Scheduling Strategies to Prevent Employee Burnout and Survive This Holiday Season

In the last few months, restaurants across the country from San Francisco to Cape Cod have announced closures to give staff a much-needed mental health break.

Most restaurant owners would be loath to shutter their doors, especially as customer demand has jumped compared to 2020. But more demanding, less patient customers, combined with a mass exodus of restaurant workers, are leaving those employees who choose to remain in the industry strained to the limit.

Employee Burnout Is Real

Burnout among restaurant workers is nothing new. The hours are long and the work can be grueling, especially when customer demand is high. 

Many of us might equate the word “burnout” with just a general lack of motivation or even laziness amongst employees. But in reality, burnout is a medically classified diagnosis describing physical and emotional exhaustion with effects that can be the same as other mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.

No matter how much employees love their work, they are going to struggle once they reach burnout — a major factor fueling the unprecedented turnover of restaurant employees over the past 20 months. In a recent Limeade survey of people who started a new job in 2021, 52 percent of hospitality and food service workers said burnout was the top reason why they left their previous role.

Because employee burnout can be complex, successfully addressing it requires restaurant operators to implement various long-term strategies, from teaching managers and supervisors to recognize the signs of burnout and initiating regular check-ins between management and employees, to offering workers professional development opportunities so they can reap the benefits of ongoing career growth.

However, other burnout remedies, particularly rethinking scheduling, can be implemented much more quickly — even in time to make the most of the 2021 holiday season.

Try Self-Scheduling

Flexible self-scheduling is a time management approach that’s built by managers and employees. First, a manager defines the shifts needed to be filled based on customer demand. Then, employees select, trade and fill the shifts themselves. This approach requires significantly less time from managers to build schedules and allows employees to have more say in the hours they work. In other words, employees can choose shifts that fit their lives, whether that’s based on their personal commitments, the hours they can physically handle working, qualifications or overtime considerations.

Flexible self-scheduling works best when it’s implemented with software that’s designed for the task. (Manual, paper-based self-scheduling is cumbersome and inefficient.) After a manager sets the shifts needing to be filled, employees log in on their own mobile devices and select the shifts they want. Using the same platform, employees can communicate with one another to trade shifts as desired.

Among the benefits self-scheduling offers:

  • When employees choose their own schedules, they’re more likely to show up for the shift. No-shows happen for many reasons such as scheduling conflicts, a desire to avoid working with specific people, and illness; self-scheduling allows employees to trade shifts to prevent these types of no-shows.
  • Increased productivity. We each have different times of the day when we’re more productive. With self-scheduling, employees can choose the work hours that sync with their most productive time, whether they’re morning people or night owls.
  • Flexible self-scheduling can be positioned as a great benefit to potential employees, making it a powerful recruiting and retention tool. (According to Black Box Intelligence, flexible scheduling is among the top 5 things restaurant workers look for in a new job.) 

Replace Just-in-Time Scheduling with Predictive Scheduling

As many as one-third of all retail and food service workers receive less than one-week’s notice of their work schedule. This “just-in-time” scheduling practice makes it difficult to arrange child care, care for a loved one who’s sick or injured, attend school or pick up an extra job to make ends meet.

Other common scheduling problems food service workers face include cancelled shifts, on-call shifts and last-minute shift changes. And 75 percent of U.S. food and retail workers said they would prefer a more stable and predictable schedule in a survey by The Shift Project.

So what does a predictable schedule mean in the restaurant industry? One where employees are given adequate notice of their work shifts (preferably one or two weeks), and employers work to eliminate any last-minute shift changes.

Establishing this type of scheduling might seem like a Herculean task for an overworked restaurant manager who’s also taking food orders, preparing for a safety inspection and running to fetch more chicken because the lunch rush wiped out what was in the cooler. But it doesn’t have to be. The same scheduling software that enables restaurant operators to offer employees flexible self-scheduling can also make predictive scheduling easy to initiate and manage.

Plus, predictive scheduling is actually beneficial for employers in the long run, particularly in employee retention. According to The Shift Project, retail and food service workers who receive their schedules with less than 72 hours’ notice have a 39 percent turnover rate. But that turnover dropped by double digits to 24 percent for workers who received their schedule with at least two weeks’ notice.

Cut Back Overtime

Finally, to help employees avoid burnout during the busy holiday season — or any time of year — restaurants should try to reduce the number of overtime hours they work.

The endless overtime cycle typically pops up in two scenarios: when demand outweighs labor or when employees are improperly scheduled. Demand can quickly spike during busy seasons. Increased profits are always great news for restaurant owners, but not if earnings are going directly to paying employees for overtime. Plus, working too much overtime isn’t healthy for anyone and also contributes to burnout and turnover.

Hiring more staff to meet demand is easier said than done during the current labor crunch. Fortunately, another good way to reduce overtime is to schedule smarter to ensure you have the right number of staff available when things are busy, and that you aren’t overstaffed when business is slow. Check your workforce management or scheduling software to see how demand and current staffing stack up and adjust your shifts accordingly.

Once you have a handle on demand and staffing, determine a weekly, monthly or even annual cap of overtime hours that your business can afford to pay per employee. Try to build in enough room so that if employees need to pitch in and work more overtime they can, but not too much that it contributes to burnout or sky-high labor costs. Capping overtime ensures that work is distributed more evenly and that everyone has a chance to work overtime hours if they’d appreciate the extra pay.

Of course, employee burnout comes from more than just too much work. It happens when employees are weary, worried, stressed, depressed, upset, feel trapped, fearful or lack a sense of community where others are working just as hard alongside them. In other words, employee burnout doesn’t have a cookie cutter fix. But if businesses want to reduce employee turnover and prevent poor customer experience, they need to tackle burnout head-on. Rethinking your scheduling practices is a good place to start.