Have you noticed a change in your employees recently? Do they seem irritable, worried, disinterested or do they overreact to minor hassles? Is absenteeism on the rise in your laboratory? If any of these situations sound familiar, your technicians may be headed for burnout.
Today's booming economy and tight labor market can drive employees to the breaking point. While laboratory owners want to take advantage of the boom by investing in new systems and taking in more business, they risk overwhelming their staff, which can lead to burnout. Not only will they become less effective technicians, they may even decide to look elsewhere for employment. "With more options, there is less tolerance from workers who think, 'why should I put up with this when I can just go get another job?" writes psychologist Beverly Potter in her book, Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work.
It's your best employees who are most susceptible to burnout. They put more into their jobs, care about their performances and take their work more seriously. And, they may even exacerbate the problem by becoming stressed when they don't perform at their best.
Burnout is a steadily increasing dissatisfaction with a job. If ignored or denied, the consequences can be serious for the employee, his family and the laboratory. As a manager, it's your responsibility to recognize the symptoms of burnout and try to reduce stress; empathizing and striving to prevent burnout go a long way toward earning employee loyalty. Following are five warning signs to watch for and strategies to help prevent employee burnout:
Warning Sign #1: Loss of Control.
"Loss of control is the biggest cause of job burnout," writes Potter. "When a person starts to feel a loss of control—it doesn't matter whether it's accurate or not—it decreases motivation and is extremely stressful." This stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways: anger, isolation, depression and substance abuse. Some technicians on the verge of burnout actually become obsessive workaholics. Others become chronically late or psychologically absent. Still others may experience a range of physical symptoms, including chronic illness, high blood pressure and frequent headaches.
Solution #1: Empower employees
The difference between delegating and empowering is that delegating authorizes others to act for you whereas empowering authorizes others to act for themselves. If decisions that affect employees are made for them and they are given the responsibility to implement those decisions, an "us" versus "them" environment is created. This is delegation without empowerment.
When employees have direct input on decisions that affect them and their department's productivity, they become more concerned about the consequences of their actions rather than fearing recriminations from "them." This breaks down the "us" versus "them" barrier. Once they are able to recognize how their decisions affect the finished product and the entire operation of the laboratory, employees begin to have a personal stake in its success. This is empowerment.
Empowering your employees is not a quick fix. It takes time and you, as an owner or manager, have to be willing to change some of your habits and philosophies. However, you can start immediately by helping employees set attainable goals that will help restore their sense of control, getting their input on ways to improve their work environment and involving them in product buying decisions. For instance, if you are considering switching porcelains or composites or adding a new service to your laboratory, including employees in the buying decision makes them feel a part of the team, rather than just an end user.
Warning Sign #2: Boredom.
It's only natural for a technician to have an occasional day when he would prefer to be walking in the park rather than working in the laboratory. However, if an employee doesn't seem to be having fun anymore, that should be a red flag. People experiencing job burnout notice a distinct loss of energy and motivation and a sense of paralysis about what to do about it. They are turned off by their assignments and have little enthusiasm for the job.
Solution #2: Make work fun and create job diversity
Most employees prefer to work in a pleasant environment in which they like their jobs and their coworkers. To make work more enjoyable, consider having a potluck dinner or cookout, celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, meeting for happy hour or sponsoring a costume or talent day in the laboratory. Retreats for employees foster a sense of teamwork, trust and friendship. Contests and motivational games can also encourage enthusiasm in the workplace.
Cross training is another excellent way to combat apathy, challenge your technicians and foster teamwork. It's also another form of empowerment because cross-trained technicians can see how they can advance their careers. They also see the big picture and understand how their responsibilities interrelate. For example, a waxer who is trained in the finishing department may realize how he can adjust wax application to facilitate the finisher's job.
Ideally, you should have a long-range plan for cross-training your technicians. Don't wait until an employee is burned out and then give him a "here's what you can do" explanation of the job.
Teaching new skills can be particularly difficult in smaller operations or when the laboratory is busy. If you have a brief meeting every morning to discuss the day's workload and a technician doesn't have a full day of work, schedule him for training in another area. Try arranging training based on your lab's typical workflow fluctuations. For instance, if your model and die technicians usually have less work on Tuesday and Wednesday, schedule training sessions on those days.
If you can't consistently schedule time in advance, watch for training opportunities and take advantage of them as they arise. For example, if you have a slow morning and have been wanting to train your model technician to build porcelain, you might consider helping him pour models so he is free during the afternoon to work with you at the porcelain bench. You don't have to be solely responsible for training; continuing education courses, trade shows and videotapes are useful training tools that technicians can use on their own.
You can also give employees who are eager to advance their skills the option of working an extra hour or two to learn a new technique. In this case, determine in advance how the employee will be compensated. For instance, you might pay him for an extra hour during the training or promise a small increase once he's mastered the skill.
Develop a compensation structure or profit sharing or incentive plans that reward employees for developing their skills and taking on more responsibility. This shows your staff—especially your long-term technicians—that they have opportunities for advancement and a career path.
Warning Sign #3: Low Self-Esteem.
