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How to promote staff engagement and avoid the risk of burnout

Organisations are working harder than ever to engage employees, but how can line managers promote healthy engagement while avoiding the risk of burnout?

It’s great to see that across the UK organisations are waking up to the reality that they need to get on board with staff engagement if they are to get ahead in escaping the economic doldrums.

Recent research published by employee engagement consultants Infogroup|ORC International shows 62% of HR specialists will be stepping up their efforts in this area over the next year. Organisations are already seeing the results of their efforts: on average 53% of employees in the UK are fully engaged with the organisation for which they are working.

But although most HR managers seem to be working hard on engagement, organisational pressures often mean engagement’s twin imperative, workplace wellbeing, is seriously neglected, leaving employees at risk from burnout at work.

In the same survey, HR Reflections, almost a third of organisations say workplace wellbeing is a low priority, while a further 8% say the pressures they are currently under just to survive means there is little choice but to sacrifice the wellbeing of employees.

Often, the responsibility for workplace wellbeing lies with line managers. But the problem is that those same line managers are most likely themselves to be working in ways that are neither healthy nor sustainable, struggling with long hours and ever-increasing workloads.

In an environment where wellbeing is becoming a lower priority for organisations, how can line managers avoid leading themselves and their teams to the brink of burnout?

Line managers, it seems, are particularly at risk from this phenomenon that can often leave them feeling, overwhelmed, depressed and unable to engage with their day-to-day work. After all, line managers are expected to balance some pretty diverse roles: they need to be a source of support and guidance for employees; they have a pivotal role in performance management; and they also need to act as the conduit between their own bosses and the rest of the organisation. And on top of all this, they have a day job to do.

Data from perspectives, Infogroup|ORC International’s benchmarking database, provides some telling evidence about the risk of burnout among managers.  

Line managers are typically more engaged: in figures from 2009/10, 60% of them would recommend their place of work while only 56% of non-managers would. Line managers are also more likely to suggest ideas and likelier to feel motivated by the organisation to go that coveted ‘extra mile’. And this is where the problem really lies: while 63% of non-managers find they can meet the requirements of their job without working excessive hours, just 40% of line managers do; 66% of non-managers feel they have an acceptable workload, while only 54% of managers feel the same. And while 70% of non-managers feel able to achieve the right work-life balance, only 59% of managers do.

That balance, in any case, can be precarious. Some managers might argue that this additional responsibility and stress is an inevitable and accepted consequence of taking on a managerial role, but often the consequences of this will go beyond the personal. It isn’t just about a manager staying late in the office, or working at the weekend, or skipping lunch to meet a deadline: it is about the example they set to their workforce. Often, too, they will neglect the softer side of management as they are simply too busy. The result is a poorly managed workforce – and this is not something that our companies, or our economy, can afford to accept.

So, what is the answer to achieving sustainable working among our management population? One critical skill managers must improve is delegation: good delegation is not about dumping tasks, nor is it about passing work to staff and then fretting over whether you might have been better doing it yourself. No, delegation is about using people’s passion, work ethic and interests effectively and trusting people more.

Effective delegation is one of the cornerstones of achieving sustainable engagement for both managers and their workforces. Equally important is for organisations to recognise that line management is a crucial part of the day job – not something to fit in around other tasks. Staff appointed to these positions need time, support and training to become effective managers.

In this way, managers who can take the time to brief people properly, show them where they have gone wrong and where they have done well, are not only building an effective and engaged workforce that feels valued, they are building a two-way relationship that might well pull them back from the burnout brink.

Alice Streatfeild, employee research at Infogroup|ORC International