RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Big corporations spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to motivate employees. But low morale or, let's just say it, burnout is not an easy problem to address. Some companies are trying novel fixes to address the issue and, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, they say improving morale can pay off.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: A few years ago, burnout was a problem at Aptify, a Virginia software company. Projects demanded long hours, which affected motivation and morale. It's a medium-size firm, with 200 workers, but at the time, things seemed overly corporate and cumbersome.
BRIAN KELLY: We began looking at things like our policies and procedures manual, which, essentially, we felt was a culmination of all the bad things that have happened.
NOGUCHI: Brian Kelly is Aptify's vice president of marketing. He says, ultimately, the company scrapped its timecard system too. They told employees you can take as many paid days off as you want. Kelly says, initially, several employees greeted this with skepticism, expressing concerns like...
KELLY: OK, great. Essentially, what I'm seeing is, unlimited time off means I get no time off.
NOGUCHI: That didn't happen. Nor did the opposite - no one abused the policy. A handful of employees took mini-sabbaticals or around-the-world treks - things that might have required them to quit in the past. But most take the same number of days off as before and space them more evenly throughout the year. Plus, Kelly says, employees seem happier. Aptify is an exception. On the whole, companies are cutting back on leave. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, firms today offer fewer personal days and family leave than several years ago. Flexibility benefits are also holding steady or declining. Yet Bruce Elliot, the Society's manager for compensation and benefits, says...
BRUCE ELLIOT: The vast majority of employers do get the fact that there is burnout.
NOGUCHI: The problem is fixes can be hard to implement. And some practices, like unlimited vacation time he says, tend to work only in high performance workplaces, where expectations for output and quality are very clear.
ELLIOT: If those things are nebulous, this thing is going to crash and burn. It just will not work.
NOGUCHI: Wist Office Products in Phoenix came up with a different approach. Its 70 employees rotate and switch jobs with other employees. General Manager Ian Wist says it seems to be working. People even pitch in on the least appealing jobs - like restocking shelves overnight.
IAN WIST: That graveyard shift is tough. I've worked that shift and it's not a lot of fun.
NOGUCHI: Wist says job rotation not only helped when workers got sick, it helped retain employees.
WIST: People are generally happier that they have some variety and they don't suffer the burnout that we've seen in the past.
NOGUCHI: It requires some coordination but Wist says the policy benefited the bottom line. Customers were loyal to the sales and delivery people.
WIST: We found when we lost those people, we would lose our customers along with them.
NOGUCHI: Some companies simply forgo profit to avoid burnout. Point B Consulting CEO Mike Pongon says unlike most management consultants, his employees don't travel. And every year they decide how many hours a week they wish to work. Pongon says accommodating that comes with a business downside.
MIKE PONGON: Somewhere between, you know, five and seven percent of the time, we have to turn away work that we otherwise would do. And in those cases, we have to help our client find another solution, which sometimes means introducing a competitor.
NOGUCHI: But Pongon says he believes his company's flexible schedule attracts better employees and keeps them for longer because they remain happier. Christina Maslach is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose four decades of research on the subject helped popularize the term burnout. She says it's a loose term that encompasses a combination of work overload, lack of autonomy and reward and social and moral discord at work. Maslach says most burnout stems from interpersonal strife but most employers see the solution as time off.
CHRISTINA MASLACH: When it's time off, I mean, that might be time away from work. Maybe you're addressing issues of exhaustion but it's not really addressing what may be the problems at work.
NOGUCHI: If companies really want to know what's causing burnout in their workplace, Maslach says they shouldn't just mandate more time off. They should assess the core problem then design solutions to mitigate those issues. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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