Battling Burnout

June 24, 2024 | By: Shell Turner, Christine Rachelle

Burnout, a phrase that has become more and more common in our vernacular over the past decade. Is the problem really that prevalent or is it just the growing pains of a new generation into the industry? This brief writing hopes to tackle the misconceptions, causes, affects, and solutions here to better open the conversation up to build a better workforce.

After multiple presentations on the subject, we have found that burnout is a prevalent issue affecting most people. Most of the participants at our speaking engagements report staying past 10 p.m., keeping hygiene items at their desk, and never having taken their full two-week vacations in their careers. This issue is real, and it is believed to be societally accepted as a necessary evil. It takes 60 hours a week for a single person to manage multiple buildings without proper support. However, instead of things getting easier as technology advances, we have seen this trend worsen, starting with the crash of 2007.

Outlining what a property manager does should be easy. After all, one quick search on the website “Indeed” will get you a standardized list of responsibilities. Tasks outlined can include; annual budget building, monthly financial reporting, accounts receivable and accounts payable services, leasing administration (not to be confused with leasing coordination), building operations, construction management, employee supervision, tenant relations, vendor management and contracting, and finally association and industry participation. These tasks can be multiplied as the number of buildings increases. Perhaps this would be manageable to a seasoned professional. However, if you have spent any time in the industry you will know that the scope of work doesn’t end there. Property managers also juggle the responsibility of being the resident therapist, graphic designer, event planner, HVAC guru, paralegal, authority figure during emergencies, scapegoat for those same emergencies, and the building messenger of “bad news.” You get where this is going. Property managers often say that it is all the hats they wear that make them love the industry. However, it is all those hats that make burnout an inevitability. We are not Atlas, and we do not need the weight of the world on our shoulders all the time.

It has been an unfortunate industry trend to overburden property managers and industry professionals in general. However, there are hidden costs to this business practice that should be considered. The quick answer to owners, fund managers , investors and commercial real estate firms as to why you should take care of your staff is to reduce overall costs. Employee burnout and eventual turnover costs money as well as time and talents. “The Great Resignation” …has also been called “The Great Reevaluation” … encompassing both retirees and those reassessing their career path.

The responsibilities and demands upon commercial property managers weigh much heavier than many other types of desk jobs. In February of 2023, a global study of more than 10,000 full-time desk workers revealed that more than 40 percent, or nearly half, say they are burned out. Burnout can lead to heavy turnover, early retirement, and even industry changes! The average age of a property manager was 50 a mere five years ago. If we consider that two-thirds of workers in commercial real estate have more than 11 years of experience; a third have more than 20 years of experience. In other words, we need to be hiring and then nurturing a full third of our industry’s staff to nudge them past a decade of service, and then nurturing our mid-career staff so they stay engaged and healthy long enough to replace the last third, who are increasingly choosing to retire early. Early retirement and career changes of experienced property staff causes a loss of institutional knowledge. That wisdom can only be gained from experience and longevity, such as knowing strange CAM Rec exclusions for particular tenants or establishing tenant relationships.

Even if a steady stream of talent is on-boarded, BOMA Magazine forewarned us even before the pandemic that, Emerging professionals report challenges with keeping their skills and knowledge current with technology changes. They feel the constant pressure to stay connected 24/7 to serve tenants and landlords alike.

So, what is the actual cost of burnout in dollars? It’ll cost as much as 50-75 percent of an employee’s salary to replace and train a new employee. That’s $30-42,000 in addition to the actual salary of a $60,000 employee. There aren’t enough qualified candidates to fill all of the open positions, which have been noted in booming markets such as Nashville, TN. Qualified applicants for commercial property managers now sit in a position of power at the negotiating table. The shortage began in the 2008 recession when companies discovered that they could do more with less… many Boomers chose to retire before possibly being forced to ramp up their multitasking or be let go. How much would you now pay to replace a lost assistant if faced with none at all? How much of your time would it take to train them? How much does a lost contract cost if you can’t find or afford to pay quality staff to fulfill it? These are the types of questions that come up when a team member is lost.

