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How to avoid employee burnout before it’s a problem


Employee burnout is a big problem in the workplace, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of burnout – when an employee just feels done with their current situation – can manifest in various ways:

  • Lack of interest or initiative in work
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Displays of stress, frustration, disillusionment or exhaustion – sometimes with little provocation
  • Negative attitude
  • Frequent absences

In fact, burnout is cited as one of the most common reasons that employees leave jobs.

Often, these feelings fester internally until they reach a boiling point.

Employers may wait for the external warning signs of employee burnout, or even verbal confirmation from employees. But at that point, it might be too late.

By the time employees exhibit symptoms of burnout or decide to speak up, they’ve probably reached their last straw and may even be searching for opportunities elsewhere. In their mind, they’re likely already committed to leaving your workplace. They may have one foot out the door and are just sheltering in place while they plot their next move.

In the meantime, your company’s work output and customer service may suffer, and you’ll face employee turnover.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Your company can work to create a culture with established structures that reduce the likelihood of burnout ever happening in the first place.

Top 6 drivers of employee burnout – and how to address them proactively

1. Heavy workload

This may be an obvious one, but when your employees have more work than their bandwidth will allow – and no resource allocation to help carry the load – they’ll feel overworked and drained.

Any business will inevitably go through periods that are busier than others and require employees to assume additional responsibilities or put in extra hours. That may be feasible for a short time, but it’s not sustainable for the long term. People simply can’t work at a breakneck pace in crisis mode permanently.

What you can do proactively

  • Consider whether your business can hire more people or at least procure temporary workers. Do you have a system in place that helps you determine whether it’s a good time to hire, before current employees reach their breaking point?
  • Evaluate what your policies, processes, rewards and incentives telegraph about productivity. How can you improve them? In what ways could your company be conveying that it prizes productivity over personal well-being? Are you (unintentionally) causing unnecessary stress and making employees work themselves sick?
  • Examine whether you have a people-first workplace culture. If not, how can you better demonstrate to employees that you value their well-being? It could be as simple as encouraging employees to leave their desk for lunch or take occasional breaks, such as going on a walk. As a reward for a job well done and to enable employees to recharge, you could consider early release or comp hours.
  • Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) along with other wellness programs. How can your company make a more concerted effort to promote these programs and services that offer professional support to employees during times of stress?

Caring, empathetic leadership and regular communication are also critical.

It’s a leader’s responsibility to maintain a dialogue with their direct reports and keep a pulse on what’s going on with each person on their team. That’s why managers should make it a regular practice to ask employees about their workload as part of their weekly check-in meetings.

Managers should also encourage employees to share with them anything that’s going on in their personal lives – after all, “life happens,” and situations arise that could impact their scheduling and ability to get work done.

If an employee reports concerns with their workload, what can you do to help resolve the issue before it spirals out of control?

  • Can you reallocate some work to other team members?
  • Can deadlines shift?
  • What other resources or immediate relief can you provide?

2. Poor work-life balance

These are common characteristics of workplaces exhibiting poor work-life balance:

  • Employees feel pressure to spend long hours at work.
  • Employees have trouble stopping work even when they’re off the clock or, worse yet, on vacation.
  • Employees sacrifice personal relationships and commitments for work.

Remote work has exacerbated the problem. To combat the perception that they’re lying around in pajamas watching TV all day, remote employees can feel as though they have to overcompensate to appear productive.

Plus, some find it hard to step away from work that’s just a short walk down the hall; it’s the “I’ll just check in really quick” mudslide. Although intended to promote flexibility and healthy work-life balance, remote work can, in some cases, have the opposite result.

As with a heavy workload, poor work-life balance isn’t sustainable for the long term. Employees who feel like they’re constantly working and never get a break will eventually snap. Everyone needs down time and space to attend to family, friends, their health and well-being, hobbies and other personal pursuits.

What you can do

  • Establish rules that discourage employees from becoming workaholics. For example, your company could prohibit work emails or texts outside business hours. 
  • Managers should communicate regularly with their team members and be on the lookout for workaholic behavior, so they discuss how to alleviate it with individual employees on a case-by-case basis.
  • Consider how else your organization can better convey to employees that their personal well-being is valued.
  • Ponder whether your workplace can shift toward a flexible mindset, where quality of work output and its timely completion matter more than hours spent at a desk. How can you facilitate this?

