Previously published on Forbes
Many leaders still hold on to the increasingly outdated habit and idea that, above all else, work is the most important thing — that they and their team members should sacrifice their time, energy and well-being to deliver on the organization’s goals.
If you are a leader, it’s important that you recognize and recalibrate this habitual way of thinking and being. Because more than just the work, you need to be paying attention to your own fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of your team. I call this “vital fulfillment,” and it’s one of the most overlooked but critical leadership competencies today.
Leaders who embody vital fulfillment create cultures where people feel “well used” rather than “used up.” They watch out for the unconscious assumption that anyone on their team can be replaced.
Breeding Grounds for Burnout, Disengagement and Turnover
Here’s something you can count on: If you treat employees as interchangeable cogs in a machine, you are guaranteed to cause burnout. You can also be sure that talented people will leave. This attitude loosens your team members’ connection and commitment to both you and the company’s mission. It diminishes loyalty and robs the workplace of inspiration and forward-thinking energy. For those who do stay, it means the specter of working themselves to death through stress, lack of exercise, bad eating habits, and strained relationships at work and with loved ones at home.
At the very least, leaders with this habit will encounter rising workforce resentment at a time when turnover is on the upswing and more people are looking for greater fulfillment and less stress in their professional lives. I have seen a steady decline in workers who are willing to sacrifice their personal well-being to corporate priorities. Surveys of American adults conducted over the last 30 years show a lower percentage of Gen Xers (typically viewed as born between 1965 and 1979) and Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) are willing to work overtime compared to Baby Boomers.
There’s a bit more at risk due to the current YOLO economy – You Only Live Once. According to Keven Roose in the NY Times, “Some employees are abandoning cushy and stable jobs to start a new business, turn a side hustle into a full-time gig or finally work on that screenplay. Others are scoffing at their bosses’ return-to-office mandates and threatening to quit unless they’re allowed to work wherever and whenever they want.”
The good news is, collectively, leaders are making progress at being better to their people.
In a recent Conference Board survey, 78% of employees said they believe their supervisor genuinely cares about their well-being. Compare that to 2016, when only 44% of U.S. workers believed their organizations supported employee well-being, according to a survey conducted for the American Psychological Association.
Caring about employee well-being is the first step. Next, you need some strategies to act on it.
How to Create a Fulfilling Culture
In a culture that nurtures vital fulfillment, employees view themselves as creators rather than victims of their boss or company. You don’t want a team full of people who feel powerless over their work lives. Leaders can encourage the creator perspective by building flexible workplaces. The pandemic gave us all a head start on hybrid and remote work. Hopefully, you got to experience real work being done by your team even if you couldn’t see it in person in a shared office.
Just as we need more flexible workplaces, we also need more flexibility in the way work is managed. As a recent BBC Worklife article explains, you don’t have to fixate on whether someone meets the definition of burnout to start taking better care of your employees. Instead, it’s about prevention: “It’s about identifying workplaces with unmanageable workloads, and using that information to give employees more control, better tools and the discretion to figure out how to do their jobs better — without burning out.”
Here’s one way to get everyone involved in the process. We often facilitate an exercise we call “The Best Use of Me.” Each team member writes a Post-it for every task and activity they do in an average week. These Post-it notes are then categorized under the leader’s top three to five priorities. We invite the team member to consider delegating, stopping, or changing any tasks or activity that doesn’t fit into their top three to five priorities.
The exercise empowers team members and helps them identify parts of their job that are not a good use of them. Being well-used means delegating or stopping altogether the tasks that don’t make the best use of one’s talent, and then holding other people accountable to pick up those tasks.
I challenge you to change the old habits that aren’t serving you, your employees, or the organization anymore. Get creative about how you can provide leadership that supports both the people and the business.