When a burnt-out employee leaves, the next employee has that much more to catch up on. If the last person couldn’t keep up with the workload, the next person is kneecapped, playing catch-up right from the start. Some might think the quick solution would be to poach a replacement from your competitor. If your company wants to lure away an employee from another but that employee is engaged at work and happy, they should expect to add a 20 percent pay raise to win them over. In most markets, an unhappy property manager doesn’t need to stay with their current company.

If the costs of burnout are not enough to convince one to address workloads of staff, then consider the benefits of a well-kept property manager, or staff member. When you build a system where your staff can work reasonably, this benefits the property by decreasing turnover, and promoting loyalty. A dream position, where the employees have the freedom to do a job that they can be proud of, and a job they can build upon. A position that isn’t burdened by a never-ending workload. It may seem like a fantasy, but it can be achieved. If burnout causes high turnover, it must feel universally excruciating to employees. If you think about it, why would anyone want to rock the boat for a new thing? It was often said to me, that it takes about a year to acclimate to a new building and get to a point where things are second nature. Let’s consider a 500,000 square foot building, constructed in 1996, with 68 percent occupancy, 11 tenants with around 28 tenant contacts to remember. With all that goes into managing an asset, it’s going to be tough that first year. It might even take a couple years to get everything down. However, the very first moment when you automatically react to something that didn’t require two hours of research first? That is the best feeling!

Property managers usually don’t want to leave. They don’t want to relearn the intricacies of a new property. They just figured out the difference of ”Lauren on 10 with two kids” vs “Laura on 11 with the horses.” They don’t want to relearn which floors are open from the stairwells, and which are access control. You have to learn those things firsthand! I have been in the industry for eight years and overwhelmingly have met passionate and loyal professionals who are endeared to their buildings. If the industry standard changes to reflect a healthy work life balance, then these wonderful property managers will respond and be able to stay around.

Driving employees to burnout leads to disengagement, isolation and loneliness. Irritable property managers lower the office morale and hurt the company culture overall. They will struggle to attend to tenants and may even damage the company’s reputation. The lost productivity of a disengaged worker amounts to 18 percent of their annual salary. Going back to our $60,000 employee example above, the lack of support and an overburdened workload can cost a company nearly $11,000 in the lost productivity of one employee. It literally pays in fiscal stability and profits to not overwork your employees. BOMA has reported that not only does engagement affect employee retention, productivity, and loyalty, it is also a key link to customer satisfaction and stakeholder value.

In contrast, a happy property manager, who stays with a property over time, provides the asset with consistent and stable leadership. Our industry professionals manage multi-million dollar investments, and if they are able to function with a human amount of responsibility, they can provide fewer “human errors.” Whether financial or physical in nature, a tired human is far more likely to make a mistake than a well-rested one. Things are less likely to “Fall through the Cracks,” like the more obscure and randomly scheduled inspections or services. The five-year adhesive roof anchor test vs the 10-year mounted roof anchor test vs the annual test. It is a lot to track, and as we know, there is a spreadsheet tracking this information on the drive. However, those happy and well-cared-for property managers are better equipped to handle the job and subsequently protect the building and investment more effectively. This consistency of services is felt by all those involved, from the owners to the tenants. The tenants will appreciate not having to “re-train” the management office. The happy healthy property manager, who has stayed with the property, understands the prior verbal agreements given in the past because they were there when the tenant moved in. These long-standing relationships with tenants help drive renewals and help resolve issues that may arise in the future. Connecting with our tenants early helps immensely when we have to do an emergency repair or complete an inconvenient remodel during business hours. Tenants tend to be more understanding when they know and trust the staff. Consistency is an underrated amenity for commercial real estate and if you have a well-kept property manager, with the staff and tools they need to build an awesome environment, the tenants and community will notice.

When you treat your people excellent they will reflect that excellence in their work. Some may say there is no need for industry change and people just “Don’t want to work.” I believe the common phrase is missing a word. “People don’t want to work… Poorly.” After all, no one brags that they are the worst at what they do. By managing the workload to allow for greatness to foster, we can all shape the image of property management away from the image of an overworked office worker and into a vibrant steadfast leader of a small community inside steel, concrete, and glass structures.

