Burnout response for leaders

How to identify employee burnout, recognize workplace factors and take pro-active steps for prevention. These strategies can help protect overachievers and those recovering from burnout.

Understand the issue

Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness in the workplace, and by chronic negative responses to stressful workplace conditions. 

While not considered a mental illness, burnout can be considered a mental health issue. According to the Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research (cited below), burnout is having a growing impact on workplaces, in particular in advanced economies and during times of economic downturn.

Burnout is more likely when employees:

  • Expect too much of themselves
  • Never feel that the work they are doing is good enough
  • Feel inadequate or incompetent
  • Feel unappreciated for their work efforts
  • Have unreasonable demands placed upon them
  • Are in roles that are not a good job fit

Because it can be chronic in nature, affecting both the health and performance of employees at all levels of organizations, prevention strategies are considered the most effective approach for addressing workplace burnout. 

Consider workplace factors

Several of the organizational factors described in the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and Guarding Minds at Work as impacting psychological health and safety in the workplace are the same factors that may contribute to workplace burnout.

For example, employees may have greater instances of burnout when they feel that they are not making an adequate contribution to their organization, or do not feel their efforts are appreciated, have role conflict, work overload (even when they say they can handle it), or a lack of predictable and clear expectations.

Organizations can find ways to reduce workplace stressors that may contribute to burnout by reviewing the approaches outlined in Where do we start with psychological health and safety?

Frontline management can have significant influence over the factors that impact burnout. For this reason, individuals in management or support positions should become aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, as well as what they can do to prevent or respond to burnout. The Psychologically safe leader assessment will help determine specific areas for improvement.

Recognize signs and symptoms

The majority of employees experiencing burnout will remain at work. Being aware of changes in attitudes and energy can help with early identification. Employees may not realize that they are dealing with burnout and may instead believe that they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. Stress, however, is usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency while burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy.

Employees may not be aware of the negative impacts on their performance that this can have, such as increased errors or lower productivity. Employers and co-workers may attribute the changes to a poor attitude or loss of motivation. The negative effects of burnout can increase significantly before anyone recognizes or addresses the problem and unaddressed burnout can increase the chance of developing clinical depression or other serious conditions.

Some of the signs and symptoms that an employee experiencing burnout may exhibit include:

  • Reduced efficiency and energy
  • Lowered levels of motivation
  • Increased errors
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Increased frustration
  • Suspiciousness
  • More time spent working with less being accomplished

Severe burnout can also result in:

  • Self-medication with alcohol and other substances
  • Sarcasm and negativity
  • Debilitating self-doubt

Left unaddressed, burnout may result in a number of outcomes including:

  • Poor physical health
  • Clinical depression
  • Reduced job satisfaction
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased risk of accidents
  • Poor workplace morale
  • Communication breakdown
  • Increased turnover

The lies we tell ourselves

Some employees who have recovered from burnout shared what they called “the lies we told ourselves” related to denying the signs of burnout, even when loved ones pointed it out to them. These included:

  • I am fine
  • It is your nagging at me that is stressful
  • I love my job
  • I am happy to take more on
  • I am just tired
  • You don’t understand, no one else can do this
  • People are depending on me
  • I really want to be helpful
  • I will be fine once this is done
  • This too will pass
  • I need to get back to the top of my game
  • I’ll take a vacation and then be okay
  • If people just let me do my job, I would be fine
  • It’s not me, it is everyone and everything else

Most actually believed these statements to be true and to a certain extent, many of them were. The “lie” was in denying that their current situation was damaging their health and well-being and that changes were necessary. This denial eventually led to burnout.

Prevention strategies

  • Provide clear expectations for all employees and obtain confirmation that each employee understands those expectations.
  • Make sure employees have the necessary resources and skills to meet expectations.
  • Provide ongoing training to employees to maintain competency.
  • Help employees understand their value to the organization and their contributions to the organization's goals.
  • Enforce reasonable work hours, including, if necessary, sending employees without good boundaries home at the end of their regular work day.
  • Help assess workload for those who feel pressured to remain working beyond normal business hours. See the Task improvement process.
  • Set reasonable and realistic expectations. Organizations should be clear as to which activities require the highest standards and when it is okay to lower the bar and still meet business needs.
  • Encourage social support and respect within and among work teams.
  • Support physical activity throughout the workday.
  • Strongly encourage the taking of breaks away from the work environment.
  • Consider how leadership approaches might impact employees at risk of burnout:

Strategies for overachievers

Those who are overachievers are at a higher risk of burnout. These are individuals who often respond to work stress by taking on more work, which can be further exacerbated by a workplace that consistently looks to top performers to take on most of the toughest projects as well as additional tasks such as mentoring lower performers. Strategies to balance these expectations include:

  • Avoid always requiring the overachiever to compensate for others. Give your top performers the opportunity to work with colleagues that are at or near their level of competence. This allows more balanced sharing of a project’s workload and pressures as well as the opportunity to learn and grow together. Having to consistently pick up the slack and/or coach lesser performers can drain a high performer’s energy and morale.
  • Give high performers choices. Many leaders assume their overachievers only want to work on the most demanding projects. In some cases this may be true, but over time, this may move that employee further away from what they loved about their job in the first place. The leader may be surprised by which projects a higher performing employee might actually enjoy working on.
  • Watch out for the “Yes” people. The overachiever may agree to every request because they feel that it is expected, have a hard time saying “no”, or underestimate the amount of time and energy that it will take. The employee who keeps agreeing to do that one more thing may feel like they’re never getting caught up, are inadequate, and not living up to expectations. These thoughts can be drivers of burnout.

Support recovery at work

  • Developing employee plans for leaders is a practical strategy to support an employee who may be experiencing burnout.
  • As part of any plan, ask the employee how best to recognize their successes and victories. This could include immediate and personal praise, opportunities for growth and development, public recognition, or incentives. It is important to understand what is most valued by the employee. This may help as employees experiencing burnout often have a significant loss of confidence in their overall competency.
  • Consider opportunities for the employee to help or support others, keeping in mind this may not be a great strategy if that was a regular and difficult part of the employee’s job prior to their burnout. By taking the attention away from what they are not doing well, and instead using their strengths to mentor or coach someone else, you may help reduce apathy and cynicism.
  • Help organize and prioritize work into manageable and clear expectations. These changes can help rebuild energy over time and aid in recovery.

Many of the approaches found in Accommodation strategies may also help support employee productivity to avoid burnout.

The approaches found in Prevent burnout can help those who are already at risk of or dealing with this condition. 

Additional resources

Is your organization at risk for burnout? A tool to help assess your organizations’ response to work-related stress.

References

1. Brown, LW, Quick, JC, Environmental Influences on Individual Burnout and a Preventive Approach for Organizations, Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 2013, 18, 2, pp. 104–121.