How Managers Can Help Employees Avoid Burn Out

By Stephanie Vozza, Fast Company

One of the biggest dangers to you and your team is burnout, and organizations are facing an employee burnout crisis, according to research by Gallup. Twenty-three percent of employees reporting feeling burned out at work “often or always,” while another 44% reported feeling burned out “sometimes,” the study finds.

“Not only is employee burnout prevalent in organizations, but it has a significant impact on the health, happiness, and productivity of employees,” says Ben Wigert, lead researcher for Gallup’s workplace management practice.

Employees who report burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer, according to Gallup.

Two reasons, says Wigert: Workplace engagement, well-being, and life satisfaction studies have had relatively flat numbers over the past several years, suggesting management and culture within organizations has ample room for improvement.

“Second, we are seeing extensive disruption in the workplaces, from the continually increasing speed of technology and globalization to organizations becoming more matrixed,” he says. “Take concerns about management, add in that work demands are increasing and happening faster than ever, and top it off with mobile technology that connects employees to their work at home and on vacation. For us, these factors spelled out a recipe for workplace burnout.”

Burnout can also be a symptom or outcome of a driven leadership style, suggests Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University. “There are times when a pace-setting style is useful, such as crises or unprecedented challenges,” he says. “However, this cannot and should not be the primary style. It’s not sustainable or healthy.”

Fortunately, burnout can be remedied or reversed, according to the Gallup research. Here are four ways you can help your employees alleviate or avoid it altogether:

Employees who have a manager who’s always willing to listen to their work-related problems are 62% less likely to be burned out, according to Gallup. Managers need to improve their dialogue with employees so there is an opportunity for employees to comfortably raise issues, and for managers to notice behavior that’s out of the ordinary, says Wigert.

“The most proactive thing a manager can do to prevent burnout is establish a regular cadence of discussing work, career, and life with employees,” he says. “These don’t have to be big, time-consuming conversations. An easy starting place is ensuring you’re having informal quick connects on at least a weekly basis. The most engaging managers in the world do these almost daily, and they’re as simple as a quick hallway conversation, e-mail, IM, or phone call.”

Once managers have established an ongoing dialogue and trusting relationship with an employee, it opens the door for them to more easily ask if everything is okay when they notice that an employee seems to be struggling.

If an organization requires more out of employees due to a special situation, managers need to communicate this information, says Goodman. “Leaders should label circumstances as something that requires greater urgency and is time-bound so we know and don’t get caught in that circumstance,” he says.

Coworker relationships are important because they provide another line of emotional support for employees who are struggling. Coworkers often understand the stress of a job better than managers do, says Wigert. To encourage teamwork, Wigert suggests that managers collaboratively set team goals.

“Working toward something together, that you’re committed to, forms strong bonds and fosters collaboration,” he says. “Define success and discuss the roles, processes, and partnerships that will get you there.”
Wigert also suggests that managers discuss team strengths and frustrations, recognize and reward team performance, encourage socialization, and provide opportunities for team members to learn and grow together.

“Teams learn and growth together when they experience new things and reflect on past performance as a team,” he says. “Having regular touch-base meetings creates a natural opportunity for teams to discuss recent events and plan for the future. Further, giving them stretch assignments, creative projects, and time to brainstorm encourages them to collaborate in new ways.”

Employees who have the opportunity to do what they do best are 57% less likely to frequently experience burnout, according to Gallup.

“When managers focus on employees’ strengths, they are much more likely to be engaged,” says Wigert. “Finding people who are a good fit for their job, positioning them to do what they do best, and engaging them is the recipe for success. Not only does this insulate them from burnout, but it also leads to substantially better performance and less chance of exiting the organization in the next 12 months.”

Engagement is a huge buffer to preventing burnout, says Wigert. “The manager is responsible for about 70% of the things that impact employee engagement.”

Employees are also at high risk for burnout when their strengths and interests are not a good match for the job. “This leads to constantly struggling with the work being difficult, frustrating, and exhausting,” says Wigert. “And even if the work isn’t overwhelming, lack of passion for your job can lead to burnout. Most people want to invest in work that is rewarding. When they don’t experience that return on investment due to the nature of the work or a toxic work environment, it weighs on their self-worth, direction in life, and overall well-being.”

Employees are significantly less likely to be burned out when they can connect their work to their company’s mission or purpose in a way that makes their job feel important, according to Gallup. “People do not just go to work for a paycheck; they want to find meaning in what they do,” according to the Gallup research. “Managers must do more than point to the mission statement on the wall—they must show how their employees’ contributions make a difference in the world.”

Connecting individual work to the organization’s mission also helps employees prioritize, says Goodman.

“Each person can connect with the aspects of their work that make meaningful contributions while also understanding work is less valuable or useful,” he says. “Knowing what work to stop or defer is as important as knowing what work to do. That tends to give people powerful filter for first best use of time. Not everything is priority if I understand what’s important and will move the organization forward.”


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