According to the American work ethic, you are what you do. So if an employee doesn't think much of what he does, he won't think much of himself. A job burnout victim gets caught in a vicious cycle of self-degradation. Because he is dissatisfied with his job, he thinks work is a waste of time. And he feels worthless because he thinks he's a failure in his career.
As self-esteem sinks lower and lower, the burnout victim becomes overly introverted and withdrawn. He doesn't socialize with co-workers because of his work-inflicted inferiority complex. He looks at co-workers who are seemingly satisfied with their jobs and says to himself, "These people are doing okay. So it must be me—not the lab or the job."
Solution #3: Rewards/Recognition
"The people most protected from burnout have a strong sense of self-esteem," says John-Henry Pfifferling, PhD, director of the Center for Professional Well-Being in Durham, North Carolina. To increase employees' self-worth as well as loyalty to the laboratory, publicly recognize them for their accomplishments with certificates or small tokens of appreciation. You can reward employees for any number of reasons: exceptional performance, productivity/production, lowest remake factor, employee suggestions, customer service, attendance, safety, charity and social responsibility, health and fitness and even for just acting above and beyond the call of duty.
Warning Sign #4: Time Consciousness.
Is a technician glancing at his watch more than four times an hour? Burnout victims are extremely time-conscious: they use progression of time to help them get through the day. And, they find that time on the job passes much more slowly than at home.
Time consciousness can result from too much or too little work. Overworked people are likely to suffer fatigue and stress that can eventually lead to job burnout. If technicians say things like, "I wish there were 26 hours in a day," watch out.
Although it's not the norm in a laboratory, being underworked can also lead to burnout. The fact is most people want to work and feel as if they're contributing something to the laboratory. If an employee isn't working to his full potential, he'll feel unproductive and unsatisfied.
Solution #4: Help employees achieve balance
As an employee, spouse, parent and homeowner, technicians can feel squeezed. Flexible work schedules help employees balance their professional and personal lives. In some laboratories, this might be a formal policy allowing employees to choose their own schedules as long as they work a certain number of hours; in others, it may be an informal arrangement whereby technicians can alter their starting or quitting times when something comes up outside of work. As long as schedules accommodate production flow, flextime is a relatively easy, inexpensive benefit for laboratories to offer and helps ease stress on both overworked and underworked employees.
Although it's hard to anticipate and completely eliminate overtime, some laboratory owners are minimizing the stress associated with this problem by assigning their technicians specific days on which they might have to work late. This strategy allows staff members to make plans accordingly and control the amount of disruption in their lives.
Childcare is a concern in every workplace—and it's not just a women's issue. Although offering on-site day care is a growing phenomenon, this strategy is not feasible for many laboratories. To help on a smaller scale, consider subsidizing childcare expenses, being an informational resource on day-care providers in your area or organizing employees to share babysitting services. Another possibility is to implement a flexible spending account that allows employees to contribute pre-tax money to a variety of savings accounts. They can then draw upon these funds to cover day-care costs for children under the age of 13.
Employees tend to complain if they are overworked but keep it to themselves when they are consistently underworked. Established production standards for each position will help ensure that employees are well utilized. Job diversity and cross-training are other ways to inspire technicians who aren't busy.
Warning Sign #5: Stress
Stress causes different symptoms in different people: difficulty concentrating, short temper, nervousness, fatigue, insomnia, heartburn, recurring headaches, stomach aches and constipation. According to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health survey, four out of 10 adults consider their jobs "very stressful." If left unchecked, workplace stress can increase a person's risk for heart disease, injury and psychological disorders.
Solution #5: Promote camaraderie and physical health
Since stress overload can quickly lead to burnout, employees who have an outlet for their anxieties are bound to be more productive and satisfied. Technicians who are part of a team with whom they can share their workload—as well as accomplishments and frustrations—tend to feel less stressed. The same strategies that make work fun also promote teamwork.
Exercise-related programs help employees relax and can be easy to implement. Turn one end of your parking lot into a basketball court or set up a volleyball court or horseshoe pit. If you don't have any extra space for on-site athletics, try negotiating a group discount with a local health club; consider joining forces with other laboratories or other businesses to form a larger group and get a better discount. Think about subsidizing gym memberships or capitalizing on community events, such as sponsoring employees who participate in charity walk- or bike-a-thons or organizing a team of employees to compete in local recreational sports.
Offering preventative health measures shows that you recognize the stress associated with working at the bench. A few examples: invite a nurse to come to the laboratory to administer flu shots or take blood pressure readings, have a massage therapist give quick back massages, sponsor nutrition or cooking classes, organize weight loss contests, subsidize smoking cessation classes and provide rebates on eye exams or eyeglasses.
Before embarking on any health initiative, find out what would most interest your employees. For example, would they be more likely to participate in an organized hike on a Saturday or a lunchtime lecture on stress management? Also, start small by finding ways to accomplish employees' objectives in a creative, low-cost manner. Then, if employees remain enthusiastic, you can move toward bigger strategies. As the laboratory owner or manager, it's also critical that you participate in order to demonstrate your commitment to your wellness efforts.
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