Employee burnout is contributing to North American labor shortages

Helen Hayes leads a Denver non-profit that helps people move from economic struggle to economic flourishing. | Photo by Josh Barrett/Courtesy of Denver Institute for Faith & Work

Denver executive suggests ways companies can attract, keep engaged workers

Employee burnout is a major problem that is worsening labor shortages across North America, Helen Hayes says. In a typical year, the average American works 100 hours more than a Briton, 300 hours more than a French employee, and 400 more hours than a German, Hayes said. “No wonder the average American is burned out,” she said in a speech to the Denver Institute for Faith & Work’s annual Business for the Common Good conference.

Hayes, a former portfolio manager for Colorado investment firm Janus Capital, is the CEO of Activate Work. She started the non-profit Activate in 2016 to help diverse people move from economic struggle to economic flourishing through skills training, life coaching, and placement. Activate’s training prepares people for success in the knowledge-based economy. Their average learner goes from earning $20,000 to $46,000 a year. The program expects to train 1,000 people over the next five years. It focuses not on poverty alleviation but on restoring people to dignity, to their fullest potential, she said.

Traditional methods of hiring leave valuable talent out, she said. Activate takes a “more regenerative approach to the workforce that brings in and nurtures talent.” Hayes is also the author and executive sponsor of the Colorado inclusive economy movement, a CEO-led effort to use businesses to build racial equality and economic opportunity through job creation. A recent Gallup poll found that 76 percent of workers experience burnout at least some of the time, she said. Half feel burnt out now, and one-quarter of employees reported being burned out at work very often, or always.

Worker shortages force staff in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors to face additional burdens of additional responsibilities. Hayes’ organization has a 14-person org chart, but currently, only ten staff. Burnout is diagnosed by five symptoms, she said. These include unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, a lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures. For Hayes, the burnout problem can be summed up in two words: “Poor management.”

Dan Kaskubar

“But there is hope, because good management can cure burnout.” She cited the New Testament parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) to make the case that the gospel is eminently pragmatic. We love our neighbor, and our God, by meeting physical needs, she said. “I believe we can proclaim the gospel most loudly and clearly in the marketplace,” she said.

Low-wage retail, hospitality, and food & beverage jobs are experiencing the highest quit rates, she said. “People are re-evaluating the value of low-value work. Given the workforce exits, the balance of power has shifted to workers. They can afford to be choosy, and they are.”

Dan Kaskubar was part of a panel discussion following Hayes’ speech. SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, suggests 70 percent of employees’ engagement is due to their immediate supervisor, he said. “People leave bad bosses. They don’t leave good jobs,” Kaskubar said. “Good bosses can make any bad job tolerable, and bad bosses make any great job bad.” Not only have workers left the workforce, but 60 percent of those who remain are disengaged, Hayes said.

For Hayes, the burnout problem can be summed up in two words: “Poor management.”

Nineteen percent are “down- right miserable, and over half of your workers are quiet quitters.” Quiet quitting is reflected in workers who choose to reject the “hustle culture, and the always on, always available culture that many of us grew up in,” she said. There are many causes for worker disengagement. Most of them stem from a lack of clarity about expectations from their managers and not feeling connected to a company’s mission and purpose. Little to no recognition for hard work and receiving little career development also play a role.

Hayes proposes re-imagined hiring as a solution to these problems. Hiring needs to cast not only a wider net but a more equitable and inclusive net, she said. Removing bias, skills-based hiring, writing more inviting job descriptions, and second-chance hiring are all part of the solution she proposes. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are an important part of removing bias, she said. They can all be boiled down to the simple concept of treating people the way you want to be treated. “D, E & I is not a four-letter word and should not be in the Kingdom.”

Recognizing and removing bias at the source is the first and most important part of DEI efforts, she said. In hiring, resumes submitted by people with African American names get 50 percent less callback than identical documents submitted by people with white-sounding names, she said. People of color are hit first, hit hardest, and recover last, if at all, from economic shocks, she said. Gender bias is revealed by the fact that men are viewed more favorably than women for identical qualities, such as being married and being a parent. “When we can eliminate bias, we will enlarge our talent pool, and invite in those who are most marginalized.”

