How to help an employee who’s burned out
Prior to coming on board as the new departmental manager, Andrew heard a great deal about an employee named Kristen. When he looked over past performance reviews to get a feel for his new team, her evaluations stood out as particularly stellar. Bosses described her as passionate, reliable, productive, and accommodating. Even in the notes the previous manager left for him, she merited individual mention: “Rely on Kristen when you need something done. She’s a superstar workhorse.”
Andrew did indeed quickly witness Kristen’s value to the company. He also, however, observed some disturbing things. She carried an exceptionally heavy workload compared to similarly skilled colleagues. She routinely put in long hours and seemed to ingest more headache medication washed down with Diet Coke than actual lunch. And while Kristen dutifully provided updates at staff meetings, she often looked sleepy and disinterested when others spoke.
Andrew came to the conclusion that he had inherited a burned-out worker. And from his past experiences, he knew he better rectify the matter before this prized team member became an employee turnover statistic.
What is employee burnout?
People often toss around the term “burned out” to describe someone who is routinely tired, stressed, or feeling overwhelmed. While often correct, understanding its scope helps in comprehending its seriousness.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
reduced professional efficacy.
The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that job burnout results from “performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”
Why should a manager who notices employee burnout be concerned?
Burnout is associated with a variety of undesirable things, such as:
Lower commitment to the job
Physical health problems (headaches, stomach disorders, muscle tension, high blood pressure, susceptibility to colds and flu, sleep disturbances)
Mental health problems (such as depression and anxiety)
Retention rates can suffer when burned-out team members decide to find a work environment more beneficial to their well-being. Similarly, job candidates may think twice about accepting an offer if they perceive your company culture as one conducive to burnout.
Dealing with workplace burnout
As Andrew realized, managers witnessing signs of burnout need to take action. As The Great Resignation in the aftermath of the pandemic showed, many modern workers are committed to self-care. They are unwilling to stick around workplaces filled with stressors that lead to physical or mental exhaustion, poor work-life balance, or an undesirable employee experience.
Whether you inherit burned-out workers when assuming a managerial position or notice symptoms of burnout in a staff you’ve managed for years, the bottom line is the same: Don’t ignore it. Here are some suggestions on how to prevent employee burnout, decrease stress levels, and improve employee engagement.
Busy managers are sometimes oblivious to employee burnout until it’s too late — namely when faced with resignations. Make time to frequently examine individual team members and the overall workplace culture. Do people seem edgy or tired? Is absenteeism growing? Are productivity rates down because staff members seem to have less in their tank?
Remember that toxic cultures contribute to employee burnout, so be on the lookout. Consistent exposure to negativity, gossip, incivility, and other poor behaviors takes a toll. It might be time to identify and deal with offenders in the name of improving morale and working conditions.
Regular one-to-one meetings allow a manager to assess the risk of burnout on an individual basis. Together, explore workloads, work schedules, and work-life balance. Create a safe space that encourages honesty. Perhaps something in the worker’s personal life is adding to stress levels. Brainstorm ways to address concerns. Flexible work arrangements, for instance, might ease childcare burdens.
A key question to ask is “What can I do to make your job better?” — and listen to the response! Maybe you need to work on laying out clear expectations to eliminate the stress of guesswork. Perhaps better prioritization can assist the person in focusing on what truly needs to get done. Delegating some of an overworked person’s tasks to others could prove helpful. Or, maybe investing in more modern technology could save time and frustration.
Get a sense that an employee might benefit from outside help? Gently make the person aware of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and any other company resources at their disposal. Stress confidentiality.
Respect private time
People need the opportunity to recharge. Help them to do so by not bothering employees during non-work hours. Refrain from texting, calling, or emailing, as unplugging promotes relaxation. Even if you don’t expect an immediate answer, simply receiving communication from the boss brings work to mind and makes one wonder if failure to respond looks bad.
And unless the most dire emergency comes up, do not contact employees on vacation!
Watch what you value
Do your employees feel like they need to put in after-hours “face time” in order to get ahead? Do you praise workers who come to the office while sick as “committed”? Do you subtly (or not so subtly) give off the vibe that “good” employees work through lunch?
All of these things can contribute to burnout. Encourage working smarter, not longer. Let people know that you support self-care and work-life balance because they are in the company’s best interests. And model what you want to see — you are entitled to take PTO too!
According to the APA, “people who feel that they have freedom to determine what they do and when they do it are less likely to experience burnout.” Avoid micromanaging, and give as much say-so as possible. An early bird, for instance, may like to organize her day to tackle all harder tasks in the morning. Perhaps not the method you’d select, but what difference does it make as long as work gets done well and on time?
A great way to offer an employee more control is to let the person direct his own professional development. Instead of dictating what the worker should learn, ask about interests. Growth opportunities reduce workplace monotony, and personally selecting meaningful topics to explore or skills to master provides a sense of taking charge of one’s own future.
Build a supportive environment
Being able to turn to others in the workplace makes burnout less likely to occur. These connections ease feelings of shouldering everything on one’s own. The advice, helping hand, listening ear, or kind words provided by a colleague or boss can boost spirits and lessen stress.
Pay attention, too, to creating a psychologically safe community. Employees want to be their authentic selves at work. Having to put up a front contributes to burnout. Hiding one’s sexuality, for instance, for fear of being ridiculed depletes energy. Promote tolerance, respect, professionalism, and working together to accomplish goals.
Similarly, give everyone a voice. Provide a variety of outlets to express concerns, such as town hall meetings, an open door for one-to-one chats, surveys, and a box for anonymous suggestions. Knowing there are places to turn to and be heard champions hope and progress.
Many organizations support workers forming Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These voluntary, employee-led groups serve as a place for workers with a common characteristic (age, gender, ethnicity, working parent, disability, etc.) to interact. Members commonly share their experiences, learn from each other, and offer encouragement. This type of social and professional connection can reduce the feelings of being “different” that sometimes contribute to burnout.
Do not discount the power of gratitude. From a heartfelt thank you note to a surprise gift, knowing leaders notice and appreciate efforts boosts spirits. While not a substitute for identifying the root cause of employee burnout, such acts of appreciation demonstrate thoughtfulness and remind recipients of their importance.
Talk about burnout
Finally, while it is definitely important for managers to recognize signs of burnout, it is also beneficial for employees to be well-versed on the subject. After all, they are the ones who can best monitor and judge their own well-being.
Distribute relevant literature, especially as burnout relates to your specific industry. (Some jobs by their very nature are prone to emotional exhaustion.) Spend some time at a staff meeting discussing the issue. Bring in healthcare professionals for presentations. Everyone needs to realize chronic job stress is a genuine concern, and becoming comfortable talking about it is a great step in combating it.