Switch gears to avoid employee burnout, say HR experts

Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of HR Update.

The age-old adage “take a break” might not be the solution to your employees’ workplace woes after all.

Instead of offering a vacation to a burnt-out, stressed employee, experts say giving them an opportunity to try something new at work might be a better long-term solution. And in an increasingly competitive work economy, that new challenge could be key to keeping the talent companies work so hard to attract.

Four years ago, recruitment agency Hays put out a survey titled What People Want. Among its findings were that one of the most important factors affecting employee retention was not salary, benefits or a short commute.

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If a company wants to retain people, “it is the variety of the work and being able to give them that variety that will make them stay with your organization,” says Soley Soucie, regional director of Hays Canada’s Eastern division.

Soucie says the traditional way to try and keep employees happy is to give them a vacation when they seem tired of their work. But if that feeling stems from the work itself, she says taking a week off will, at best, postpone the inevitable.

Instead of offering a break to employees feeling burnt out, bored or uninspired, Soucie says a more effective solution is to give the employee a chance to try something new. Whether it’s a new project, an internship-like week in another role, or a more permanent change in responsibilities, she says the long-term benefits of switching gears far outweigh the temporary relief of a vacation. 

“It shakes their daily routine, and that’s what needs to happen,” says Soucie.

Talent retention

For the employee, a chance to learn new skills will help them with career development, give their brain a fresh challenge and make them feel supported by their employer. 

That’s not to say vacations aren’t important, says Soucie. But they shouldn’t be used as a band-aid solution.

“If they’re not engaged, the vacation isn’t going to keep them,” she says. In other words, when an employee is feeling drained or otherwise disconnected from their work, what they need is a change, not a temporary escape.

In an increasingly competitive economy, employees often have many employment options, says Soucie. The original What People Want survey showed 70 per cent of the workforce was looking for new opportunities. The 2017 iteration saw that number jump to 89 per cent. In other words, most employees are open to any company that can offer them something better – and different – than what they currently have.

Soucie says this increased competition means employers need to do more to retain their top talent, and this new approach is a proven way to help that talent feel valued. She has seen the benefits firsthand at Hays and other workplaces, and to employers worried about “losing” a prized employee to another role in the company, she has a stark wake-up call: “Imagine if they just quit right now.”

In other words, it’s worth a try, says Soucie. Sure, there are some logistical hurdles – for one, she says it’s important to try the concept on a case-by-case basis, and don’t keep it a secret! – but the risk is worth the reward of retaining good talent.

At its core, this approach is about making sure employees want to stay, says Soucie. No amount of vacation time will keep them if it’s the job itself that’s wearing them down – especially with a competitive labour market always promising greener grass at another company.

“It’s not just about getting them. It’s keeping them,” says Soucie. “Honestly, you can give somebody unlimited vacation, and they’re still going to leave you.”

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