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From Fatigued To Inspired: How to Avoid Employee Burnout and Reignite Employee Engagement

By Rob O'Donohue | January 22, 2021 | 0 Comments

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It’s safe to say that the pandemic has catapulted IT and the CIO into the spotlight like never before. However, this came at a cost with overstretched employees facing an increased risk of stress and burnout.

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In a recent webinar, I shared some really worrying statistics on the impact the pandemic is continuing to have on employees. An increase in stress levels, isolation, and anxiety all related to the disruption caused by the pandemic and having to juggle home and work like never before. On top of that, we’re spending more time on screens than ever before. And for many, productivity is taking a hit! (see figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – WEF-Ipsoso survey on employee engagement

While the urgency agenda has brought quick wins and many anecdotes of heroic employee performances with six-month projects being completed in days or weeks, the initial excitement that energized many team members is starting to wane. As the adrenaline and cortisol levels fall out of equilibrium, anxiety, fatigue, distress and burnout all start to become a real concern. 

CIOs are facing a dilemma…

Figure 2 – The CIOs dilemma 

Now, the onus is on CIOs and IT leaders to find a balance between maintaining a sense of urgency and ensuring their employee’s wellbeing is prioritized. Thankfully, this is achievable. It ‘just’ requires a deliberate and sustained approach and lessons from neuroscience.  The immediate focus must shift toward a more healthy, balanced, and sustainable approach to maintain momentum. But how?

Raise Awareness of Burnout Signals

I received a really great piece of eye-opening feedback during the peer review process for this research. While I had covered a slew of useful recommendations on how to help reignite employee engagement, the paper was missing a key piece of advice. How to help leaders, managers, and employees stop if someone (or themselves) were suffering from fatigue, stress, or even burnout? The peer reviewer was right.  So, make sure you and your team know what these signals are. Before it’s too late!

According to the World Health Organization, Gallup and the Mayo Clinic people suffering from work fatigue and burnout show signs of experiencing some or all of the following symptoms:

  1. Feeling depleted or exhausted

  2. Mentally distant from their job

  3. Negative feelings or cynicism about their job

  4. Reduced professional efficacy

  5. Difficulty concentrating

  6. Persistent sleep disruption

  7. Disillusioned about their job

  8. Suffering from headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints

When employees are experiencing these signs, most of their energy and mental focus is on daily survival, not developing for the future. It’s incumbent for CIOs to educate themselves and their leaders, as well as every employee within the organization, on what excess fatigue, stress and burnout look like and how it starts to manifest. It’s more difficult than ever to diagnose in a remote “out of sight, out of mind” setting.

Focus on Positive Practices

Next, CIOs must look to encourage the implementation of positive practices and healthy habits. For employees to maintain high performance and motivation over the longer term, it’s essential they’re feeling good. Taking evidence from neuroscience, we know that four of the main “feel-good” hormones we produce are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Creating an environment where these substances are naturally released can energize employees and help them reduce stress, avoid burnout and maintain momentum. (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3 – Hormones to help with employee engagement

Reward Along the Journey and at the Destination

To decrease the risk of employee distress, while maintaining momentum, it’s essential to look at ways employees can gain rewards and feel good about the work they’re doing. This is where dopamine can help. Dopamine plays a key role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our uniquely human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus and find things interesting. It’s also a key factor in how we can balance adrenaline (helping our body react more quickly). Contrary to popular belief, dopamine is not only released when you get a reward. In fact, just by knowing you’re working toward the goal and on the right path, your body will release dopamine. 

CIOs should work with their leaders to identify activates to help reward employees along the path to the goal as well as at the end. For a set of practices on this recommendation, check out the full research paper here

Cultivate a “Gratitude Attitude” Environment

Gratitude is a superpower — one of the most underused tools that a CIO has at their disposal. However, research shows that 37% of leaders and managers avoid giving praise altogether. When practising gratitude, the brain releases oxytocin and serotonin which are considered “happy hormones.” To help maintain momentum and keep employees positively engaged, invest in gratitude. It’s free!

Research has proven that practising gratitude can have significant positive benefits, such as:

  • Psychological benefits: Leads to more positive emotions and thoughts. It can increase self-satisfaction, enhance mood and improve levels of optimism.

  • Physical benefits: Strengthens the immune system, optimizes blood pressure and cardiac function and improves sleep-wake cycles.

  • Social benefits: Better communication, more empathy, stronger interpersonal relationships, greater team involvement and likability. It increases social trust.

For CIOs, expressing gratitude is a critical skill that can and should be developed. It is linked to multiple drivers of employee engagement.

Establish Employee Equilibrium

According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise, most people can engage in deliberate practice (which means pushing oneself beyond current limits) for only an hour without rest. In fact, extremely talented people in many different disciplines, like music, sports and writing, rarely practice more than four hours each day on average. Also, many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available.

Therefore, CIOs must promote and enforce the practice of rest and recharge activities if they want to maintain a healthy sense of urgency. Now more than ever, employees need to find ways to take breaks and build in exercises which release endorphins, proven to help manage stress.

I hope this post has given you some useful ideas to think about and consider to help reignite your employees.

If you’d like to see the full set of practices and How To’s check out the full research paper here

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Stay safe and well.


Rob O’Donohue, ACC PMP
Sr. Director Analyst CIO Leadership, Culture, & People



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