In a previous article for our SCLA ongoing thought leadership series here on LinkedIn, I covered what some of my industry colleagues identified as the biggest challenges facing the supply chain right now.
Are you surprised to learn that concerns about low team member morale were high on our top 5 list of challenges? My guess is you're not.
And, your organization—large or small—is very likely facing issues with team members feeling overly stressed and perhaps even completely burned out.
Burnout's Difficult Symptoms
Unfortunately, due to the continuing adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of our supply chain teams—from workers through executive leadership—are dealing with burnout symptoms, whether we recognize these or not.
The troubling symptoms can include:
- Emotional exhaustion or feeling "spent"
- Reduced feelings of personal accomplishment—like nothing is worthwhile
- Restlessness and loss of satisfaction
- Depersonalization, which relates to forgetting that coworkers and/or customers are people, not objects
Our SCLA Procurement Peer Group (co-facilitated by my colleague Prof. Don Klock of Rutgers University) recently had a discussion all about how to better manage the stress of the non-stop work that's happening now.
Work stress researcher and expert from Wright State University, Nathan Bowling, presented to the group to explain what burnout is, what causes it, and some preventative strategies for employers and employees alike. There is no question that the pandemic has brought work stress to alarming new levels—even though some experts previously believed working from home would be beneficial for alleviating feelings of burnout.
Unfortunately, after a year of remote work for many of us, it has become clear that being distant from our coworkers—often only seeing each other through virtual meetings—has caused us to feel more burned out.
Defining Burnout Helps Us Discover Prevention Strategies
Dr. Bowling shared a concise definition of burnout that all employers need to recognize in their team members. That is, a negative response that employees have to prolonged exposure to stressful work conditions.
It's critical to remember that burnout doesn't happen overnight—it takes a while to unfold. The emphasis in the definition Dr. Bowling provided is on prolonged exposure. Additionally, "stressful work conditions" don't just mean those in which employees are in harm's way. Stressors can be much more subtle and include things like:
- Organizational constraints that disrupt job performance
- Lack of training and tools
- Coworkers—including managers—that get in the way of work being accomplished
- Workplace incivility, which refers to people who are mean, rude, or disrespectful
- Excessive workload—either too much work to do or work that is beyond one's skill level
- Role ambiguity—responsibilities and/or expectations are unclear
- Role conflict, which can equal "wearing different hats" in smaller organizations. Some of those roles are likely incompatible with each other
Burnout isn't a new concept, but it is perhaps more prevalent than ever before
It may also help to note that burnout existed long before the current pandemic—we just used to call it by different names. Some of the earliest discussion of what we recognize as burnout today existed in early 20th century medical literature—but we called it the "nervous breakdown."
No matter which name we apply, burnout has become unfortunately commonplace this year in many organizations as leaders and workers have attempted to adapt to a situation that is ever-changing yet seemingly never abating. Indeed, prolonged exposure to stressful work conditions has been a given since last March.
So, what can we do about it?
In short, preventing burnout means alleviating stressors, such as those listed above, as well as increasing personal resources. In many cases, simply checking in and listening to employees on a regular basis can go a long way toward removing stressors.
As we saw in my recent article about Jockey International Inc.'s success in bringing back in-person work, constant communication and adjustments to workers' expectations and experiences in the workplace alleviate fear. And interestingly, fear drives a lot of the negative emotions we end up feeling at work.
Fear of speaking up to alert leadership to our stressors.
Fear of being critical of problem coworkers and managers.
Fear for our individual health and safety during a pandemic.
Burnout and the Brain
So, what happens if burnout at work is ignored by leadership? One very real risk is the loss of talented team members who simply don't feel they can continue in their roles without more resources and support. And, unfortunately, they may not always raise their hands and ask for that support—which means managers must keep a constant pulse on worker morale.
It has been scientifically proven that work stress and burnout can fundamentally change the shape of the human brain, which means some team members will be physically unable to overcome burnout unless they can rest and recharge—often for an extended period. (Think weeks, not days.) As industry leaders, we can't afford to allow our teams to reach the point of burnout from work stressors. Period.
How is Your Organization Addressing Team Member Morale and Work Stress?
If your company has brought successful strategies online to support your supply chain team members and keep burnout at bay, I would love to hear from you!
It's true that improving the supply chain takes all of our industry leaders' efforts, and SCLA is here as a resource to share knowledge and support. Please feel free to connect with us on LinkedIn to share your perspectives and join the conversation—or reach out to me directly!