Extinguishing burnout

August 9, 2015 -  By

How to keep long hours and stressful work from plaguing snow employees.

Last winter, the East Coast was battered with snowstorms. In late November, after the city got more than six feet of snow, the Buffalo Bills paid fans $10 an hour plus game tickets to help shovel snow in and around the stadium. Bangor, Maine, saw its second snowiest winter on record, receiving more than 130 inches. Boston had its snowiest winter on record, as 108 inches fell. Within 10 days in February, the city was hit with two of the 10 biggest snowstorms ever, which dropped 64.8 inches throughout the month. Some of the snow hadn’t melted yet when the calendar hit June.

Even in places not hit as hard as New England—or in less treacherous years—the long, unpredictable snow season is the perfect recipe for employee burnout.

Chris Joyce’s company, Joyce Landscaping, was one of many tasked with removing the Boston-area blanket of snow.

“We had our busiest snow season in the history of our business,” says Joyce, whose Cape Cod, Mass.-based company pulls in just over $10 million in annual revenue and consists of around 12 percent snow work. “I had guys working 80-plus hours with very little sleep, which is not an ideal situation. We just got clobbered.”

Who’s at risk?

“Employee burnout is the physical manifestation of how an employee feels mentally,” says Matt Heller, owner of Performance Optimist 
Consulting, a speaker and author of “The Myth of Employee Burnout.”

A study conducted by Staples Advantage and WorkPlaceTrends.com found that 53 percent of Americans reported feeling burned out at work. After years of managing employees in amusement parks, which often employ workers for the summer, Heller knows how susceptible seasonal employees like those in the snow industry can be.

Employee burnout stems from many sources. Long hours of physical, grueling work certainly play a factor. For seasonal employees, scheduling is difficult due to the unpredictability of weather, Heller says. So, an employee continuously missing his or her child’s sporting events or bedtime can burn out, as well. Beyond workload, other frustrations may contribute to burnout. For example, a long-time employee who lost a promotion to the boss’s friend is susceptible to burning out.

In the midst of the storm

It’s January, the height of winter, and your operation should be running like a well-oiled machine. Instead, it seems sluggish. Employees’ shoulders are slumped, and they’re moving lethargically. Demands are met with eye-rolls, and on multiple occasions, you’ve overheard staff complaining to their peers about equipment, management or work in general. These warning signs point to a case of employee burnout, Heller says.

Joyce has seen further warning signs. “You don’t see any drive in what employees are doing,” he says. “Their excitement and passion are gone.”

Bruce Moore Sr., owner of Eastern Land Management in Stamford, Conn., knows the importance of detecting burnout. He has seen a seemingly small case spiral into employees who stop showing up or stop answering the phone. It becomes “a domino effect,” he says.

“Morale goes down and a whole slew of things start happening,” says Moore, whose company does about $10 million per year in revenue and pulls from a database of more than 100 employees during snowstorms. “You see more property damage, equipment breaks down. Everything starts deteriorating, including efficiency and production.”

No badge of honor

Jeff Tovar, owner of Chicago-based Tovar Snow, which consists of about 80 percent commercial snow work, sees an epidemic in the snow industry, where working extremely long hours is looked at as a “badge of honor.” Not only does this mentality put employees at risk of burnout, Tovar says, it’s dangerous.

To prevent employees from getting worn down and to keep them safe, Tovar’s employees work on rotating shifts. “That’s the whole key to the snow plow business,” he says.

Tovar splits workers into multiple teams. One team sleeps while the other plows. After eight hours or so, the rested team will replace the team that’s been on the job. His employees say he constantly stresses sleep management.

While long hours play a factor, burnout also stems from employees not feeling appreciated, hard work going unnoticed and problems going unrecognized, Heller says.

To Heller, open lines of communication are key. Becoming aware of employees’ concerns can stop burnout in its tracks. Small acts of appreciation, such as gift cards, thank-you notes and impromptu free lunches, go a long way too.

One cold winter, for example, Moore handed out heavy jackets and thicker gloves to make his employees a little more comfortable. When his employees are forced to work long hours unexpectedly, due to a storm, Moore gets food to them on the job.

Recognizing his employees were working frequent overtime hours during one holiday season, Tovar saved them trips to the store by buying and wrapping Christmas presents for them. He also brought in Christmas trees one season to decorate his employees’ homes.

“It’s all about finding creative ways to help people out,” he says.

Burnout prevention

Employee burnout is important to tackle midseason if it comes up, but the most effective way to tackle it is through prevention. The key to prevention, Heller says, lies in hiring, training and firing.

For starters, new employees need to buy in to the company’s goals.

“It’s not just getting the right people on the bus in the right seats,” Heller says, “It’s also about getting people who are willing to get out and push the bus when it breaks down.”

As Tovar puts it, snow work is a tough gig. So when hiring, it’s important for employees to know what they’re getting into.

That means don’t sugar coat the job description, Heller says, as it just leads to surprised employees who are in over their head.

To find employees with the grit to “push the bus,” even when the job is as tough as being a snow worker, Heller suggests behavioral interviewing to make sure the personality fits with the company. Questions like, “Describe a time when you had a disagreement with your boss or another employee. How did you handle the situation?” or “Tell me about a time when you had to get a lot done in a short period of time. What did you do to make sure everything got done?”

In the snow removal industry, hiring quality employees can be challenging. Sometimes, you’ll take what you can get, contractors say. That makes training imperative.

“The more you build an employee’s competence, the more you can build their confidence,” Heller says.

An initial training program is essential, but training also should be ongoing. Employees need feedback to know what they’re doing right or wrong. Rather than silently getting frustrated or giving intangible criticism, like “work harder,” Heller says to give employees concrete examples. Training also can be a “tip here or there that’s going to make an employee’s job easier,” he says.

When the proper training techniques are in action, but an employee is still not making the grade, termination can strengthen a team. When managers tolerate poor work, employees feel quality work isn’t valued, and they feed off each other. It’s important for leaders to set an example and create the right environment.

Whether it’s the betterment of the community, supporting a family or working toward a promotion, it’s an employer’s challenge to find what drives each employee and foster it. In Heller’s experience, money is not enough motivation. “When employees don’t see the value in what they’re doing, things like long hours can make them lose their minds,” Heller says. “It’s important for them to say, ‘I know that I bring value.’”

About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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