Burnout is present in every industry, but it’s especially prominent in the agency world. It has no boundaries either. Ninety-one percent of employees believe burnout negatively impacts their work and personal life.
In 2022, 89% of employees reported that they were burned out. This shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing how agencies all around the world deal with overwhelming workloads and challenging deadlines.
At Skale, we’ve made burnout prevention one of our biggest priorities. Over the years, we tried and tested various strategies to avoid what seems to be inevitable in most agencies - burnout.
To help you understand the gravity of burnout and give you some examples that have worked, with my research, I created this guide. Enjoy!
Understanding agency burnout
In most cases, the factors that cause burnout in agencies are the same - high workload with tight deadlines, inadequate resources, and support (read on to learn them all).
Burnout is mental as well as physical exhaustion, most often caused by long-term stress and chronic overworking.
What happens when there’s burnout in agency
What does a burned-out employee do? They are stressed, tired, and their personal life suffers, alongside their work. Eventually, they’ll resign. They'll write a letter of resignation, pack their stuff and go to your competitor. The work market is so competitive today, and people are in search of better conditions all the time - and they’ll find it at your competitor’s if they can’t get it at your agency.
Each resignation comes at a cost. For you as an agency, this means a fortune spent on employee recruiting and training, not to mention the loss of valuable time and profits.
The most common causes of burnout in agencies
Over the years, I’ve learned that the reasons for burnout can differ significantly depending on two things - the work of the agency and the employee.
In an agency environment specifically, as is the case in Skale, it’s expected that there will be demanding deadlines and some pressure. Juggling multiple clients' accounts is part and parcel of the role!
Some agencies tend to make this pressure worse through inconsistent workflow, lack of organized processes, and poor communication.
The truth is, no agency is immune from burnout. Small agencies can lack the structure to delegate, so this is one of their primary causes of burnout.
Larger agencies, without proper structure, have many people to manage, and communication can be even more challenging when working remotely. Managers often miss the signs and find out too late - when the employees have already resigned.
How burnout affects agency performance
At Skale, our main priority is the well-being of our employees. Our managers are constantly on the lookout for signs and early prevention. Employees who are burnt out are less likely to be working productively and may show signs such as:
Less interested, lack of enthusiasm
Higher rate of absence
Less productivity, feeling overwhelmed
Less willing to contribute in meetings etc (appearing as not interested)
This can be catastrophic for an agency - clients start to churn, employees are miserable, and the company's reputation is on the line. This is why prevention is better than cure when dealing with burnout.
Strategies to prevent agency burnout and support employees that are burned out
Now for the key part of this guide - how to prevent agency burnout. Check out some of my top recommendations below.
1. Recognize the signs of burnout
Do you know how to recognize when an employee is burned out?
I asked my peer Maddi Dick, People Ops Manager at Re:Coded, to share her experience on the topic. Here's what she had to say:
“I think identifying burnout can be challenging, especially if you are in a remote environment where reading someone’s body language can be quite difficult, and there are naturally fewer opportunities for casual interactions. However, from my experience and training, I would tend to look for the following signs:
Increase in sick days
Increase rigidness in approach to work (e.g., resistance to change)
Verbal indications of ‘exhaustion’ /(e.g. lack of enthusiasm)
2. Work-life balance initiatives
A healthy work-life balance requires input from both the company and the employee to succeed. Working remotely requires even more effort, as spotting the signs of burnout over video calls can be challenging. Employees need to set boundaries and be open and honest with their manager when times get tough.
At Skale, we have focused on the following work-life balance initiatives as preventative measures:
- We encourage the team to take advantage of their 36 days of paid annual leave per year, and we send quarterly reminders of this to make sure people are taking enough time off and feeling well-rested.
- Everyone in our team gets a monthly well-being budget, which we pay on top of basic salaries, so our team can spend it on anything they feel will benefit their mental or physical health, i.e., a gym membership.
- We have an annual subscription to Oliva, the mental health platform where colleagues can access free therapy, resources, and classes.
- Remote and flexible working means our team can set schedules that suit their lifestyles. By offering flexibility, people can work when they feel more productive, without it affecting their personal lives.
I spoke with Maddi Dick again, my peer over at Re:Coded, about her company’s initiatives and programs, and this is what she shared:
- “Lunch & Learns - we hold specific training around burnout for team members and managers in collaboration with an organization specializing in empowering workforces through mental health solutions.
