An end to the burnout?

While employee burnout may have fueled much of The Great Resignation, it just left many employers feeling burned. 

Pandemic pressures led to the worst of the resignations in the consumer, retail, healthcare, and education sectors, according to a 2022 study by McKinsey & Company. And those sectors continue to suffer as the remaining employees now endure the post-resignation burnout and employers struggle to properly grow or even maintain their employee base. 

A tight labor market and the fading emphasis on gaps in the resume have reduced the stigma historically associated with frequent job-switching. While the prospect of an imminent recession (next year, maybe?) might reduce the risk of losing good talent in the coming year, now is as good a time as any to consider the sorts of benefits that business owners can provide to create meaningful value for their teams. 

First, the Research 

Yes, we will get to the investment and insurance-based retirement plan and benefit options that are so popular with financial advisors. But shouldn’t we first consult the research to better understand the value of these benefits relative to others in the eyes of your employees? 

Among the top reasons why employees have been leaving their jobs without another in hand, according to that McKinsey report referenced earlier, are ‘uncaring leaders, unsustainable work performance expectations, lack of career development and advancement potential, and lack of support for employee health and well-being’. 

You didn’t happen to notice anything about compensation or benefits there, did you? 

Well, that’s because every one of those concerns ranked higher than ‘inadequate total compensation package’.  

This isn’t to suggest that employee benefits are not meaningful (they certainly are, given that just shy of 30% of respondents to the survey referenced the ‘total compensation’ rationale for quitting), but rather that much else matters too. 

But before we get there, can we talk about ‘lack of workplace flexibility’ which comes in with nearly equal relevance in the survey to the ‘compensation package’ concern? 

What Would a Financial Advisor Know About PTO? 

First, I know that the cost of retraining employees is astounding. 

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study from 2019 calculated the cost of a resignation to be roughly 1/3rd of that worker’s salary. Roughly 67% of that is due to soft costs like reduced productivity while the rest represents hard costs like recruiting and hiring temp workers. 

Second, I manage a company of 23 advisors and 15 support staff, and I work with a multitude of business owners, managing their employee benefits with them. I can share, experientially, that some of the most meaningful changes that firms have made over this past year have been the least expensive, on a hard dollar basis. 

This brings us back to that McKinsey study about ‘lack of workplace flexibility’, and, ultimately the question of PTO. 

Like many employers over the past few years, we have implemented a ‘team centered attendance policy’ (also known as unlimited PTO, and this, among other changes, has contributed to a dramatically positive impact on workplace morale.  

You can google your time away and find all of the risks inherent in a policy like this, but when imposed on the right kind of team in the right kind of workplace it can work wonders.  

The correct implementation of ‘unlimited PTO’ can give employees a sense of freedom to take time when they need it, it can remove the burden imposed on employers to track various types of days off in complex PTO policies, and it can bring the team closer together by creating a sense of shared responsibility and a focus on results, rather than a focus on time spent doing a job. 

And because this sort of policy often leads to employees taking less time off than they might otherwise, some firms have even gone so far as to require that employees take a mandated number of hours off a year to help reduce burnout. 

And while we are talking about flexibility, let’s not overlook that whole ‘remote work’ thing. Honestly, why are you still fighting it? 

Retirement Plans 

Surely, you knew we’d get here. I mean, I am a financial planner, after all. 

According to a 2020 workplace and wellness survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, “Seven in ten (70%) feel employees need their employer’s help to make sure they are healthy and financially secure. However, six in ten (62%) say it is the employer’s responsibility to do so.” 

No compensation and benefits package is complete without consideration of retirement benefits. 

While the traditional 401k is a perennial favorite given its remarkable savings caps (in 2023, $30k for those over age 50 and $22,500 for those under age 50), let’s not overlook the remarkable tax benefits inherent in the ROTH 401k. 

Saving into a ROTH 401k offers participants the opportunity to pay their federal income taxes at today’s income tax rate and grow their retirement savings totally income tax free. Kind of a big deal (hence the italics). 

Companies with an interest in simplicity and low-cost implementation might consider either a SEP IRA or a SIMPLE IRA. 

The SEP IRA allows for considerable maximum savings, up to $66k in 2023, but all of that savings must come from the employer. 

The SIMPLE IRA allows for employee savings in 2023 up to $19K for those over age 50 and $15,500 for those under age 50. These plans come with either a requisite match of up to 3% or a nonelective contribution of 2% of each eligible employee’s compensation. 

