Is Your Team Suffering from Burnout? Here’s How to HelpNone By Diana Kelly Levey
You or your colleagues may have complained you’re “burned out” before. But have you ever thought about what it means, and what the differences between burnout and extreme stress are? It turns out: Burnout is now officially a medical diagnosis. This May, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared burnout an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.
Doctors can now diagnose someone with burnout syndrome if they have the following three symptoms:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Hopefully, this official declaration brings to light the severity of this mental-health issue and how workplaces can make improvements to improve employees’ well-being.
According to The American Institute of Stress, one of the largest causes of stress is “workload” (46 percent). Nearly one in four employees (23 percent) from a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 employees said they reported feeling burned out at work “very often or always,” and an additional 44 percent felt burned out “sometimes.”
It’s not just corporate America that’s experiencing the burden of burnout. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that physician burnout costs between $2.6 and $6.3 billion each year. Previous research found that doctors who reported feeling in control of their environment and their workflow were less likely to experience burnout, according to an analysis from 2018.
Let’s explore what burnout really is, signs to look for, and how to help and retain an employee who’s experiencing it.
What Is Burnout?
Now that there’s an official medical definition, it’s important to understand how mental health professionals think of this issue. “When you're burned out, you feel like, ‘I don't want to do anymore’ and may leave that job,” says Mary Karapetian Alvord, Ph.D., director of Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC, in the Washington, D.C. area. “When I think of stress, it’s a feeling like, ‘I can't get it all done in the time that I have,’ or ‘I'm not capable of doing it.’ But you’re still able to move to the next step,” she says. “Stress generates a lot of energy, but burnout is like a fire that was snuffed out.”
What Does Burnout Look Like in Your Employees?
Is one of your associates exhibiting a lack of energy or enthusiasm for their job? Have they been calling out often or been late to work? According to Gallup, burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.
“They’re calling out sick a lot or not doing their job,” says Alvord. Another change in behavior to look for could be: Are they withdrawing and not talking to others on the team anymore? “Accomplishing less work and being withdrawn are two huge signs, and they're actually signs of depression, too,” says Alvord. Having a burned-out employee might also look like someone with a shorter fuse, especially if that’s not typical behavior for them. “They’re more likely to get upset, angry, to engage in conflicts, or to break down and cry,” says Alvord.
Here’s how to help burned-out employees:
Ask How They’re Doing
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a first step people often forget. Say, “Hey, I noticed you've been sick. First of all, are you okay? I don't want to intrude, but is there something I can do to help?” If you see this is repeat behavior, point that out. Say, “I see a pattern and I'm wondering what's going on and if there's something about the job or your duties that’s troubling you,” Alvord suggests.
“Sometimes, it's someone’s personal life that causes their behavior change and they don't want to share, but at least you're acknowledging, ‘You're not alone and I'm here to support you if I can,’” says Alvord.
It’s important for a manager to be able to recognize some signs and symptoms of burnout in their employees. During a weekly one-on-one, you might ask questions like, “Are you satisfied with your current responsibilities?” and “Do you have the support and resources you need?” It’s also important to ask a question that shows you’re interested in their overall happiness with something as simple as, “How was your weekend?” The type of check-in where you’re really listening to their needs helps your employees feel like they’re being heard, suggests Sue Hawkes, CEO and founder of YESS! (Your Extraordinary Success Strategies, Inc.), a program that helps CEOs and their leaders succeed, and author of Maximizing Success Journal.
Encourage a Life Outside of Work
Hopefully, you and your employees pursued this line of work because you were passionate about it. But with any job, no matter how much enthusiasm you bring to it, there comes a time when you have to do undesirable tasks, and, well, it just feels like work. When your team is in the weeds logging hours on cumbersome projects that no one is excited about, it can feel, at times, like you’re just going to work to get a paycheck. This is where pursuing outside hobbies and passions is key.
