Ways Leadership Can Address and Prevent Employee Burnout

There always has been, and still will be, stress and fatigue in every workplace. However, there is a difference between fatigue and “burnout.” According to a recent study, roughly two-thirds of full-time workers admit that they very often, if not always, feel burned out at work. Another study found that millennials and other young workers feel the causes of burnout more easily than previous generations have. Of course, certain positions and industries feel this pressure more strongly than others.

A reason for younger workers and those in lower positions feeling this way is because they often have less control over their day-to-day decisions and career paths than those in leadership positions. They do not usually have the ability or power to adequately address symptoms of burnout since that power is generally in the hands of management or those higher up on the rung of authority. With privilege comes responsibility. It is management’s responsibility to look after employee engagement, adopting initiatives that reduce the risk of burnout and promote employee wellbeing.

A year-long survey conducted at select tech companies showed somewhat surprising results for the primary reason for employee burnout. Nearly 23% of those surveyed said that poor leadership or management was a significant cause for them feeling this way. Other significant warning signs were excessive workloads, lack of career control, and toxic workplace atmosphere, but most of these issues are ultimately the result of poor leadership or managers failing to help employees.

Quite often, leadership prefers just to shift the blame and say that employees that feel overloaded only have themselves to blame, since they let themselves get to that point. While that may be the case at times, even the best and brightest employees can suffer from healthcare issues and workplace burnout. In today’s fast-paced world, being a workaholic is often expected to climb the corporate ladder with little regard for a healthy work-life balance. The pandemic reduced the barriers between work life and personal life, with some remote workers facing pressure to be on the clock far more than their initial job descriptions detailed. On top of this, the employee experience often includes stressed-out managers, pressures due to looming layoffs, or pressure from home. All of these factors can quickly pile onto an employee and easily cause workplace burnout and high employee turnover.

There are many negative effects that occur when an employee experiences burnout ranging from taking excessive sick days to reduced job satisfaction.

Employees that experience burnout are much more likely to call in sick as an excuse to take a mental health day – This impacts their co-workers and your businesses bottom line.

Negative Effects of Workplace Burnout

Employee burnout affects the employee, but it also affects the company as a whole. Workers who are over-stressed and over-worked tend to experience more health-related problems, which in turn results in more sick days and ultimately can result in higher insurance premiums for everyone. Then, there are the co-workers of this employee to consider. People who are stressed and over-worked tend to lash out at those around them, straining everyone’s attitudes and increasing the overall stress in everyone’s work environment. This then leads to lower productivity and a higher rate of turnover within the company.

Some other impacts that severe burnout can cause are:

  • Self-medication with alcohol or other substances
  • Sarcasm and negativity
  • Debilitating self-doubt
  • Clinical depression
  • Reduced job satisfaction
  • Increased risk of accidents and errors
  • Poor workplace morale
  • Communication breakdown

Signs of Workplace Burnout

Before workplace burnout can be addressed, however, management must first know how to accurately identify an employee who is coming dangerously close to, or has already passed, this point. The are several common indicators or behaviors that warn of a possible burnout coming. An insightful and diligent manager can recognize changes in their employees’ behavior that may be indicative of a pending burnout. While these results are not always due to burnout, it is essential to keep a watch for the following:

  • Reduced efficiency
  • Reduced energy
  • Less motivation
  • Increased workplace errors
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Easily frustrated
  • Suspiciousness

If you notice a prolonged presence of these symptoms or a sharp rise (or decrease) in them, take the time to talk to your employee to get to the bottom of it. Quite often, these are signs that an employee has a medical or personal problem spilling over into the workplace, not workplace burnout. It is important to check with your employee before assuming the worst. 

Preventing Employee Burnout

Management is ultimately responsible for protecting and preserving their present and future workforce.  There several important things that must be present in every successful, effective workplace culture. 

1. Encourage Open Communication

To fight burnout, it is crucial that you keep lines of communication open with your employees and encourage them to reach out if they need help.
It is important that your employees feel comfortable and safe in order to encourage open communication.

Most importantly, employees need to feel comfortable and safe talking to management about problems and concerns that lie somewhere between work issues and personal problems. When an employee feels overly stressed at work and feels close to burnout, they may think that it is too personal to bring to their superiors. This can often cause them to feel isolated and alone, only adding to their stress. It is extremely important to open the lines of communication regarding mental health in the workplace and reinforce that it is safe for them to discuss issues without fear of repercussions – from both fellow employees and managers. 

When someone is exhibiting signs of burnout, the hardest part of the conversation is often just starting it. When employees feel someone genuinely cares about them, they often quickly open up and discuss what is happening. Quite often, just venting about a situation or concern is enough to alleviate stress.  At other times, the information gained will help management know how to lessen specific stressors or anxieties in the workplace or find solutions completely.

A culture of openness and transparency regarding mental health ultimately leads to higher employee satisfaction and workplace efficiency. According to the CDC, over three months, a patient with clinical depression misses an average of 4.8 workdays and experiences 11.5 days of lower-than-average productivity.

2. Set Workloads Boundaries

While ensuring employees feel comfortable discussing mental health and workplace burnout is a great start to addressing a company culture of burnout, there is more to it than mere communication. Leaders can help prevent burnout from happening in the first place by making some major changes in the way the company operates. One way to do this is to consider setting better workload boundaries and guidelines.

The benefits of this are twofold. Having clear workload boundaries allow management to better plan and carry out projects and assignments. It also reassures your employees that they do not need to be workaholics to satisfy their job requirements. This alleviates stress because employees see that management values a balance of wellness as well as productivity.

A few examples of ways you can set healthy workplace boundaries and reduce stress in the workplace are:

  • Limit the number of large projects an employee is permitted to be a part of at one time
  • Limit or discourage use of work communication outside of scheduled hours
  • Avoid adding work email to mobile devices
  • Create guidelines for meetings to make them as productive as possible
  • Provide incentives for employees to use paid time off (more than half of American workers have unused vacation time)
  • Relax guidelines in other areas to allow for better work and home life balance (e.g., offering flexible schedules or remote work arrangements)

3. Implement Clear Policies and Procedures

To help employees better understand their role and job limitations a workplace policy should be in place.
It’s important to have workplace policies in place so employees understand what is and what is not expected of them.

Lastly, it is vital to create and, most importantly, implement clear policies and procedures regarding workload and workplace processes. This also extends to burnout- and wellness-related issues. In the study referred to in the introduction, employees also stated that unclear direction from management was another root cause of workplace stress. Policies and procedures are excellent to have, but if employees are not aware of them, they mean very little. Create some form of written manual that is easily accessible, even if it is just digitally available. It is even more effective if they are both written and digital.

Clear and proper organization is the foundation for success. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “For every minute spent in organizing, an hour is earned.” For example, having clearly-defined procedures in place for everyday tasks dramatically reduces stress on your team members. 

The less time they have to spend trying to figure out what to do, the better. When the opposite is true, it can often result in what is known as “decision fatigue,” cause undue stress on co-workers and result in unnecessary mistakes. Your team members can rest assured that they are always doing what management prefers in each situation and know that they have not missed any critical steps. In the long run, having clear, organized policies and procedures can reduce workloads and time needed to complete tasks, ensure tasks are done correctly and help eliminate a great deal of confusion and stress for your employees.

As managers, make it a point to discourage the stigma that only workaholics and overachievers are considered successful. Encourage a spirit of open communication regarding mental health, and give clear guidance to your staff.  By doing so, you can significantly reduce workplace stress and resulting burnout. Care for your workforce because they are your most valuable asset. 

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