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How to Prevent Burnout Among Employees

Some level of stress is unavoidable in the workplace. A report by the National institute for Occupational Safety and Health says a quarter of employees called their jobs the No. 1 stressor in their lives, and 40 percent of employees reported that their job is very or extremely stressful.

Some forms of stress can be helpful at work, motivating people to focus and get the job done. However, prolonged and unmitigated stress can lead to burnout, which is a devastating psychological condition that can cause severe short- and long-term health problems such as depression, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. For businesses, it can mean losing your best employees and decreased productivity. A report from the Harvard Business School says burnout is responsible for $125 billion to $190 billion a year in health care spending. “Burnout leads to turnover, as well as loss of morale and the bottom line. Nipping it in the bud is essential,” says Kristen Nielsen Donnelly, director of Abbey Research, a business research firm.

Employers can play an important role in reducing workplace burnout. Here’s how to prevent it at your organization.

Recognize the Signs

The term “burnout” is sometimes misused to describe workplace stress or fatigue. Actual burnout is a specific kind of job stress that is difficult to shake once it happens. The Mayo Clinic says burnout is characterized by a mixture of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, and insecurity about whether you’re able to complete your work. And once it sets in, it’s hard to get past, so prevention is key.

Unfortunately, the most engaged employees you have are the ones who are most susceptible to burnout, says Lisa Philyaw, analytics coordinator at FMG Leading, an organizational development consulting firm. “They give intensely to their work, and reach a point where their current approach is no longer sustainable,” she says. “Understanding burnout, its signs and how to prevent it is crucial to ensuring a healthy workforce and that your highly engaged employees don’t lose steam.”

Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, cites three main aspects to burnout, and Philyaw says employees who display these characteristics are at high risk of burnout, or are already facing it:

  • Loss of compassion for others is a sign of burnout. This may look like the employee is pulling away from others, or not being empathetic to customers or co-workers, Philyaw says.
  • When employees no longer seem quite themselves because they’re bogged down by work demands or are unable to quickly recover from setbacks, they may be facing exhaustion, Philyaw says. “They may even call in sick or start to be more absent from work due to the exhaustion they feel.”
  • Reduced personal accomplishment. A burned-out employee’s performance may drop, including making more mistakes or missing key deadlines, Philyaw says.

The ways to prevent burnout can be effective regardless of whether employees are experiencing actual burnout or just everyday stress. If you do observe signs of burnout, prioritizing the following steps can help mitigate it.

Connect the Work to the Mission

People like to know that the work they do matters. They want to do things that help build success for themselves and the organization or the customers they serve. But in many cases they may feel like the work they do doesn’t fit in with a bigger picture, or they might not understand the important role their work plays in the mission of the company. “People are more willing to put in the hard work if they can directly connect it to their sense of purpose,” says Crystal Lee, a psychologist in private practice who is on the board of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association.

Making that connection may include helping people find their own purpose, the unique thing that drives them; managers must understand how to link employees’ purposes to the work they’re doing and how that helps the organization as a whole. Communicate your organizational mission regularly, and establish clear values that company leaders and managers embody in the work culture. Also, connecting with others is part of overall happiness, so making it easier for employees to connect and enjoy each other’s company can help as well, Lee says. This may include company outings, retreats and other team-building exercises.

Check In Often

Part of that connection should also include frequent short visits with employees to get a read on how they’re feeling about their work and their role. These don’t have to be lengthy or formal meetings that ask pointed questions; just a casual but sincere “how are you doing, really?” can help. “One of the most motivating things for employees to feel is like their manager cares about their concerns and is making changes to address them,” says Wyatt Fisher, a private practice psychologist. He encourages managers to get feedback from employees on what they are feeling, why they are feeling it and what could help them feel better.

But as Donnelly notes, what employees show you in their actions can be just as useful as what they say with their words, such as when you notice their work getting more frantic or their tempers getting shorter. Stopping by periodically before things get to that point can show employees that you care about their well-being — and that they have an ally in you. “Ask questions and provide space for them to authentically answer, so you can come up with a plan to combat exhaustion together,” she says.

Revisit Your Policies Toward Vacation and Flexible Work

Another big cause of burnout is overwork. Employees need time away from their jobs to rest and recharge; long stretches of work without a reasonable break will put them at risk for burnout. But in some cases, your company’s culture or policies may keep them from getting the break they need to stay physically, emotionally and mentally resilient. “A flexible work culture can make a huge impact for all aspects of burnout,” Philyaw says. “Allowing employees to flex their schedule as needed can allow them to take the time they need to sleep, rest or restructure time in a way that will work better for them.”

This may include allowing remote working from home a few days a week or more flexible scheduling for when employees are required to be in the office, Fisher says. In addition, employers could offer services such as a gym, child care or stress-management options such as massages, he says.

Also, ensure your policies make it easy for employees to take time off when they need it. A flexible culture that can give people the time they need when they need it will help them manage their own stress before it becomes the employer’s problem. Philyaw recommends offering personal health or well-being days in addition to sick days to show employees you understand their needs and have created a space for them to address it.

Think Strategically About Delegation and Cross-Training

Sometimes people just have too many projects to handle and don’t know how to say no or delegate them to someone else.They may be high achievers who are used to being relied on and don’t want to let the team down, or simply may have an overly optimistic view of what they can handle in a given amount of time. “I've seen many places burn out their best employees by overburdening them with projects,” Lee says. “When your employee is at their best, they might be able to handle that. However, over time, it takes its toll. As the employee gets burned out, the workload that used to be doable is now overwhelming.”

If you see employees exhibiting burnout signs, examine their workloads to see if there are things you can change to help them feel more motivated. Fisher suggests reassigning work to give them tasks that are more intrinsically motivating. “When an employee naturally enjoys their work, their motivation will increase,” he says. “Therefore, the more managers can craft their employee's tasks to things they really enjoy, the more their motivation will increase automatically.” Other options may include cross-training so employees can rotate through different assignments, or giving people new responsibilities and reassigning those that are giving them trouble or that they’ve tired of. In some cases, it may simply be time to hire more staff members to take on the work that needs to be done.

Conclusion

Burnout is a serious business problem, and it can sneak up on people without a lot of warning. Because everyone’s ability to handle stress is different, managers may not recognize what’s happening until it’s too late and an employee has hit full burnout. Because of the physical, emotional and financial toll burnout can take on people and businesses, it’s paramount that organizational leaders and managers understand what it is and how to prevent it. Doing so will help keep your business strong and healthy, no matter the stressors it faces.

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