“Whether you burn out or not is up to you,” says Hawkes. “So, if you're doing too much, and that's not equating to your own happiness, then what are you doing with the hours where you're not getting paid for work? I think burnout has as much to do with life dissatisfaction as it does to do with job dissatisfaction.”
She says it’s important for every employee to do things to care for themselves when they aren’t at work, whether that’s exercise, fostering a healthy relationship, making time for family, spending time with friends, engaging in hobbies, reading, or whatever the things are that make you feel happy and relaxed. Managers should also make sure they’re practicing these healthy behaviors, as well, by leaving work on time and encouraging employees to do the same. (And try to avoid emailing employees during nonworking hours. If you have to write emails, schedule them to be sent when your employees are at work.)
Delegate Their Responsibilities
If your employee informs you that they’re overwhelmed with their workload or going through a hard time, see if you can off-load some responsibilities to someone else, or if your company could hire someone on a freelance basis, suggests Alvord. As they get better and feel healthier, those responsibilities could be returned to them. Employees look to their managers to be their advocates for what they can and can't accomplish and for finding others to help them when their workload is unmanageable, according to the Gallup study.
Keep Your Team Informed Whenever Possible
“I find that leaders actually tend to tolerate more uncertainty, but a lot of times employees want certainty, and so there can be this disconnect,” says Alvord. The employee wants to know what’s going to happen, but the manager may have a higher threshold for some creative options or for just not knowing everything that’s going on at the moment, she says. “Sometimes, there's a disconnect between managers who are more risk takers and employees who want certainty and are risk-averse.” Consider holding weekly meetings for big projects the team is working on to keep them abreast of progress and changes.
Build in Incentives
It’s frustrating when a team member leaves your company for a similar role at another company—particularly if you suspect they left for better benefits, more time off, or a work culture that fits better. Hawkes suggests companies look at their benefits to see where they can make improvements.
You might ask if your company can initiate stress-management programs. Research finds they are especially effective at reducing stress and improving overall mental health in the workplace, according to a “Mental Health” report from the American Heart Association. Many companies are also having success using digital interventions offered by third-party vendors and insurance companies—like Happify—to help improve mental health among employees.
Encourage Time Off
I once had a manager that would remind employees in our (very short-staffed) workplace to use up their PTO days. He made it a point to address this at the beginning of the summer, and then again in the fall, especially since all of the days didn’t roll over to the new year and would be lost if not used. This workplace operated at an extremely fast pace; and, unfortunately, layoffs seemed to take place every few months. My manager couldn’t do much about the layoffs, but I always appreciated that he encouraged employees to use their vacation days. It made me respect him more and kept employee morale higher, since we knew he was doing what he could to help us in spite of the pressing demands coming from upper management. Taking vacation time recharges workers and helps them recover from stress, but those benefits dissipate a few days after you return, according to research from the American Psychological Association.
With many employees only having two to three weeks of vacation a year, it’s important to find activities that nourish your spirit and make you happy on a daily basis, so try to have interests to look forward to throughout the year.
When Your Burnout Impacts the Team
There is a trickle-down effect when managers experience burnout, says Alvord. How leaders respond to pressure impacts those around them and can impact the team’s performance, according to a 2018 online survey by Harvard Business Review. The survey found that when they’re under pressure, 53 percent of leaders are more closed-minded and controlling than open and curious.
“If a manager is feeling stressed and becomes more controlling and close-minded, they’re leaving their employees out,” says Alvord. The manager may come off as restrictive, demanding and closed to any feedback or suggestions for change, she says. That can impact teamwork and cooperation. “Good leaders listen to other people's ideas,” says Alvord. “They make final decisions by taking all factors into account.”
“You're not creative when you're burned out, and you're not resourceful,” says Hawkes. She encourages managers (and employees) to journal their thoughts at the end of the day. “This is where I have profound insights, notice patterns, determine where my energy is going and what’s causing me stress,” she says. (You could also log your thoughts using Happify’s “Thank” activity under the Instant Play section of the app.)
Know that burnout is not inevitable. By properly managing your team and your expectations of them, you can empower employees to do their best.
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