Insurance Benefits 

A whole host of insurance-based benefits packages exist to meet a variety of intentions. An employer may want to focus on saving himself or the firm on taxes (think 412(e)(3) plans), or provide an insurance benefit for executives’ beneficiaries (think split-dollar plans), or even create a golden handcuffs-type arrangement for key employees (think nonqualified deferred compensation plans like SERPs or COLIs). 

Creativity is key in retaining employees with benefits, and in a future column I will take some time to further flesh out those insurance-based employee benefit plans referenced above. 

Anthony M. Conte is managing partner at Conte Wealth Advisors based in Camp Hill. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Registered Representative Securities offered through Cambridge Investment Research Inc., a broker/dealer, member FINRA/SIPC. Investment Advisor Representative Cambridge Investment Research Advisors Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Cambridge and Conte Wealth Advisors LLC are not affiliated. 

Anthony M. Conte is managing partner at Conte Wealth Advisors based in Camp Hill. He can be reached at [email protected]. 


Identifying, combating work burnout

Although some reasons for the Great Resignation seemed obvious during the pandemic — people staying home to care for school-aged children or for loved ones who had fallen ill — just how much does burnout play a role in the vast numbers of people who continue to quit their jobs? 


As several observers in Pennsylvania pointed out recently, the answer might depend on your definition of burnout. 


“What is burnout? Is it a low-wage job that is just not worth it?” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, a research and policy development organization based in Harrisburg. “It’s definitely true that you have people who came to the conclusion that doing a low-paying job is not worth it to them anymore.” 


In a recent study, Lensa, a job-search company based in West Chester, tried to get a handle on job burnout — analyzing the average working hours, annual salaries, commuting times and the number of Google searches for the word “burnout — and determined which states are the worst for employment burnout.  


Pennsylvania was in the top 10, coming in at No. 8.  


Texas ranked No. 1, and Illinois and Virginia tied at No. 9 behind the Keystone State.  


Lensa said it looked at all 50 states, with each receiving a “burnout score.” In Pennsylvania, the score was 6.2 based on 38.42 working hours per week, an average salary of $66,000, a commute time of 27 minutes and 23,500 searches for the word “burnout.” 


Several observers of the labor market in Pennsylvania said they don’t have specific data to back up how much burnout applies to resignations. But they say that low unemployment rates and high demand for workers continue to lead people to change jobs for numerous reasons that don’t always include money. 


Sandra McPherson, an associate professor in the economics department at Millersville University, said that the so-called “quit rate” nationwide has been at about 2.7% recently, peaking last fall at about 3%. Before the pandemic, the quit rate was about 1.7%. 


A Pew Research Center survey showed that workers cited pay as the No. 1 reason for quitting a job in 2021, McPherson said. But the top 10 reasons also include working too many hours, no flexibility with hours, no opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected at work. While she said those reasons indicate job-related stresses, she cautioned that she didn’t have enough data to suggest that those factors are tied to burnout. 


“It depends on how you define burnout, but too many hours could be an indicator of burnout,” she said. Burnout also could be defined as “mental exasperation,” which could reflect the answers around feeling stuck and not respected, McPherson also said.  


Not everyone sees the trends as bad.  


For decades, employers had an advantage over workers, Herzenberg said. During the pandemic, people re-assessed whether working long hours for minimal rewards was worth it. Studies are showing that many people retired, while others sought better jobs with less stress that led to the job hopping that still is going on, he said.  


“You can call it burnout. You can call it an ‘it’s-not-worth-it effect,” Herzenberg also said. “You can call it ‘take this job and shove it.’” 


Over time, the dynamics might change, Herzenberg said. For one, some retirees might come back into the labor force and the number of available jobs might diminish, he added. But he sees the trends playing out as an overall positive for workers. 


“I think the pandemic experience provides a bit of a corrective in the terms of workers realizing that some jobs aren’t worth it—‘if you want me to work for you, you have to pay me better, you have to treat me with more respect, you have to schedule me so I can deal with my family responsibilities,’” he said. “American employers could do a lot better with how they treat workers. Employers like to say that their workers are their best asset. But if people realized it is not worth going back to a crappy job with a crappy employer, that would be a healthy corrective.” 


No end in sight 


The national unemployment rate fell to a nearly historic low of 3.5% in the latest report released in early August, when it also was reported that employers continue to hire at a brisk pace. The industries who were having trouble before the pandemic—leisure and hospitality and retail—have struggled the most and likely will continue to do so, several experts said. McPherson cited statistics from the federal Bureau of Labor statistics that those are the industries with the highest quit rates, followed by social assistance and health care.  


