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Employee burnout and disengagement has been accelerating in recent years. As the pace of work has increased and bottom-line pressures have grown, the demands on workers have taken their toll. Peter Atherton, a professional engineer and author of the book Reversing Burnout, has found in his recent polling with engineering firm leaders and practitioners that 50 percent of respondents consider burnout to be a legitimate concern, while the other 50 percent see it as an epidemic.

In the 16 months since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most office employees into remote work, the situation has worsened. While productivity in many industries has actually climbed with people working from home, many employees have struggled with finding the proper work/life balance.

In the engineering industry, burnout is a frontline issue. At a time when the industry faces a significant labor shortage, the need to produce billable hours is putting many employees under tremendous strain.

Atherton, who is president of ActionsProve, LLC, recently came on the American Council of Engineering Companies’ (ACEC) Engineering Influence podcast to talk about burnout and employment disengagement.

The following is an edited version of the conversation. Listen to the entire conversation below:

ACEC: As we emerge from the pandemic, where do we stand with employee burnout?

Atherton: You’ve probably heard about what’s being called the “Great Resignation”. In April, Microsoft released its Work Trend Index, which found that 46% of employees across all industries and countries were looking to change jobs in six to 12 months. Among Generation Z employees, that percentage jumps to 54 percent. The primary reason for this situation is that they’ve realized that they could work remotely and have a better work/life balance.

And in 2019, the World Health Organization categorized burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

ACEC: What about within the engineering industry?

Atherton: I was recently with a group of ACEC Emerging Professionals — 25 to 35-year-olds working in engineering firms — and we polled them to ask how they are feeling about their work situation.

More than half said that they felt burned out or overwhelmed. Another 20 percent reported feeling disengaged, and around 10 percent said they were unsure of the future. Only 16 percent said that they were feeling good and felt like things are on track.

ACEC: Are firms responding to the reality of this situation?

Atherton: I think the answer is no, but they’re getting there. Firm leaders are coming to realize that life/work balance is important, and that it’s not just important to their staff. It’s important to their managers, and it’s important to them too.

But there is still a disconnect in that many firms haven’t yet closed the loop on this. It’s important that they let their staff know that they are not ignoring burnout and point to tangible things that they’re doing right now to address it. They can demonstrate that they care about long-term success and that they recognize this as a great opportunity to redefine how work gets done in their organization. And they can engage with their employees to create the type of work environment they want to be in.

ACEC: What impact does employee burnout have on a firm?

Atherton: The first thing to understand is that it is going to be the top performers who burn out. These are the people who are most dedicated to the craft and to the organization, and who are putting the most in overtime. Naturally, if these business drivers are affected, this is going to have a negative impact on the firm.

Everyone has different thresholds but none of us are machines. If you have a high performer who is working unusually long hours continuously, season after season, year after year, even for decades, there will eventually be some type of a pivot.

Or maybe it’s already happened. You have a high performer who is suddenly doing less or disengaging more. She’s no longer asking for the next assignment.

Particularly difficult for an organization is when a leader or a manager disengages or burns out, because then everyone below them in the organization will feel it. You end up with a situation in which the people who have the most influence in inspiring and engaging others in the organization are not inspired or engaged themselves.

ACEC: Is it enough just to cut back on someone’s workload?

Atherton: Burnout starts with prolonged work overload, but when they get to the point of burnout, there are often other frustrations in place. They may be work-related, but personal frustrations also come into play, maybe even some resentments about work on a personal side. So even if you were to remove or lessen the workload, there are still a number of other elements at play that individually you have to be aware of and organizationally you’d need to help manage.

ACEC: So what does a firm do?

Atherton: On one level, we do need to work smarter. We need to strategically plan and build the capacity of our people and organization. We have to learn how to delegate better, how to train and develop better, how to accelerate the training and development process, and allow for real rest. We need to use technology and design to create better workflows, design processes, and systems.

This is a major opportunity for firms to think about their future. As far as crises go, this is actually a good one. Firms have too much work but not enough people to get it done.

What can they do? They can identify their ideal type of work and their ideal type of client type and then position the firm to focus there.

That will be difficult for a lot of firms because the inclination is always to just take on more, but the firms that have clarity of their mission and vision, that understand the expertise they have and the type of work where they excel, will be the ones who will avoid employee burnout and thrive.

Let’s go one step deeper. A significant component of burnout, beyond just feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, if often a loss of efficacy and a sense of purpose. People need to know or be reminded that their work matters.

Engineering firms can consistently reinforce to their team about the difference they make through their projects. Engineering is an industry that truly makes a difference. Their work matters to public health, safety, welfare, but firms don’t always do a good job articulating that to their people.

There are firms where celebrating and supporting the team and their work is part of the culture and these firms have become very attractive destinations for all levels of engineers, whether they are mid-career or just entering the profession.

These firms encourage their people to get out of the day-to-day routine. They inspire employees to mentor, to invest time in community activities, or just to step back and look at work from a different perspective.

Burnout takes away any enjoyment from your work, but firms can help their people learn to love their work again. And I think it’s vital that they recapture that feeling because engineers have a profound impact on society.

The American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) is the business association of the nation’s engineering industry.