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From burnt out to powered-up: How to inspire innovation and boost engagement

By Cherie Mylordis | |10 minute read

Burnout might be on the increase, but as Cherie Mylordis points out, this is despite many leaders making an effort to focus on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. So, where’s the disconnect? How can we create a culture of wellbeing and support, where ideas can thrive and people feel inspired rather than overwhelmed?

As an HR leader, you’ve probably seen firsthand what happens when wellbeing programs and well-intentioned support fall flat, resulting in extended stress leave, sick leave and reduced productivity as people struggle with burnout and overwhelm.

I recently attended an event with HR executives, and when I asked them what the biggest issue is for them right now and what’s keeping them up at night, they unanimously agreed it was understanding how to develop future-fit capabilities across their workforce.

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I’m stating the obvious when I say people are our most valuable resource, but if there’s a disconnect between their capabilities, their engagement and their wellbeing, then as HR leaders, we’re running at speed but getting nowhere.

Over the past two years, I’ve surveyed nearly 200 leaders across 24 countries to find out if people are consistently doing their best work, and I found that in the majority, they’re not. More than 60 per cent of respondents said they aren’t doing their best work, perhaps not surprising while the future of work feels so daunting and out of reach.

Leaders are increasingly recognising that helping their people to live well will have a positive impact on both the business and people’s capabilities. So how can we inspire our people to bring their best selves to work and boost employee engagement, while also encouraging innovation so that the business remains viable into the future?

Why purpose matters

Feeling connected to a bigger purpose and finding meaning in work are essential to empower our people to do their best work. This was a theme that came up repeatedly throughout my research. The people who said their work is contributing to a purposeful organisation and making a difference, while also feeling valued for their contributions, were the ones who said they were doing their best work and felt highly engaged and motivated.

A report from McKinsey & Co found that workers who get as much purpose from work as they would like, score higher on all life aspects (energy, health, satisfaction and resilience) than workers who say they want more purpose from their work. So, purpose is connected to wellbeing as well as employee engagement.

Every business can (and, in my opinion, must) have a purpose – it’s not just for non-profit organisations and eco-warriors. For example, the Westpac Group’s purpose is “creating better futures together”, Mirvac property group’s purpose is “to reimagine urban life”, and Airbnb’s purpose is “to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere”.

A good purpose statement doesn’t describe what an organisation does, but the impact it is striving to achieve.

If your organisation doesn’t have an obvious purpose, I encourage you to form a group and create one. Great progress can be made in a few guided sessions, but make sure you seek feedback on your shortlist before finalising it. And don’t stop there. The key is to make it visible, both internally and externally, so that purpose drives everything you do. It’s important to question work that doesn’t connect with your purpose. Is it still a priority, or should we shift our focus to something else?

A more personal meaning

Once your purpose is clear and compelling, encourage your people to find connections between their purpose and yours. There are many ways to do this, such as offering workshops to help people uncover their purpose, incorporating purpose into coaching conversations and exploring new initiatives with people leaders. How might you help people align their purpose with their work to make it even more meaningful, rewarding and engaging? As one of the research participants doing their best work said: “To go from soulless work in another industry to seeing my work impact people’s lives is fulfilling and rewarding. I have a chief executive who encourages me. I have a board who says ‘do more’.”

Incorporating innovation

We know innovation is essential for businesses to survive in the future, but how might we encourage more of it? And what are those future-fit capabilities keeping executives up at night?

The path can feel unclear right now, with AI and other emerging technologies evolving at the speed of light, coupled with significant changes to workplace law. None of us has a crystal ball showing us exactly which skills and capabilities are going to be important 10, or even five, years from now.

In my experience, problem solving, collaboration and innovative thinking are three crucial capabilities (regardless of technology developments), and the more widespread these skills are, the better.

There’s plenty of evidence to support the 70:20:10 model for learning and development, but on-the-job learning and coaching or mentoring are less viable for scarce capabilities, and formal training programs may be too expensive and too slow.

This is a daunting challenge for HR professionals and leadership teams to tackle. So, where to start?

Beware of innovation theatre

I’ve seen many so-called corporate innovation programs result in wasted effort when creative solutions are quashed by risk-averse leaders or, at best, deliver incremental change, which can hardly be considered innovation at all.

To address this, I encourage you to start small. For example, you could publish a shortlist of bold problems or opportunities you would love to have innovative solutions for. Then, invite people to select an initiative and form a cross-functional team for six weeks, with permission to work on it at least one day a week. Set up a weekly coaching rhythm to guide teams on the process and tools to ideate, define and pitch their initiative to your leadership team.

When the right conditions are in place, great ideas can come from anywhere. So, by inviting people to opt-in to an initiative, you might be surprised where fresh ideas come from.

Encouraging innovation activity means people can learn on the job and see how innovation could make a difference to the overall business, without leadership having to greenlight a company-wide change. It’s a way of ideating and experimenting with new concepts in a safe and supportive space.

Embracing change

Another common theme in my research was that the organisations open to embracing change and trying new things were the ones where people could do their best work.

For example, flexible working has shown us what’s possible in terms of working outside of the workplace, but most people still crave in-person connection. So, if they’re going to make the effort to come into the office, it needs to be intentional and worth their effort.

One chief executive of a non-profit who participated in my research noted: “We require people to come into the office two days per week now to foster in-person connection, to be part of the team, feel energised, connected, enabling formal information to flow. Wednesday is collaboration day. It’s a noisy day. People are encouraged to connect with their colleagues and share.”

This kind of intentional connection is more effective than blanket mandates to return to the office, which often lead to people feeling resentment around why they need to be there, when their work/life balance working from home is more productive.

If we want to empower people with future-fit capabilities and the ability to do their best work, we need to give them a sense of meaning and purpose in their work while also trusting them to work autonomously. By giving them opportunities to challenge themselves, create and innovate, and stay open to change and possibility, these future-fit capabilities will emerge alongside new ways of working, new ways of problem solving, and new ways of contributing.

People with purpose are powered up, not burnt out and resentful.

Here are my five top tips to shift your culture in the right direction. How might you initiate one of these in your organisation?

  1. Elevate conversations on future-fit work practices with your leadership team, backed up by evidence. Provide guidance on narrative and behaviours to shift mindsets and drive decisive action.
  2. Do you have a bold purpose statement for your organisation? If not, form a group to create one, then make it visible and bring it to life in how you show up every day.
  3. Encourage your people to find connections between their purpose and yours; prompt people leaders to talk about purpose in coaching conversations.
  4. Facilitate intentional in-person connection, flexible working and other behaviours that demonstrate values of trust and wellbeing.
  5. Experiment with innovation by starting small; create opportunities for people to opt in and share outcomes to inspire more innovative thinking.

Are you keen to learn more about the future of work? Read the full whitepaper resulting from my global research: Rethinking the future of work in a fragile world.

Cherie Mylordis is the founder of nextgenify.

RELATED TERMS

Burnout

Employees experience burnout when their physical or emotional reserves are depleted. Usually, persistent tension or dissatisfaction causes this to happen. The workplace atmosphere might occasionally be the reason. Workplace stress, a lack of resources and support, and aggressive deadlines can all cause burnout.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.