3. Not enough flexibility

In the post-COVID-19 workplace, employees spend less time commuting. They’re able to spend more time with their families and can better balance work and personal obligations.

For many employees, there’s no turning back to a pre-2020 style of work.

Flexibility is a highly sought-after feature that most employees desire. Not every employee wants to be remote full-time, but many employees want the option to choose where they work: remote, on-site or hybrid.

In addition to location flexibility, many employees also desire flexibility in hours and scheduling.

What you can do

Going forward, companies that embrace flexibility will be most competitive in recruiting and retaining employees.

If the nature of your business, and the type of work that your employees do, enables you to adopt more flexibility, give it serious consideration. Employees who crave more flexibility – but are stunted by rigid scheduling and workplace rules – will be unhappy.

4. Lack of career path

If employees sense that there’s no path upward (or even lateral) within your organization, they’ll feel stuck in a rut and as though they have nowhere else to go but to another workplace with more opportunities. This is especially problematic within smaller companies that have a flatter organizational structure and fewer roles.

What you can do

  • From the outset, talk to employees about their career development goals so you and your employees have a clear understanding of whether your company can accommodate them, as well as the requirements and milestones required of employees to achieve them. At least annually, check in with employees to determine whether any of their goals have changed.
  • Engage in succession planning. If you think that an employee has leadership traits, ask them if they’re interested in eventually occupying a leadership position and help develop them. Knowing their long-term potential in the company could generate higher levels of engagement within employees.
  • Encourage employees to join professional organizations to take advantage of educational and training resources, network with peers and connect with mentors.
  • Implement a mentorship program within your organization. If an employee is interested in a specific type of work as part of their career path, facilitate an introduction to a colleague who can educate them about it and provide informal training.

5. Workplace inefficiencies

They seem like small annoyances at first, but over time roadblocks and extra steps can accumulate to make an employee’s day-to-day work incredibly frustrating. Here, we’re talking about process and technology inefficiencies – major culprits in creating friction and barriers that keep employees from performing at their best.

What you can do

  • Review processes at least every few years to identify potential improvements.
  • Review legacy technology. This is a big line item for many companies and, understandably, your organization may not be able to buy or upgrade to the latest and greatest systems or equipment under budget constraints. But you should regularly review where you can make improvements. Assess whether your technology supports or hinders efficiency. Does your company have the ability to scale up?
  • Solicit feedback from employees on what they think works – and what doesn’t. Employees appreciate the opportunity to express their views. However, be open to their responses, and willing to act on them when feasible, or else you’ll lose credibility.

6. Negative relationship with a manager

There’s this famous saying: People don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.

Certain manager traits can derail the most important relationship an employee has at their company and are a recipe for burnout, including:

  • Poor communication
  • Shifting expectations
  • Favoritism
  • Micromanagement
  • Lack of trust in their team

No employee wants to feel on edge, overlooked, undervalued or overly controlled and monitored on an ongoing basis.

A negative relationship with a manager doesn’t just make an employee’s average day unpleasant. It can also impact performance reviews and opportunities for project assignments, professional development, career advancement and salary increases. In other words, it can tarnish an employee’s entire experience with a company.

What you can do

  • Carefully assess potential leaders for promotion to the ranks of management. It’s not enough for someone to be a functional expert or a highly skilled individual contributor. Confirm whether they exhibit specific qualities that make them well suited for management, such as emotional intelligence.
  • Once you select leaders, evaluate them regularly to ensure that they’re effective leaders and continue to exhibit positive traits. If turnover increases or productivity dips within their team, take a closer look.
  • Encourage managers to schedule regular check-ins with their team and one-on-one with employees – about once per week is ideal. Frequent communication and face time is important for maintaining positive connections, sharing new information and expressing concerns and feedback. However, discourage managers from scheduling excessive meetings or using technology as a tool to police employees.
  • Maintain an open door policy in practice, not just on paper, at all levels of management.
  • Let employees know that they have dedicated human resources personnel for reporting problems and challenges when they’re not comfortable speaking directly with their manager. Provide names and contact information – make HR personable.

Summing it all up

The six primary causes of employee burnout all come with avoidance strategies that company leaders can start implementing today to reduce the risk of burnout and its lingering effects.

The common threads of these strategies include regular, open communication with employees and empathetic, warm leadership that makes employees feel heard, respected and valued. Bonus: Preventing burnout involves taking steps to become a highly desirable workplace with high engagement and retention.

For more information about preventing employee burnout and improving your workplace, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.