Skills-based hiring expands the applicant pool by doing away with irrelevant qualifications as a proxy for competence. College degrees, for example, are not a predictor of success on the job, she said. “This has large implications for diversity and inclusion, and an expansive, re-imagined workforce hiring practice.” Activate tries in its job postings to stress that “women and people of color are strongly encouraged to apply.” Most women disqualify themselves from a job posting that an equally qualified male will apply to with eagerness, she said. “That’s one of the differences of our genders.”

Giving a chance to prospective employees who have been involved with the justice system is “one of the most redemptive acts of love at its best,” she said. Hayes also suggested that employers must turn their attention not just to new ways of hiring but also to developing cultures of flourishing.

  • Generous wages and benefits, including equal pay for equal work, top her list of suggestions.
  • Job flexibility, hybrid, and remote work opportunities are the second, sometimes even the top thing that workers want, she noted.
  • Addressing the mental health crisis that has resulted in widespread burnout is also critical. “We’re tired, and our workers are tired.”
  • Companies can be reenergized by building inclusive, appreciative cultures, allowing people to be their authentic selves at work, she said.
  • Career pathing is important. This involves asking employees where they want to be, how they want to grow, and where they see themselves contributing best.
  • Talent upskilling, something most employees want, results in increased worker retention and loyalty.
  • Mentorship and sponsorship are important ways for employees to navigate a company’s culture and also to be promoted or advanced within their organization.
Jervis DiCicco

Building a culture of flourishing results in tangible benefits, she said. “It’s good business, but it’s also great gospel.” As the Gallup organization noted, people who feel inspired, motivated, and supported in their work do more work, she said. Such work is significantly less stressful for their overall health and well-being. “We will be judged and known by our love, by the way we bring our employees and our cities to their fullest, God-given potential. We have a holy and high calling in the workplace. May we shine together like a city on a hill through the shalom of our workplaces.” Meeting those ideals can be challenging, other speakers hinted.

While work is a good part of our identities, it is also part of a fallen world, said Joanna Meyer, the Denver Institute’s director of public engagement. “Let’s be honest, work stinks sometimes.” And the tensions facing business leaders in the current environment make it doubly difficult for managers. “It feels like we’re in a very frustrating time right now, where employers can’t afford to pay more, and people can’t afford to make less,” said Jervis DiCicco. He is the chief engagement officer with Prosperbridge, an organization that works with workers and employers to maximize benefits and wages.

Brian Gray

For decades, wages haven’t kept pace with housing, education, and healthcare costs. Real wages declined in 2022 even after record wage increases, DiCicco said. Fifty percent of jobs in Denver are front-line positions that pay less than $30 an hour, said Dan Kaskubar of SPUR LLC, a leadership coaching firm. “It is really hard, as a front-line worker, to support a family on less than $30 an hour,” he said. Wages aside, employees tend to move around more often than in decades past. “It is a challenge to attract good talent. It can often be a challenge to develop and retain good talent,” said Brian Gray, who works as vice president, formation, at the Denver Institute for Faith & Work.

Gray’s father, a civil engineer, worked for one company for 25 years. After leaving that company, he worked for three other firms over a three-year period. “Today, business owners and business leaders are facing the challenge of — what does it look like to consider the flourishing of their employees? Not just the fiscal bottom line, not just the quality of product, and those are critical, but what does it look like to help their employees to thrive in the place where they work.”

Learning from the intersection of Christian teaching and workplace best practices can help, said Alli Horst of Denver recruiting firm Core Ventures. “There are absolutely Christian values that overlap with good business practice,” she said. “Beauty and values shine through most in how tensions are handled.”

Thoughtful employers want workers with both humility and ambition, though many lean one way or the other, Horst said. “If you are just ambitious without humility, it’s destructive.”

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