Preventing Workplace Burnout

Few would argue that health in the workplace needs to be a universal corporate priority, and that mental health is the predominant factor that gauges the level of that well-being. There would also be limited pushback on the reality that job or workplace burnout presents increasingly significant challenges in that regard.

This article will investigate the causes, symptoms, risk factors and other implications associated with job or workplace burnout. In so doing it will distinguish burnout from cyclical job or task-related regression, and will also provide strategies for employees and managers to consider for enhancing workplace health.

What Is Workplace Burnout?

Ebbs and flows in work-related motivation is both normal and predictable. The excitement that comes with learning a task or developing a new skill can be replaced by boredom or a sense of routine once either has been mastered. At a minimum managers and employees need to discuss the onset of this regression and align on a plan to redirect any performance slippage that has occurred.

By point of comparison, workplace burnout is something altogether different. It might start with regression, but it mushrooms into something far more complex.

Research has concluded that three symptoms need to be simultaneously present for burnout:

  1. Exhaustion–And not just at work! With burnout, everyday movement and routine become a struggle.
  2. Absence of Joy–What used to provide a sense of pride and fulfillment has transitioned to a sense of burden and an air of cynicism.
  3. Decreasing Work Quality–Deliverables that previously had met or exceeded expectations … don’t!

What Are Workplace Burnout Symptoms?

Consistent with the definition provided, here is a partial list of symptoms that are commonly associated with workplace burnout:

  • Difficulty Initiating–Procrastination becomes the new normal. An ever-increasing number of obstacles preclude diving in or even taking the first step on a project. Excuses are offered at seemingly every turn for anything remotely resembling new, creative, out-of-the box or difficult.
  • Increasing Irritability–There is noticeable impatience and a growing lack of tolerance for a wide spectrum of stakeholders (i.e., customers, supervisors, colleagues). Somehow, fewer people can figure out how to do anything right!
  • Elusive Energy–Work-related stamina is declining. Sleep habits have changed, and not for the better. More sick days are taken at the last minute, more meetings are missed, less input is offered in the ones that are attended. There are an increasing number of unexplained headaches, stomach- or bowel-related problems.
  • Periodic Cynicism–The enthusiasm to learn, as well as the pride that was evident in achieving incremental progress, is gone. It has been replaced by a reduced level of activity and an attitude of “going through the motions because at the end of the day, this really doesn’t make a difference anyway.”
  • Plummeting Productivity–Work-related metrics are trending downward. Things that used to come easy no longer do. Things that the team used to be able to count on from the employee have become the very things that keep those teammates up at night.

Why Is Addressing Workplace Burnout Important?

Burnout not addressed rarely ends well or gets better on its own. There are also a number of predictable consequences (organizational and employee-based) that are directly related to workplace burnout:

Organizational Consequences

  • Absenteeism–As mentioned previously, when employees suffer from workplace burnout, they work less. A burnt-out employee is 57% more likely to be absent longer than two weeks. When this happens, an intensified burden is placed upon others in the work group which, not coincidentally, adds to the likelihood of increasing absenteeism and related symptoms of burnout with others
  • Engagement–Employees suffering from burnout are less engaged at work. They can also become a source of discontent for others. Employee engagement greatly impacts both productivity and retention. One employee who suffers from workplace burnout can have a far-reaching impact on the success of a department, division, or team

Employee-Based Consequences

According to recent research on the topic, employees who experience true workplace burnout have:

  • 180% increased risk of developing depressive disorders
  • 84% increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
  • 40% increased risk of hypertension

Additionally, workplace burnout may impair short-term memory, attention span, musculoskeletal functions and other cognitive processes essential for daily work activities.

Eliminating, or at least reducing, these risks can contribute greatly to establishing and enhancing a positive work environment and company culture, as well as increasing productivity, efficiency and profitability.

How to Address Burnout In The Workplace

First and foremost, burnout is a two-way street! Effectively addressing it is a function of emotional intelligence in general, and self-awareness and awareness of others in particular. Managers and employees need to commit to work together to both recognize and effectively respond. Here are several suggestions offered for your consideration.

Assign Reasonable Workloads

If you are the manager of a team, you probably have employees in every stage of development in their current job:

  • Some are tenured and have consistently demonstrated proficiency
  • Others are learning and beginning to become steady performers
  • Still others are new and still learning what performing looks like

There can be a natural tendency to give your most reliable and tenured performers the most visible and consequential tasks. This can even be the case with emergent projects that seem to come out of nowhere and somehow get added to the mix.

There is a discipline that both managers and proven performers need to develop with these emergent priorities. Generally speaking, if something gets added, something needs to be taken away. If that negotiation doesn’t take place, regardless of who initiates it, burnout is a potential consequence.

Encourage Open Communication

Strong performers usually take a great deal of pride in their work. They are intrinsically motivated by consistently delivering at or above standard with everything that has been placed on their work-related plate.

So, what happens when that plate has too much on it? One thing is for sure, managers cannot rely upon surface level questions to uncover anything meaningful:

  • Manager: “Everything OK?”
  • Employee: “We’ll get it figured out!”

