You register the weary, emotionally depleted faces at the staff meeting. No one is engaged. Last year, staff turnover and absenteeism increased as profits fell. The burnout is palpable. Can this organization be saved? The CEO is willing to invest in a solution, but what would that even be?
Enter the consulting psychologist with extensive knowledge of workplace issues, organizational functioning and interpersonal dynamics.
A consulting psychologist can offer an unbiased view that brings clarity to problems like burnout that may be uncomfortable, unknown or deeper than they appear. “The company doesn’t know what needs to be changed or they would have done it already,” said psychologist Emily Anhalt, who consults largely with technology companies as chief clinical officer of Coa in San Francisco.
Not to be confused with a therapist, who mostly listens and analyzes, a consulting psychologist offers direct advice to help clients build strengths, manage weaknesses and get the outcomes they want. The consultant’s job is to find the root of the problem and then go beyond quick-fix solutions to burnout, such as company picnics or gym memberships.
To identify the causes of burnout, a consultant may circulate through the workplace, interviewing employees privately or conducting focus groups. He or she will talk to HR and company leaders about employee turnover, negativity and productivity— has morale been affected by a relocation, an acquisition or an executive change, for instance? The consultant may administer surveys and benchmark them against a national norm.
Sometimes seemingly little things are at the root of the problem, said psychologist Dan Shapiro, principal of DES Health Consulting in Hershey, Pa. Not having enough breaks or getting bogged down in bureaucracy at every turn can be factors, he has observed. At one hospital, he found that people were stressed about an unsafe parking lot. “All these details add up,” said Shapiro, whose firm specializes in assessing and treating burnout in physicians and nurses.
Psychologist Ben Dattner, principal of Dattner Consulting LLC in New York City, said that interpersonal dynamics can have a greater impact on employee burnout than working conditions. A strategy to eliminate microaggressions by prioritizing respect and consideration can motivate employees who are not feeling valued or appreciated, he said. Sometimes reconfiguring teams proves effective.
The simple presence of a consultant onsite can make a difference, according to Anhalt. The message employees receive when they see a consultant is that leaders care about them and want them to feel safe, supported and happy at work.
How to Hire a Consulting Psychologist
Not just any consulting psychologist will do. Interview several candidates with an eye to the support you’re seeking. Do you want training for the HR staff? Resilience workshops for employees? Leadership coaching or team-building activities? Or maybe you need just an assessment and independent report based on focus groups. Also consider whether a detail-oriented solo practitioner is best for the job, or if a larger firm that includes people with expertise in multiple areas is preferable.
Consultants typically negotiate payment on a case-by-case basis. They may work by the hour, on a project basis or on a retainer, or they may even join the staff as a full-time employee.
Here are a few more guidelines to consider when interviewing consultant candidates:
- Is he or she asking questions? “Be wary of consultants who have the answers before understanding your problems,” Anhalt said. Strategies should be customized to your organization.
- Don’t let a friendly, reassuring personality sway you. “You want a consultant who asks tough questions and who is not focused on reducing anxiety about change,” Dattner advised. “The wrong consultant will leave the organization much as it was before, with [strategies] that offer short-term relief at the expense of long-term progress.”
- Shapiro recommends hiring a consultant with experience in your area of business. “The more familiar consultants are with your industry, the more quickly they can cultivate solutions,” he said.
- And of course, compare and contrast approaches. Be leery of grand promises, too, Dattner said. “Consultants should be realistic about what they can and can’t do with the given resources, time and effort.”
Once a consultant is selected, HR should gather essential knowledge to share about the organization, no holds barred. Is there a difficult person on the leadership team or a policy that has been problematic? “You’re problem-solving together,” Dattner said. “The client needs to put work into it.”
Anhalt cautions that there is no instant remedy for burnout that has been brewing for years. “Companies often wait until they are in dire straits. By the time they get to a consultant, they want to fix everything and fix it quickly. Give the consultant time to come up with an ongoing solution.”
Burnout is much easier to prevent than fix, Anhalt stressed. She advocates preventive strategies like “no-questions-asked mental health days.” Likewise, Dattner recommends training HR and managers to hire people who are resilient and upbeat at the start.
Lastly, remember that consultants are there to support the organization and help clients develop solutions of their own, Anhalt said. “We are not hero experts. Ultimately, [your organization] has to do the fixing.”
Read more on SHRM.org