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Employee Burnout: Come on, Boss, Relight My Fire!

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Are you feeling overworked?

If you are, you are in good company. One in three U.S. employees feels this way. In this 24/7 world where we can be connected all of the time, where there are fewer boundaries between working and not working, more and more of us feel deprived of time and even sleep has become a scarce resource. Books about feeling overwhelmed rise to best-seller status.

Even though the word "overwork" has been commonplace for a decade or do, it was not a word that employers wanted to hear much about. How could work possibly get done if employees don't ramp up and work longer? How could companies be productive without employees working harder?

But that changed this year.

Every year, the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) give an evidence-based award through our program, When Work Works. The 2013 winners of When Work Works Award for Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility reveal not only that overwork has become an employer issue, there are some innovative solutions that improve employee heath, engagement, commitment and productivity. (Apply today for the 2014 Award for Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility. It's the easiest thing your business can do this month to attract top local talent. Go to WhenWorkWorks.org for more information.)

Here are some of the innovative solutions that the Institute and SHRM saw among this year's winners:

• Providing additional staffing for workload peaks

During busy season, at Frost, Ruttenberg & Rothblatt, a CPA and advisory firm, managers hire a number of interns from local colleges and universities on a full-time or part-time basis for the firm's tax and healthcare consulting practices. Each team of administrative assistants is responsible for coordinating coverage for the individuals they support. This approach gives the team responsibility for planning time off, notifying those they support and making certain that all workloads are covered.

• Implementing cross training

At NPC Research, a human services research firm, staff members receive training in specific areas so that if one staff person is unavailable, a colleague can more easily fill in; and they can increase/decrease their full-time schedule in order to either respond to the intensity of their work schedule or deal with anticipated time off.

• Using a team approach

Leaders at Recruit Training Command, a naval boot camp, believe teamwork is the most important characteristic to developing a supportive and flexible work environment. When employees work well as a team, the workload is more easily shared.

• Improving work design

Employees at the American Society of Addiction Medicine recently got a work-design revamp following problems with a more informal system. Now, teams work more cohesively, and employees better understand their roles and responsibilities. To combat feelings of overwork, leaders at ASAM awards days off immediately after completing major projects. They've also increased the use of interns and temporary help to handle less strategic work, and they have shifted workloads and priorities to provide additional staff to specific projects when needed.

• Providing uninterrupted time during work time

A more efficient work environment is the goal of management at Ontraport, a software and business services firm. Everyone goes e-mail and chat "silent" for three hours each day to provide uninterrupted work time for "passion projects."

• Creating a culture where "no" is respected

To combat overwork at the management level, the CEO of First Alliance Credit Union directed managers to say "no" when their workloads were too full to take on extra tasks. Hearing this directly from the CEO has made everyone less stressed.

• Monitoring and helping employees who have heavy workloads

The goal at Public Policy Associates, a consulting firm, is to create a workplace where everyone can work together to address business needs while having a fulfilling life outside of the office. To avoid overwork, leaders review staff members' hours each month to address uneven workload spread.

inthinc Technology Solutions helps overworked employees work with managers to reduce their workload and find ways other team members can help support them.

• Helping employees prioritize tasks

Eagle County Government employees are encouraged to have open lines of communication with their managers so they can find the best ways for everyone to work. To help employees deal with reductions in staff causing increased feelings of overwork, the organization provides productivity training to help them prioritize tasks.

• Creating e-mail off protocols during non-work times

At the real estate firm, The Habitat Company, no employee is required to respond to e-mails outside of his or her work schedule.

Technology has given CPA firm Mahoney Ulbrich Christiansen Russ the ability to offer flexibility options to employees, but the firm leaders realize how work can infringe on family/personal time. So, employees are encouraged to use "out-of-office" responders and to set boundaries around work and personal hours. Managers try to avoid sending e-mails at night and on weekends to prevent the impression that a response is expected.

• Encouraging vacations

Ryan, a tax services firm, has implemented a comprehensive flexibility plan called "myRyan." They conducted a research study on manager concerns about flexibility and created a "Culture Council" to review feedback and make recommendations on flexibility program changes. As a result of this feedback, company leadership recently began requiring exempt employees to take at least 10 days off each year.

• Discouraging interruptions during leaves and vacations

The leaders at Colorado Springs School District 11 look at their employees holistically, understanding that they can't be productive on the job if they're burned out and stressed. The District offers generous leave and flexible work options, but leadership realizes the work-life lines often blur. As a result, they've taken steps to create a supportive workplace. No e-mail or any work technology access is permitted for employees who are on leave.

(These examples are from the introduction by Ellen Galinsky and Hank Jackson to the 2014 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work--a resource that offers hundreds of case studies of award-winning effective workplaces, published by the Institute and SHRM.)

Effective workplaces are now truly making work "work" for the employer and the employee. What other solutions do you feel employers and employees could create to deal with this epidemic of overwork?