Managers, in active and intentional collaboration with employees, need to commit to regular and transparent discussions regarding the status of the plate (i.e. workload, capacity, obstacles and struggles). The more these challenges are out in the open, the higher the probability they can be resolved without putting anyone’s mental health at risk.

Provide Mental Health Resources

Most managers are promoted, at least initially, because they have demonstrated some sort of technical proficiency (i.e., sales, manufacturing, etc.). As they make that transition, they typically receive a wide variety of human skills training (i.e., leadership, conflict resolution, decision-making, etc.). Very few, regardless of how far they have advanced in their careers, become experts in self-care or mental health.

For that reason, employers need to make resources for mental health readily available. Whether that translates to certified professionals on staff and in-house, or sanctioned and well-publicized access to those resources via outsourcing, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to mental health and employee well-being by ensuring targeted expertise is readily available to all.

Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Not necessarily anything new here, but organizations that promote a healthy work-life balance experience recruiting advantages over competitors that do not. Those organizations are more apt to retain key talent as well.

All of us have lives, and each of us has a significant amount of control over the role that work plays in our lives. This is highly personal territory! Some seek jobs with high demands and would be dissatisfied in a less challenging capacity. For others, they need or want to work, but have greater limitations on the time and comparative effort they can expend.

Increasingly, organizations are taking steps to ensure work-life balance is front of mind for every employee, fully recognizing those ratios will inevitably differ from employee to employee.

Provide Opportunities for Growth

Healthy organizations take both performance management and employee development seriously. And with ever-increasing regularity employees are becoming more and more active in each process.

As employees work their way through the learning curve associated with their day-to-day responsibilities, they typically reach a point where less energy is needed to consistently perform at or above an acceptable level of proficiency. So, while managing performance becomes less of a challenge in those situations, the risk of burnout can actually increase.

In that regard and odd though it may seem, sometimes burnout is a function of mastery. When employees can do their job almost effortlessly, it is not uncommon for boredom to set in. A strong employee development program that challenges employees to develop skills beyond the requirements of their existing role can be a long-term deterrent to burnout and a built-in stimulus for a healthy workplace.

Provide Positive Feedback

Feedback on a job well done can have a profound impact on the employee who is searching for joy, or a sense of meaning, or both. All of us need periodic reminders that what we do matters! Those reminders should be timely, specific, and should detail the impact of the contribution on a wide spectrum of stakeholders.

As a manager it can become easy to unintentionally overlook the contributions of your most consistent performers. There are always fires to extinguish and emergent challenges that somehow came out of nowhere. But providing periodic positive feedback (and Feedforward) has many benefits. If nothing else, it creates a set of circumstances where you can check in, and check on, the well-being of key contributors.

Incorporate More Flexibility

Fine lines exist in so many aspects of life! In leadership, confidence is critical. Very few of us believe in others if it is apparent they struggle to believe in themselves. But when confidence “turns the corner” and becomes conceit, diminishing returns typically set in very quickly! Very few of us want to follow an elitist who thinks they know everything about everything!

Much the same with the separation between micromanagement and empowerment. A micromanager controls every aspect of work performance (the what as well as the how). When employees have a track record of delivering results, they naturally aspire to have more of a voice. This often translates to increased flexibility in how those results are delivered (i.e., control over scheduling, timing, efficiency, etc.). Providing this kind of flexibility, without putting outcomes at risk, can have a positive impact on both well-being and mental health.

Provide Adequate Resources

Very little is more frustrating than having the knowledge, experience and skill to complete a task–plus the confidence, commitment and motivation–but not have the resources to pull it off!

Inadequate resources are not only a contributor to workplace burnout, but also a primary factor in employee attrition. If an employee can improve their mental health, be more productive and earn comparable compensation by leaving, why would they stay?

Provide Clear Guidance and Expectations

One more time just in case you missed it along the way: there is no such thing as a best style of leadership! Every style works (Direction, Collaboration, Empowerment) and every style doesn’t! Which style is best depends on the circumstances in which the style is being deployed.

Consider a hands-off, empowering leadership approach in circumstances where nobody knows what to do and is afraid of taking action that will reflect poorly on the team. This can quite often be the case with disruptive change. At a minimum, employees need to be aligned on the general direction of what to do, and who is going to do what, or there will be adverse consequences over time.

Contact CLS

Prevent Burnout With Improved Leadership Skills

The Center for Leadership Studies is the global home of the Situational Leadership® Model. This model has been helping leaders around the world and across industries effectively influence others for over 50 years. It has always been a “follower-driven model.” And we wholeheartedly believe that is the primary reason the Situational Leadership® approach is more relevant today than ever before!

In keeping with this article, we have designed our flagship offerings (Situational Leadership® Essentials and Situational Performance Ownership™) to provide leaders at all levels with the skills to recognize, discuss and respond to symptoms of workplace burnout, and to promote health in the workplace.

After all, as we all are well aware:

Leadership has never been something you do to other people—it is something you do with them! 

And the Situational Leadership® Model continues to help leaders do just that!