University stress
There are ways and means to tackle staff burnout issues and companies must be open to that. Image Credit: Pexels

The Ministry of Happiness was created by the UAE government for very valid reasons. Businesses face an epidemic far worse than COVID-19 – that of workplace stress and depression, which takes an enormous toll on employees and company performance.

Various research reports from Gallup to Korn Ferry and WHO have thrown light on the ‘silent killers’ of happiness. Depression significantly impacts productivity and, along with stress, lead to absenteeism, ‘presenteeism’ and staff turnover.

To make a difference, we need to acknowledge the causes of workplace-induced stress - strain resulting from a combination of high job demands and low job control, long work hours; economic insecurity of job loss, low wages that produce economic insecurity; work-family conflict; workplace bullying and harassment; and perceived unfairness or a sense of injustice and a lack of social support.

So how do we go about fixing these issues? Many of the factors causing stress and burnout can be at least partly remedied if companies stop taking existing jobs and organizational arrangements as sacrosanct and engage in serious redesign initiatives. Here are two examples of businesses doing just that:

Removing unnecessary distractions

SAS, the largest privately-owned software company in the world, has a 35-hour workweek. When we asked their leaders what made it possible, the response was unanimous: Few people in most organisations work 35 productive hours in a week. (Our independent research across different organisations showed the maximum number of hours an employee could work productively as six in a day).

SAS took steps to remove burdens that wasted time. On-site childcare, assistance with elder care, a chief medical officer to help choose the best health providers who provided health plans that didn’t bog people down with paperwork and similar benefits reduced distractions by providing employees with high-quality help for their life issues.

An emphasis on employee trust and the decentralisation of decision-making also eliminated endless ‘check-in meetings’ and the need to get approval from layers of management – processes that unnecessarily consume much time.

Automation to relieve burdens

The other example is of a company that is redesigning the primary care experience for both patients and providers. To be successful, it needs to reduce physician turnover and burnout, and to provide an outstanding patient experience by increasing doctors’ level of engagement. Doing so requires addressing a dramatic rise in bureaucratic tasks, too many work hours, and the increasing digitisation.

The company is doing something that any organisation can do to reduce the wasted effort that makes long hours necessary and work stressful. We describe it as ‘user-centred work design’. The company hired more than 100 software engineers to engage with physicians to figure out what tasks can be automated to reduce doctors’ workloads and develop software that is easy to use.

Groups of people from all jobs and levels meet regularly to determine how to allocate work in ways that reduce stress. This helps the employees figure out what practices, tasks and operations can be eliminated without any adverse consequences.

Make a real commitment

The number of unnecessary work tasks performed in a given day is pretty astounding. Many activities are simply leftovers from long-established policies that no longer serve a purpose.

Certain processes don’t add significant economic value. And many companies take current job designs for granted, thereby foregoing opportunities to seriously reduce stress.

We find that most organisations consider their work environments and habits necessary and never question what they are doing or how they are doing it. For instance, one financial services firm never even considered the idea that its 100 hour work-weeks were neither mandated by law nor useful in attracting or retaining talent.

Job redesign to reduce stress – and increase happiness and productivity – is not a formulaic activity, which is the major reason why most companies hesitate to attempt it. Just like product design, it requires observation, employee interactions to ascertain how to remove unnecessary tasks and consultation with the people who do the work every day.

Mostly, it requires people who refuse to accept workplace depression as unchangeable and who don’t apply band-aid like yoga classes and stress-reduction workshops to see the problem. Any organisation can accomplish this only if it is willing to place employees at the centre of the job redesign process.