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Culture Builder: Vacation isn’t the answer to employee burnout

September 1, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink,’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up here to get the next one this Friday.

I spent a few of my teenage summer years as a poolside lifeguard.

During one of my shifts, an elderly man fell limp into the deep end. I was scanning the pool but I missed that he had swallowed too much water and lost his footing. To my eyes, he appeared to go from alert to face-down in the pool in a flash.

Looking back, one lesson from my training has stuck with me since: Many of us misunderstand what drowning looks like. There’s no wild splashing and or shouts. Most often, a drowning victim is physiologically unable to call out for help. By one estimate, one in 10 drownings takes place while a capable adult is nearby unaware.

That’s one reason why “drowning” is an uncomfortably apt metaphor for how we talk about feeling overwhelmed at work. Deeper, rougher water requires more advanced skills. It adds risk to go it alone. Anyone can get overwhelmed. Worse still: It’s nearly impossible to call for help when you need it most.

Burnout didn’t start during the pandemic, even if it has proven this year’s song of summer.

A stunning 89% of employees report experiencing burnout this year, according to a survey released this week. Most worrying in that data: Almost two thirds of those surveyed said vacation either didn’t offer relief at all, or only a short-term.

The difference appears to be what the primary causes of that burnout are. The top complaint was “being asked to take on more work” after layoffs, consolidations or changing priorities. Other top beefs included toxic workplaces, being asked to work faster and being micromanaged.

No surprise, then, if you return from vacation to the same environment, nothing changes. It’s not helped that the surging Delta variant has brought back mask mandates and curtailed some of the loosening restrictions we felt back in June. Once we thought new office dynamics would return after Labor Day. That now sounds naively optimistic.

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What do we do? Well, root out the real causes of burnout. If it’s not those top workplace issues, it may very well be the burn of extended, heightened stress. For employees surveyed, flexible work hours and mental health support were more popular than even a four-day work week or unlimited PTO. The point then is lots of professionals like their actual work, they just don’t like the restrictions and environment. Give direction, let them do the work. Remove barriers.

The worrying point for leaders is you often won’t know someone is drowning until it’s too late. Back 15 years ago, I splashed into the pool once I saw the elderly man slump over. In three years of lifeguarding it was the only real action I saw. I got to the man and lifted him, and he coughed himself alert. He was fine. Embarrassed, a bit bewildered, and perhaps a sign of broader decline. But he was OK for then. He needed a lot more attention than I could offer.

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