No series about employee engagement would be complete without an honest look at how to prevent burnout in the workplace. After all, burnout and engagement seldom co-exist no matter how well-intentioned, loyal, and hard-working an employee may be.
You can't ignore it. You shouldn't accept it as business-as-usual. And it’s not realistic to expect everyone else to keep plugging along despite it. People seek employment that is meaningful and fulfilling. No matter how much your organization offers meaningful work, that will always be overshadowed by burnout that depletes fulfillment.
What Is the Impact of Burnout?
You’re not alone. Burnout is a big problem. 75% of employers say that stress is their top concern when it comes to health and the productivity in the workforce. Employees feel the same way. In one study, nearly 68% of employees said that they experienced burnout on a regular basis and that it affects their work.
The health of employees is also impacted by the amount of stress that they experience. There’s an impact evidenced in absenteeism, people taking health-related leave, and people not feeling and doing their best when they're at work because of all the health impacts that come from stress and burnout.
The main causes of workplace burnout and stress are primarily related to workload and people issues, according to a study from ComPshych, as reported by the American Stress Institute. In other studies, workload shows up again, as well as unfair compensation or expectations outside of work hours, looming deadlines, unrealistic expectations of managers, not being able to strike that work, life balance, having unproductive conflicts, and not getting clarity about expectations.
All of these things impact productivity and performance. Businesses pay a high price when they fail to address employee burnout.
What Can Managers Do to Prevent Burnout in the Workplace?
Employees want to do their best, but they feel saddled by all these stress producing situations. It’s up to managers to recognize the signs of burnout and to proactively address it. Shoulder-shrugging and treating it lightly only exacerbate the problem by causing employees to feel under-valued and taken for granted.
Managers need to know these classic signs of burnout:
- Heightened tension, an inability to relax
- Apathy, caring less about the work than before
- Negativity, coming across as critical or resistant
- Impatience with others, frustration over small things
- Work quality suffers due to a lack of focus or care
- Avoiding conversations and not participating in meetings
- Lack of motivation, not taking initiative
When an employee exhibits signs of burnout, managers should respond swiftly. The appropriate response is one of care and concern, not criticism or demands. Noticing and caring enough to let the employee know you’re concerned is just the decent human thing to do.
Addressing burnout and preventing burnout are the responsibility of the manager. Here are the top five things managers can do to avoid workplace burnout.
Communicate Clearly, Consistently and Frequently
This is at the top of the list on purpose! Burnout often results from rework, unresolved problems, effort that’s in vain, operating in a cloud of ambiguity and uncertainty, and clash between people with competing priorities or different interpretations about what’s needed.
Communication needs to be clear, consistent and frequent to minimize these problems. Regular feedback, providing context and details, and making sure that all parties are “on the same page” reduces issues that cause burnout.
Set Realistic Expectations
This goes hand-in-hand with good communication. Managers need to convey their expectations by including what’s expected, how much is expected and by when, how the work is to be done, why this matters, and any relevant information that explains the importance of these details. Without answering each of these items, the expectations won’t be fully and completely understood. That leaves room for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misses in delivering what’s needed.
People want to perform. Working hard and later learning that your work was misdirected can easily cause burnout and all its cascading effects.
Focus on Employee Development
When people feel challenged AND supported, they work harder and feel better about the work they’re doing. Managers who protect people from new challenges are more likely to have people who feel burned out… and then the managers don’t feel people want additional work or couldn’t handle it. Sometimes, the very best antidote to burnout is an exciting new opportunity.
When managers focus on developing employees, they offer them challenges that are just a small stretch beyond their current skill level. Employees then feel trusted, excited, and eager to tackle the challenge. It’s important to frame this as development so that employees also understand that perfection isn’t required while learning something new. Continual development will keep burnout at bay.
Infuse the Work with Meaning and Purpose
Slogging through meaningless work is a surefire way to get burned out. By contrast, doing work that’s meaningful gives people an extra measure of energy and motivation.
Managers need to remind people how their work connects to a bigger purpose and impacts others. No matter how removed an employee is from the end result of their efforts, it’s important for them to know what those ultimate outcomes are.
Remove Barriers and Obstacles
Managers must enable employees to do the work they’ve been assigned. Allowing enough time, providing the right resources and training, and remaining available to help them when they get stuck is critical. When employees wave the red flag, managers need to respond and find solutions. Ignoring these issues signals that the work (and the people) aren’t as important as something else.
But What If Managers Are Burned Out, too?
The managers of managers also have an obligation to do all of the above. Managers are not immune to burnout and may be even more susceptible to it. Every member of the senior management team should be involved in preventing burnout in the workplace – this is not something for HR alone!
In addition to an organizational awareness, managers need to take responsibility for their own state, too. Managers may be causing their own burnout by not addressing the root causes of it. Managers perpetuate problems that lead to burnout when they don’t recognize and address them.
For example, in an organization that’s short-staffed and high-pressure, managers often delay posting jobs and conducting interviews. They are so busy in the day-to-day that they don’t carve out time to do the work that would resolve the problem. This puts an undue pressure on everyone, including the manager who’s attempting to pick up the slack.
Managers usually model what they see at the top of the organization. If you are experiencing widespread burnout across the organization, it’s time for a reset. Get clarity on expectations for every role, communicate clearly about those expectations, and address any unresolved issues that are making the job harder than it has to be.
Once you’ve successfully reduced the contributors to burnout, keep going. To turn this all the way around and boost employee engagement, there’s more work to be done! Read more in this CONNECT2Lead series to find out what your next steps need to be.
Want to learn more about employee engagement? Check out this snippet video and the PFPS BrightTALK Channel!