Preventing Burnout: Compensation Isn’t the Answer

Leaders in professional firms often struggle to prevent staff burnout; an issue that can seriously impact the success of their business. If a burnt out associate stays on at the firm, their productivity decreases and their attitudes worsen. And when an associate leaves, the firm suffers the loss of institutional knowledge, experience, project continuity, and key relationships that were developed with clients. Leaders then fear how they’ll get the work done and still deliver superior service to their clients. Their personal and professional reputation is at stake.

Unfortunately, providing exceptional service often requires long hours, frequent travel, and a high stakes environment; all elements with the potential to breed burnout. Under the threat of burnout, many leaders turn to one of their most concrete tools– money –hoping they can pay their way around the issue. Except burnout has little, if anything, to do with compensation.

Instead, burnout is a symptom of serious underlying management issues at a firm such as: emotionally draining work; unmanageable, never-ending workloads; difficult relationships with team members or leaders in the firm; frequently shifting expectations; or a lack of empowerment and ability to make decisions.

Interestingly, many top firms work their employees the hardest, and the top-of-the-market salaries they pay could be seen as an antidote to burnout. But instead of offering a ‘burnout bonus,’ they expect a healthy rate of churn and align their client work, management style, and compensation towards this business model. They recruit high-achieving personalities who can work long hours at unrelenting paces while shouldering heavy workloads.

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People also join these firms for benefits beyond compensation, including working on the most interesting projects, accelerated skill development, and building their resumes with a prestigious firm.  When the work becomes too much, both parties leave feeling like they were treated fairly.

If you’re losing associates to burnout, papering over it with money won’t work. If you want to reduce the risk of burnout, then you need to investigate the management issues that are the root cause. Everything from who you recruit, how you place people in roles, manage workflow, and grow careers is likely to have an effect. And while it may take more work to do this, your firm, talent, and the quality of service you provide to clients will be stronger for it.