- Quarterly paid time off reminders - we introduced paid time off reminders that are aimed at managers to encourage discussions with their team around utilizing their paid time off.
- Flexible paid sick leave - we provide 14 days of paid sick leave that roll over from year to year. We encourage team members to utilize their sick leave not just for when life surprises us with a cold, but also for the days when we might not be able to show up due to other challenges we face.”
3. Promote open communication and feedback
Creating safe spaces for employees to communicate openly with management is super important. Most people shy away from sharing their concerns - unless you create an open system where they can do so.
Having regular feedback loops gives people the opportunity to discuss any workload worries and hopefully nipping them in the bud.
Remote work gives people the opportunity to be location-independent, but it also comes with its challenges. At Skale, we create a culture of transparency so our teams are honest with their manager during their weekly 1:1 calls, discussing workload demands and how they are coping.
4. Optimize the onboarding process
Hiring people takes time and costs money. Losing them is even more expensive. Starting people on the right foot by offering a robust onboarding process removes any confusion and gives new joiners a chance to settle in and take their time to learn about the business.
Overwhelming someone from day one isn’t the best first impression, and nobody likes to be thrown in at the deep end when there is already so much to learn when starting a new role.
Providing new employees with a smooth and efficient onboarding process manages their expectations for their first few weeks and makes them feel more comfortable.
By setting guidelines from the start, people understand how the company operates, and they learn to mirror behavior and set their own boundaries from the get-go. Introducing them to numerous people in the company can help them build a rapport with others, meaning they will always have someone on hand to answer any questions in their first few weeks.
Getting this right can prevent burnout from the beginning and helps to build trust so employees can speak up sooner rather than later if they need to.
5. Realistic and flexible project planning
If you want to prevent burnout, you need to set realistic goals and tasks for the employees - and be flexible with them.
At Skale, we hold biweekly resourcing meetings to discuss team workloads and plan hiring based on team capacity. Managers then speak to their team to ensure each individual has a healthy workload and doesn’t feel overburdened.
6. Support for employees already facing a burnout
Here are a couple of hints that should help agencies deal with burned-out employees:
Make sure managers and supervisors are equipped to support their teams effectively
Preventing burnout trickles from the top down. By providing clear communication and establishing boundaries, managers should be better able to manage burnout within their teams.
More transparent processes help managers understand how to react if the situation arises, i.e., contact HR, delegate work, recommend resources on the mental health platform. Managers should also feel part of a team, so all of the leadership team should work together to support each other and be consistent in their approach.
Training managers is one of Maddi’s strategies, too. Here is how she deals with this:
“We currently host a conceptual approach to manager training coined ‘manager circles’. This is a space where we are working towards becoming better managers together and is hosted by a different manager each month to tackle different topics. Managers have the biggest effect on team members, so it’s critical that they are equipped with the right skills and tools to help empower and mentor their team members.
Provide employees with flexible working options
At Skale, we offer flexible work arrangements and generous time-off policies that employees can use to recharge and stop feeling burned out. We are a service business, so we do have basic core hours, but aside from this, our team is free to set their own schedule.
On top of the generous annual leave allowance, we also offer sick leave - for people to use whether they are physically unwell, or need some time off to recharge, outside of their annual leave.
Adjust the workload and responsibilities
I asked Maddi Dick how her company deals with burnout in busy periods. Here are her insights on this:
“Firstly, we work closely with our teams to set realistic goals and expectations (we use the OKR framework), ensuring that workloads remain manageable and attainable. Regular async and such communication in tandem with weekly pulse checks helps us stay in tune with their needs and allows us to adjust strategies accordingly. To assist our team during spikes in workload, we offer several valuable resources. These include additional training and skill development opportunities, empowering them to tackle challenges with confidence.”
Gather employee feedback
Employee feedback is vital for understanding the effectiveness of burnout prevention initiatives. At Skale, we hold biannual employee surveys to gain anonymous feedback from the team. This has helped us in the past, when people mentioned having access to mental health support would be beneficial for them, so we subscribed to the Oliva mental health platform and this has been very well received.
HR also conducts annual 1:1s with everyone in the company, to ensure everyone is happy within their roles and to discuss any issues.
How have YOU been managing agency burnout?
Burnout can destroy an agency's reputation.
With the business losing face, employees resigning, and clients feeling dissatisfied, preventing burnout should be your number one focus in a highly pressured agency environment. Hopefully, some of these tips will help you manage this more effectively.