The consistency that I spoke of doesn’t just lend itself to customer service, it also lends itself to safety. There are things that we must be prepared for in this day and age. The rise of active shooters, civil disobedience, and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change has made the property manager role that much more important in society. Don’t you want well-rested property managers who are enriched by their job with years of experience to be the ones reacting to the unfortunate incidents? I am not saying that a new hire can’t end up on top during a serious flooding incident, but those long established relationships with vendors and tenants will allow you to respond to the situation quickly. That reaction time during high-stress situations helps mitigate moral and financial risks. I recently took an active shooter course. That extra responsibility truly weighed heavily on me. I care deeply for my people. So, being well balanced in my approach to work keeps me sane in more ways than one. I would feel horrible if I was unable to perform at any less than 100 percent during an emergency.

Beyond the staffing and productivity issues surrounding burnout, we must consider the human aspect of wanting a happy, healthy workforce in our industry. There are physical impacts of burnout-related stress. You should know that your superstar managers can be the most susceptible to decline from overwork. I personally know multiple star employees who have been forced to take emergency leaves of absence for their health. This type of person is also the hardest to backfill.

Stress and overwork can lead to chronic or recurring conditions that are difficult to diagnose and treat, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia. These conditions would slow down even the best-intentioned employees and hinder their ability to keep up with a normal workload, much less an overfilled schedule of demands. The journal Neurology reported that jobs with high demands and low levels of control–much like building engineering or managing commercial properties–are associated with a 22 percent increased risk of stroke compared to jobs with low demands and a high degree of control. Emotional stress can not only lead stroke, but also to increased blood pressure and increased levels of stress hormones, as well as unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating or relying on coffee and energy drinks to function. All of these can lead to heart disease and heart attacks. This of course is the worst-case scenario, but health risks need to be factored in when weighing the costs of burnout.

One can concede that this is not an issue that we can resolve overnight, and certainly it will be easier to change personal behavior beyond systematic corporate behavior. With that in mind we have a few take-a-ways for property managers to use to help themselves maintain boundaries and create habits that protect them from burnout.

Type-A personalities often excel in many positions in property management, due to their attention to detail and desire to get things right, but that also means they may find it difficult to relinquish control. Make sure that you are training all staff on recurring tasks that must be done. Things such as; CAM recs, budgets, accruals, billing, AP, etc. Skill redundancies allow people to take time off work, without creating a larger issue. This type of action is vital to successful succession planning.

Additionally, keep notes for year-over-year use. Items like “Why was this adjustment made?” “What important lease data stands out as different from one tenant to the others?” Leave your working memory free for the present, and give future you the gift of less stress and research.

Make sure to take breaks in your day. It might seem like a no brainer, but it really is an underutilized habit to recalibrate. Use this time to check in with yourself. Even if you don’t have a watch that tracks your health, try to notice when your pulse increases, your blood pressure increases, your respiration becomes shallow. It can help to use a timer to remind yourself to stop every hour to take a deep breath, look up and away from your computer, and stretch. Another option is to leave your office altogether. Leave your office for a walk, whether in the building or outside. Do not use your phone. Stretch your body and your eyeballs. Rest your mind. “Sitting is the new smoking.” If you are too stressed or tired to work out, a couple short walks during your day can do wonders for your mental and physical health.

Taking care of your basic needs shouldn’t have to be told, but many in our industry would admit to neglecting lunch or sleep to work. Take lunch! Ideally, eat lunch too. Your body needs fuel, and the better the fuel, the better you will feel and perform. Take at least 30 minutes; your subconscious brain will continue working out problems in the background. Don’t delay bathroom breaks! Being in the flow is an amazing thing; preventing physical flow is going to cause health issues. Stay hydrated, use the bathroom, knock out some push-ups on the bathroom counter if you’re feeling super motivated. Self care is an excellent tool against burnout and it starts with caring about one’s health.

If you are a market leader or have a team leadership role, please consider the following actions you can take to prevent burnout in your team.

