wasted. Doing things like playing a sport, a workout, or a walk through the neighborhood feels good. What can you do to augment work and help those in your circle to act? Where can you allow teammates to do things individually or as a group to take action? This may not always be work-related but it certainly will benefit the workplace when done right. Make things happen for the future of your team.
The workforce is evolving and constantly changing. Just like life does when you least expect it. Engaging with your staff, getting on the same page, and driving a culture of connection and action will help build resilience in your workforce. The work is important but the people are more important. Implementing systems like the G.R.E.A.T. framework will help standardize your deliverables. Leadership and combating burnout take empathy, understanding, and effort from all levels of leadership.
Use the power of your experiences and your own feelings to be the leader you need when you are in the position of those around you.
* At the time this article was published (January 2022)