This HR leader’s burnout-prevention toolbox could be useful for your company

An interview with 15Five’s chief people and culture officer Shane Metcalf.
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· 6 min read

The ubiquitous term “burnout” has become a catchall to describe any number of psychological maladies that have arisen for workers during the pandemic era. (Burnout, as a diagnosis, is strictly a “professional phenomenon,” per the World Health Organization.) In order to prevent the fatigue and cynicism associated with burnout from taking root among their rank-and-file employees, leaders need to don their superhero capes (or put on lab coats) and devise a solution. The question is how?

Enter Shane Metcalf, chief people and culture officer at the software company 15Five. He’s developed what he calls a burnout-prevention toolbox, which other companies can replicate on their own terms (if they care about burnout). Metcalf said the toolbox—which includes “No meetings Thursdays,” regular mental health days, and Friday afternoon self-care—is a formula for “human thriving.”

HR Brew spoke to Metcalf last week about his methods for thriving, and, more broadly, about the nature of burnout and work these days.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

What is this burnout toolkit, and how did it come to fruition?

It’s more of a human-thriving toolbox than a burnout toolbox. Human thriving, it turns out, is the antidote to burnout. A lot of these programs have been developed over the years that aim to create a transformational culture versus a transactional culture. We want people to be and become better versions of themselves while working with us and when they leave.

How do you ensure people become better versions of themselves while working with you?

That’s not a guarantee. We can only stack the odds and create an environment in which people choose that for themselves. This whole conversation about burnout is really interesting because there’s [company] culture, and there’s the environment that leads to burnout, but then there’s also individual accountability.

You can take the same culture and one person is burnt out and another person is thriving. There’s cultural, environmental influences, but then there’s personal choice, and we have to understand both of those things. When we look at things like a burnout-prevention toolkit, we’re looking at things [that] can help people get more deep work in. Being in less of a constant firefight, moving from meeting to meeting.

How do we create blocks of time that aren’t dominated by Slack and Zoom? And that’s our “no meetings Thursdays,” for instance.

Can you talk a little bit about deep work and how organizations are trying to instill it?

Cal Newport...wrote [the book] Deep Work, and that of course brought a lot of attention to it. The modern world of work is crazy-making. You think about how many interrupted minutes either of us had today working on a single document. Five minutes? Twenty minutes? It’s not that much.

Implementing this and making it happen inside of a company is a whole other beast. I’m not going to lie and say it’s as easy internal meetings Thursdays. You need to get people on board with it. Bottom line is, it’s [about] giving people permission to create blocks on their calendars and have those boundaries respected.

A headshot photo of Shane Metcalf

Courtesy Darren Miller Photography

Is this burnout toolkit something you created in response to conditions at your own company?

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We have gone through our own experience of burnout, and we still have pockets of people that are experiencing [it]. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture. If we could run engagement surveys at every company in the US right now and get the same benchmarking and everything, I guarantee you, pretty much every single company is struggling with this.

I think that in part has to do with the social isolation that comes with working remotely, that it’s much easier to fall into burnout when we’re sitting in the same room for eight, 10, 12 hours a day on a computer. There’s psychological needs we have for connecting with other human beings. One of the key things for preventing burnout is psychological detachment from work.

What have people in your organization said to you about their experiences with burnout?

There’s one [sign of burnout] that’s pretty well documented and understood and that’s cynicism. It’s one of the best indicators of burnout.

Cynicism is an overarching attitude that things aren’t good, that people don’t have good intentions, that leadership is trying to screw me over.

What makes workers cynical?

Every professional is operating within a...micro-culture of their own company...but then we’re operating within a broader culture...our friends’ circle culture, the United States culture, this hyper-tense period of pandemic and political distrust...[and] a reckoning of racism in this country. All of those things are influencing the human beings that show up at our companies every single day. And that’s why we can’t just say, “Hey, we’re going to take a week off as a company and have a rest.” That helps, but it doesn’t cure burnout.

How have you been able to impart this idea of a burnout-prevention toolkit, and how have you used it?

One of the things is just talking about burnout. Bringing more awareness, education [to] the science [of burnout]. What’s actually happening? Because a lot of people don’t realize they’re burnt out until they hit rock bottom. So, not stigmatizing the conversation. If you’re in a culture that says, “Burnout is for losers, you just can’t handle it.” Then people aren’t going to actually talk about it.

It’s ok to have these conversations. The foundation for both high performance and engagement, as well as preventing burnout, is regular feedback loops. Quality conversations on a regular basis with your manager, your team, leaders in the company about what’s going on...don’t do that once or twice a year on a performance review, do that on a bi-weekly, monthly cadence.

We encourage people to take Friday afternoons to do something for themselves. To go exercise, do yoga, take a walk, spend time with your kids. That’s voluntary. There are mental health days, we normalize that and say, “Hey, look, if you’re not feeling good and you’re actually just in a shit mood, take the day off.”

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.