  • Provide counseling support
  • Build out quiet areas
  • Schedule flexibility and work from home opportunities
  • Find out what rewards will benefit each employee and be flexible with those benefits, such as morning arrival time flexibility, better healthcare, reimbursements for fuel or phone, etc.

Keep vacation sacred/protect employee’s time

  • Create a policy of limiting access to email during a vacation.
  • In the event that an emergency necessitates their involvement, use previously defined types of emergencies to dictate means of communication. (example: Small leak warrants an email, and fire warrants a call)

Give gold stars

  • Some people think they don’t need positive feedback until they aren’t getting it.
  • Simple gestures of appreciation can be the wind in your employee’s sails.

To those ‘above and beyond’ types, your worth is not contingent on productivity. By that I mean there is a drive to be the gracious tenant event host, the genius accountant with $0 variances, the legal wizard finding cost saving loopholes in leases, and the innovative ESG project head that saved the company and planet! Don’t get me wrong, we will accomplish everything. Just not all at once. Create reasonable goals and know that allowing yourself space to complete projects will produce far more amazing results than if you try to do it all at once. The buildings have stood for decades and will continue to do so for decades to come. So, try to keep your personal expectations for yourself to reasonable human levels.

Self-inflicted burnout can be eased with a shift in perspective. You can get it right or get it now. Allowing yourself to ‘get it now’ requires de-prioritization of more superficial items on your to-do list. Who hasn’t started on a project and then found themselves hours later reviewing utility bills from 10 years ago because you noticed something weird while planning a restroom upgrade. You are so excellent and thorough but maybe reign it in a bit. Write down your suspicion and save it for later. I have been trying to use timers to control tasks and help manage time. By focusing on one thing at a time, you will find you can cross out items on your to-do list easier and more frequently. Speaking of to-do lists.

Being a workaholic, I find creating an “I did!” list helps with managing my expectations in my own work and alters my perspective on the “drowning and never getting anywhere” thoughts. This mindset shift will give you a tangible reminder of all the things that you accomplished throughout the day. Burnout, coming from extended periods of time feeling overwhelmed, makes it seem like nothing ever gets done. Reviewing all that you have accomplished, even those items that might not have been on your radar at the start of the week, is a small action to help mitigate that guilt related stress.

Once you have set healthy boundaries with yourself, set them with your colleagues. This can be as easy as setting realistic timelines when given new responsibilities. The client wants you to provide a nine-month re-forecast of the revenues for the rest of the year for at least three different leasing scenarios. Don’t say that you can get that to them tomorrow end of day. Your day is already spoken for. It is not unreasonable to enthusiastically accept the responsibility and outline the time frame needed to complete the task. Be honest about being a human with only a certain amount of time in the day, because it doesn’t make you a bad employee. It is hard for people pleasers to value their own time, but it is a vital skill when trying to fight burnout in your day to day. Setting clear boundaries helps take care of each issue we are responsible for in order of urgency.

When you look at the big picture, you should see that you have a whole team behind you. Delegation is one of the strongest tools to combat burnout. Remember that example of working on a restroom renovation and then falling down a wormhole of utility bills? That is an excellent time to rely on your team. This helps those in roles under you gain experience and gets the task done. If you make sure that you always include the reason why or concept behind a direction, any task can be a learning opportunity. As mentioned earlier, this is an excellent opportunity to ensure a seamless future succession plan. Delegating and teaching your team helps all of you in the long run. You don’t have to do everything, and training people is worth the initial investment of time. It is common to hear someone say, “It’ll take too long to explain, I’ll just do it.” That insults their ability to explain something they know and insults your ability to learn something. It is better to just trust your team, and delegate.

The stigma surrounding property management, or really any role, in commercial real estate is that; it is hard, and if you can’t do it, it is a personal failing. That mindset pushes us to burnout. We are the professionals in the position to enact change. Hopefully after this article, you feel better prepared to have those conversations with your colleagues and managers back at the office. Commercial real estate can be an industry with happy and productive professionals.
It starts with us.


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