Healthcare has had difficulties because of the additional stresses caused by COVID-19, said McPherson and Jesse McCree, CEO of the South Central Workforce Development Board, or SCPa Works. 


“Burnout is notoriously difficult to measure because it is imprecise—you kind of know it when you see it,” McCree said. “Overall, anecdotally, we are seeing that well-being, mental health, burnout, and stress are still big factors in the healthcare fields.” 


Overall, there are not enough workers to go around in many different sectors, so some workers are being asked to do more, and that might lead to job hopping, said McCree, whose organization covers an eight-county region of Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lebanon, Juniata, Perry and York counties. In that region, the unemployment rate is about 3.29%, according to a report from SCPa Works. There still are two job openings for every person looking for work, which gives job seekers options, McCree said. Employers continually cite recruitment and retention as their main concerns, he added.  


“Workers are not just looking for better wages but better working conditions and better schedules,” he said. “So maybe it’s not burnout but worker preference and choice.” 


Job hopping will remain an issue for the foreseeable future, even with the economic headwinds this summer, such as high inflation, McCree suggested. 


Another Perspective 


Another expert, Susan Graham of Susan Graham Consulting based in Camp Hill, specializes in placing people with backgrounds and skills in IT. Graham says she can clearly state that burnout is not an issue in her sector, which involves recruiting high level technical jobs, such as developers, programmers or project managers. Companies that hire this “cream of the crop” knew long before the pandemic that they must pay well but also must meet the work/home needs of these skilled employees or they will not stick around, she said. 


“These employers don’t really have a choice. They understand that it is not all about money. It is about flexibility, No. 1,” Graham said, noting that things like dress codes in the IT fields went out long ago, too. “It is about working from home — work/life balance. I don’t see burnout. I see people saying they need flex time, they want to work a four-day work week, and things like that.” 


Thomas Barstow is a freelance writer 

Work from home ‘burnout'”: What it is, how to manage it

But perhaps ditching the commute and “going to work” in your sweatpants isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Though there are advantages to the work-from-home lifestyle, sleeping and working in the environment can make finding a work-life balance more difficult.

If anything, it’s starting to stress Americans out. In a recent survey by Monster, a job search website, 51% of respondents admitted to experiencing burnout while working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

And that’s despite taking breaks for “self care” every day. In the same survey, 71% of respondents said they were stepping away from work for things like walks or spending time with family.

“The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many employees who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives,” wrote journalists Laura Giurge and Vanessa Bohns in the Harvard Business Review.

Vicki Salemi, a Monster career expert, told CNBC that the main culprit for burnout is a lack of structure and routine to your work day.

The World Health Organization warns of loneliness and isolation as a cause for experiencing spurts of depression while working from home.

There’s also the added stress of “proving” to your employer that you’re still working hard even while you work from home.

“There is still that, ‘I need to work while I’m making money now and also to show that I am a good employee so they keep me on,’” Melissa L. Whitson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, told CNBC. “There is that added pressure onto it.”

Burnout is more than being stressed about a job. It can cause an array of mental and physical conditions, too, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and more.

So how do we avoid it?

Be kind to yourself

It’s harder than it sounds.

“The first thing you should do is to be kind to yourself and know that the stress manifests itself differently in different people,” Whitson said.

Since you can’t change your external factors, try making internal shifts to improve your day. Make a list of three self-care activities you can revert to when you start to feel yourself mentally slipping throughout the day. Mine include yoga, playing the guitar and going on a run.

If you feel that “burnout” mentality creeping in, force yourself to do one thing on your list. I promise you, you will feel better.

Set office hours

Human beings like structure. Without it, it’s easy for us to feel lost, aimless and depressed throughout the day.

Implement office hours by silencing notifications and activating an “out-of-office” response outside of certain time blocks and set boundaries around your time.

It’s OK to respond to an email on Monday morning that you received at 6 p.m. on Friday. In fact, you’ll be happier because of it.

Take time off

It’s less tempting to take time off during a worldwide pandemic. It’s even less tempting when you’re “time off” will likely be spent at home… Where you’ve been working every day since March, if not longer.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Time off can refresh your mind and enthusiasm for your work. Even if you stay at home, you’ll be amazed by how much more relaxed you feel by not having to open your inbox at the start of the day.

Unplug. Turn off all notifications. Take a vacation at a safe distance. Treat yourself to takeout from your favorite restaurant. You deserve “you” time now more than ever.

Have a hobby

Most of us that are working from home are spending time on our computers all day, and that makes unwinding on our computers or other electronic devices after work less enticing.

