Working wounded

Posted on Aug 28, 2019 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As a company that helps businesses address internal culture issues, illumyx and its Founder and CEO Stephen Utech have worked with plenty of organizations battling employee burnout, but a recent incident underscored just how serious an issue it’s become.

The Green Bay-based company was holding a kickoff event for a global company, and 30 seconds into it, one of the key executives had a panic attack. Utech says it was so intense, the man passed out and people worried he was having a stroke. It led to the executive taking a 30-day leave to address all the workplace stress he was facing.

While this may serve as an extreme example of the problem, workplace burnout has begun gathering more attention. In May, the World Health Organization included it in the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases, recognizing it not as a medical condition but an occupational phenomenon.

According to the organization, hallmarks of burnout include feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. It announced plans to develop evidence-based guidelines on workplace mental well-being.

“Overall, there’s this trend of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). With the increased technology and globalization, the world is changing faster and faster, and this concept of VUCA is always increasing, so it’s becoming harder and harder for businesses, leaders and employees to keep up with change,” Utech says.

With that increased stress comes consequences. For example, a study in Europe found factors such as high job demand and working a lot of overtime act as predictors for physician-diagnosed health conditions and even mortality, Utech says. Burnout also can lead to people taking more sick days, as stress makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy immune system.

Beyond physical maladies, the condition can contribute to dysfunctional work environments. People may engage in blame, exhibit poor problem-solving skills or get involved in more conflicts, all because they’re operating from a place of anxiety, Utech says.

Negativity can lead productivity and morale to decline as work becomes a chore. Leaders often resort to pushing harder to get activity versus achieving results more organically. This creates a vicious cycle that only exacerbates the problem, Utech says.

Burnout also touches home life, says Bill Marklein, founder of Employ Humanity LLC. People don’t have an on/off switch for workplace stress, so that dysfunction can affect marriage, relationships with kids and mental health and can lead to problems such as substance abuse, he says.

“We’re at work more than we see our families,” he says. “It’s not like we can just get home and throw on a happy face.”

An epidemic

Marklein, whose company educates businesses and leaders about cultivating emotional intelligence in the workplace, says burnout has reached epidemic proportions, and many factors contribute to the problem.

Technology and social media have given us an often-irresistible means of instant gratification — and a vehicle for comparing ourselves to others. This is especially prevalent on platforms such as Facebook, where people can portray a picture-perfect life, or LinkedIn, where you can read the latest news about everyone else’s promotions and career successes. Feeling like you must react quickly — whether responding to emails, hitting “like” or commenting — can cause stress, Marklein says.

Often, the problem starts at the top. Marklein has heard many stories about people going on vacation and becoming consumed with responding to work emails. If leaders model this behavior, he says, those who report to them may take it as a cue that’s what they’re expected to do. To remedy the situation, it’s important for leaders to convey that they want workers to take care of themselves.

Marklein lives near Road America in Elkhart Lake and relates an analogy. “You go to a race and they’re going 100 miles per hour, but at the turns, they have to slow down or they crash into the wall,” he says. “It’s totally the slow down to speed up. You can still win the race with slowing down.”

Workplaces need to adopt this mentality, he says. While it’s important to slow down, it’s often not easy to do so, as American workplaces and lifestyles tend to be faster paced than the rest of the world.

The talent crunch also further compounds the issue. “Organizations are under extreme stress to produce results, and they’re dealing with a complex new marketplace to navigate (when it comes to talent),” Utech says.

This can lead some leaders to feel the need to push employees harder, he says, and some worry about coddling their employees. However, it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. It doesn’t have to be about doing “kumbaya drum circles,” Utech says. Rather, it can involve looking at ways to better support employees amid growth goals or big initiatives.

A better way

Dean Stewart, executive director of the Center for Exceptional Leadership at St. Nobert College, says focusing on the human side of leadership is more important than ever. This September and October, the center is partnering with Marklein and Employ Humanity to offer a series called “The New Imperatives of Leadership.”

Today’s workforce includes four generations and increasing diversity, and leaders need to find ways to connect, relate and motivate, Stewart says. The series aims to help leaders evaluate the kind of culture they’re trying to build within their organization.

“People want to be in a situation where they are valued for the work they do, that they are appreciated for the outcomes they provide and that there’s a sense of humanity that the workforce is not just a statistic on a P&L or a narrative in some report. These are people with real lives,” he says.

Miron Construction Co. Inc. strives to remember just that with all its employees. The Neenah-based contractor views its workers through the lens of their minds, bodies and spirits, says Dave Walsh, vice president of human resources for the company.

The commitment begins with company co-owners Dave Voss Jr. and Tim Kippenhan personally taking part in every interview and continues with offering employees resources such as a wellness coordinator, opportunities to volunteer during working hours and even access to a dream coach.   

The company, which won an Employ Humanity Excellence Award in 2017, offers lunch and learns on topics such as mental health, nutrition, work-life balance and developing soft skills. The dream coach helps employees identify and fulfill their aspirations, whether work related or not.

Walsh says Miron wants to establish itself as a leader and the place where people want to go, whether that’s to work or when they need a company to construct their building. Happy employees, he says, help Miron deliver on that mission.

“As a company, we get joy-filled employees, and joy-filled employees are wonderful to our clients … and to their teammates and co-workers,” he says.

While Miron may represent a shining example of workplace culture, companies need not create special roles or programs. Marklein says leaders can start with ensuring they’re modeling positive behaviors. That can include leaving the office for a quick walk outside, taking a day off to recharge and refraining from checking email on vacation.

“If leaders don’t emulate the desired behaviors, it’s never going to work and no one’s going to follow,” he says.

Establishing clear roles and responsibilities and creating “swim lanes” for employees can help reduce stress, Utech says. Fostering strong peer-to-peer relationships also creates a buffer against burnout.

Furthermore, healthy, well-functioning workplaces, where possible, implement horizontal or flatter structures, Utech says. When leaders force problem-solving down to the team level, they put more control in employees’ hands and get higher levels of buy-in and commitment.

“They really take it upon themselves to have ownership over the problem because essentially the buck stops at them,” he says.


If you go

“The New Imperatives of Leadership,” presented by the Center for Exceptional Leadership at St. Norbert College, will be held Sept. 4 and 18 and Oct. 9 at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake. Attendees can sign up for one or all three. Learn more at