How to Prevent Employee Burnout Before It’s Too Late

Here are 6 causes of worker burnout and how to prevent them.

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Take these crucial steps to identify and prevent employee burnout.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Dedicated employees may mask the signs of burnout until it's too late
  • Signs of burnout include fatigue, irritability, and disinterest
  • Unreasonable time pressure and lack of communication can be causes of burnout
  • Lack of support and lack of role clarity are other causes
  • An unmanageable workload and unfair treatment are also contributors to burnout
  • Preventing employee burnout begins at the top

Dave works as a manufacturing supervisor for a large corporate firm. It’s not unusual for him to clock in 60 hours or more per week. He’s often so busy that he eats lunch at his desk, working away while munching on a sandwich. He sometimes gets called in to handle a crisis or 2 on the weekends, but that’s just “part of the job,” he says with a tired smile.

Dave has been in this routine for several years now, and with a dozen or so employees that depend on him, he can’t get off the hamster wheel. On Monday, Dave comes in looking more tired than usual, his eyes sunken in and his speech slurred. He plops down at his desk but can’t get himself to do anything.

He goes through the motions until lunchtime when a debilitating headache stops him in his tracks. Dave begins sweating and clutching his chest. He has a heart attack. His doctor says the years of stress finally caught up with him at the hospital.

As a business leader, you probably know someone like Dave, a hardworking, dedicated, nose to the grindstone type. While these are undoubtedly wonderful attributes for any employee, they can mask the signs of burnout until it’s too late. It’s critical for business leaders in all industries to know the signs of burnout and how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

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What is employee burnout?

The term “burnout” is one we hear a lot these days. With the de-stigmatization of mental health challenges, employees feel more comfortable expressing their feelings than ever. Even still, nearly 70% of professionals think their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout within their organization.

The term “burnout” was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.  In his book, he defines burnout as the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results. Essentially, burnout is when a worker has reached a level of stress that affects their health, well-being, and work performance.

Here are some of the most common signs of burnout in employees:

  • Fatigue. Employees lack the energy to perform their job. They aren’t sleeping well at night, look exhausted, and are pouring their 8th cup of coffee.
  • Irritability. Employees are easily irritated and may be cynical about their working conditions and the people they work with. They may also emotionally distance themselves from others.
  • Disinterest. Employees appear disinterested in their work, conversations with others, and workplace social events. They seem to be going with the flow without care for outcomes.
  • Aches and pains. Over time, burnout can cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, backaches, or intestinal issues.
  • Sick days. Employees are calling in sick more frequently.

Here are even more symptoms of burnout.

How to prevent burnout before it happens

While knowing the signs of burnout in your employees is great, it’s better to prevent it from happening in the first place. As Benjamin Franklin once said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

According to a report by Gallup, employee burnout has 6 leading causes: unreasonable time pressure, lack of communication, lack of support, lack of role clarity, unmanageable workload, and unfair treatment. Let’s define these causes with actionable steps that managers or leaders can take.

Unreasonable time pressure

What it is: When employees do not feel that they have enough time to do their work, they are more likely to experience burnout. This can happen when a manager assigns tight deadlines, a workplace is understaffed, or a worker juggles multiple job roles at once.

How to fix it: To fix this, business leaders must gauge how long tasks take and what a reasonable workload is. Managers should encourage employees to track the time it takes them to complete projects. Additionally, a time audit can help them see where employees’ time is most used and remove unnecessary tasks.

Business leaders should implement time management systems for their employees, including clear expectations for what needs to get done each day and project timelines based on time audits.

Business leaders should implement time management systems for their employees, including clear expectations for what needs to get done each day and project timelines based on time audits. Finally, leaders should remove unnecessary meetings or other tasks that are not valuable to an employee or their job.

Lack of communication

What it is: Lack of communication is a significant driver of stress for employees. When workers feel unsure about their job role, tasks, or managers’ priorities, they are more likely to make costly mistakes, become unproductive, or have a negative outlook on work.

How to fix it: Good managers and business leaders should leave no stone unturned regarding communication. Employees should have clear guidelines about their roles, tasks, and managers’ goals. Achieving a high level of communication requires more than just emails. An effective leader must develop positive interpersonal relationships with direct reports by building rapport with employees, fostering psychological safety, and encouraging questions.

Lack of support

What it is: Employees that do not feel that their manager cares about them or “has their back” will naturally feel insecure. Insecurity grows over time and leads to disengagement from work, lack of motivation, and high turnover.

How to fix it: To make employees feel supported, business leaders should strive to create a culture of connection through check-ins. Intentionally checking in with direct reports is more critical than ever. Convey the message that you are always available as their manager, in-person, over the phone, or digitally. Understand mistakes and show how together you can solve problems to achieve company goals.

Lack of role clarity

What it is: Lack of role clarity means that a worker does not fully understand what is expected of them. When expectations and tasks change frequently, workers get whiplash, feel exhausted, and have high anxiety levels. Role clarity is how well an employee understands their duties, responsibilities, and expectations. This clarity is not limited to their role but includes their colleagues’ roles.

How to fix it: To help employees understand their job roles, companies must have formal job descriptions that include the daily tasks of the job, how it contributes to the business as a whole, what performance metrics there are (if any), and how employee performance management is measured.

Allow employees to speak up if there’s an area of their role they’re unclear about or a new challenge they’d like to take on.

Because job roles can change over time, managers and employees should have regular conversations about expectations and make adjustments. Allow employees to speak up if there’s an area of their role they’re unclear about or a new challenge they’d like to take on. Finally, have workers make their job description and evaluate it together.

Unmanageable workload

What it is: Unmanageable workload occurs when workers have too many things to do in a reasonable time frame. Unlike “unreasonable time pressure,” these tasks are not time-bound; they are part of the daily grind. An unmanageable workload can cause employees to work long hours or come in on their day(s) off.

How to fix it: An unmanageable workload can often be corrected with adequate role clarity and managerial support; however, sometimes, that’s not enough. Times are tough right now, with staffing issues plaguing every industry. It can be challenging for managers to lighten employees’ workloads without adding to their own, so the remedy isn’t entirely clear here.

However, it can be helpful for managers to look at the big picture and give their direct reports detailed lists of priorities. Maintain constant communication across the organization and see how workers can band together to help offset stress for each other. For example, can employee A assist employee B with customer service?

Unfair treatment

What it is: Employees who feel they are mistreated at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment may include favoritism, unfair compensation, and bullying from a co-worker.

How to fix it: While you’d be hard-pressed to find any working adult that doesn’t feel they’ve been mistreated at work at some point, it’s critical for organizations to have strict rules about which behaviors are acceptable at work and which ones aren’t.

Organizations should have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies stated in their employee handbooks, including behaviors that the business will not tolerate.

Organizations should have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies stated in their employee handbooks, including behaviors that the business will not tolerate. There should also be a section that explains the procedures for reporting and investigating a case of unfair treatment.

Preventing employee burnout

We live in a culture where being overworked almost feels like a badge of honor. We are encouraged to do more, be more, and have more at every turn. This constant state of “more” can be hazardous to our health. Just look at Dave, an exemplary employee who gave his all to his work despite the toll it was taking on his body.

Preventing employee burnout is possible, but it must begin at the top. Business executives need to make burnout prevention a critical piece of their workplace culture, educating senior staff and managers about the signs of burnout and the preventive steps. By conducting time audits, developing positive relationships, offering support, clarifying roles, and ensuring fair treatment, businesses can stop burnout before it’s too late.

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