Pick up a hobby that forces you to unplug. Try something that involves working with your hands and falling into a “flow” mindset. Knitting is a great way to zone out; so is running, playing music or any other hands-on activity you can think of.

Though these few “solutions” to avoiding (or curing) burnout may sound easy, it takes intentional thought to integrate these practices into your daily work-from-home lives.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. If you can relate with the “burnout” mentality, make the decision right now to take the necessary steps and precautions to improve your work-from-home lifestyle and mental wellbeing.

The Behaviorist: Time off is not time wasted

I am a little bit embarrassed to tell you that I took six weeks off. A six-week sabbatical with my husband – reading, writing, resting, reflecting, relaxing, drinking wine and coffee, enjoying the sunshine and some exercise, and sometimes doing nothing at all.

I am embarrassed because I recognize the rarity of taking this kind of time. Talking about it at all feels boastful and a bit millennial. Even as I type this, I can picture my step-dad rolling his eyes and wondering how on earth anyone can ride off into the sunset for six weeks and have a job to come back to at all.

And while I am incredibly grateful for a team that supported my request to tag along on my husband’s sabbatical, I don’t believe that my experience should be rare or embarrassing. We need to begin embracing a culture that supports this kind of time to disconnect. I have been more productive in the month since returning from my own sabbatical than I was in the previous six months combined and there is a slew of research which proves that time spent away from the office is good for individuals, for families, for the economy, and for business.

‘Always on’

I spend most of my time at the office surrounded by well-being research and working with stressed out high-achievers juggling ever growing to-do lists. I’m sure they would all love nothing more than to take my advice and drive off for some fun in the sun.

However, most also feel a strong sense of responsibility toward the people who work for them, the boards to whom they report and the impact they would like to achieve. Many find these responsibilities incompatible with extended breaks. Vacation is viewed as a luxury, making both leadership and staff hesitant to use paid time off.

This is generally true across the country. Americans take significantly less vacation than the rest of the developed world. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four weeks of paid vacation each year, and the average worker in France takes 30 days annually. Europe recognizes a value in vacation that we have not yet embraced. Here, where the average private sector worker earns just 16 paid vacation and holidays per year, individuals are using less and less of their allocated time over the last 15 years.

According to a study by Project: Time Off, in 2015 over half of working Americans with paid vacation did not use it all. This cultural tone is often set at the very top. According to Emma Seppala of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, 84 percent of executives in the U.S. report having cancelled vacations in order to work.

Unfortunately, this “always-on” mentality may be doing more harm than good. In addition to increasing rates of individual stress, burnout and strain on families, unused vacation time costs U.S. businesses $224 billion annually, and can unintentionally reduce overall productivity itself.

‘Take a vacation’

As I have studied workplace well-being, I have seen more and more research pointing to the benefits of time off, not only for the individual, but as an essential foundation for many of the highest-performing organizations. The research reveals that time spent away and disconnected from the office, leads to increases in dedication, enthusiasm, performance, stamina and creativity, as well as improved health (and thus fewer future absences). Our now largely knowledge-based economy requires this type of clear, energized and creative mind. Success in this type of economy is fueled by the very things that vacation provides.

A study featured in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 came to this same conclusion. According to the author, “statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.”

In fact, the report found that workers who took more than 10 days of their vacation allowance per year, compared with those who took less than 10, were more than 30 percent more likely to receive a raise or bonus within a three-year period. Other research utilizing brain imaging has found that doing nothing for a period of time increases alpha waves in the brain that are necessary for creativity, insight and innovation. In another study of 13,000 middle-aged men, those who skipped vacation for five consecutive years were 30 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who took at least one week per year.

A separate study of working fathers found that 37 percent of them would consider taking a new job with less pay if it offered more work-life balance. Thus, organizations that value vacation are likely to benefit through lower turnover rates, fewer absences, and increased innovation, all of which positively impact the bottom line.

Take the time

My advice? Take a vacation. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be whatever sounds restful and meaningful to you. Go camping, travel, visit family or friends, sit on the beach, or run a marathon. But turn off your phone, put an away message on your email, and disconnect from your everyday patterns. Rest. Read. Write. Move. Sit. Recover. And come back rejuvenated, energized and passionate for the work that you do.

If you are a CEO, owner or manager, spend time intentionally crafting wise PTO policies that prioritize rest and recovery. Show your teams that you value this time and set the cultural tone by using the policies yourself. Come back with fresh eyes and new ideas. You won’t regret it, and neither will your organization.

Kate Coleman is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster. She focuses on preventing and managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She can be reached at [email protected].