Burned Out Ee at Desk Covering Face

Spotting a burned out employee is not so easy.  Usually when others recognize the warning signs of burnout in a colleague or subordinate, that worker is far along the downward spiral to burnout.

The question is:  how can effective managers and organizational leaders spot the warning signs of burnout before a worker is no longer functioning in their job?

In a recent video posted on this blog and on my YouTube channel, I shared five warning signs that a star performer is burning out:

  1. Tardiness, lateness, or absenteeism
  2. Intention to find a new job
  3. No new ideas, creativity, or innovation
  4. Interpersonal conflicts at work
  5. Missed deadlines or due dates

While these warning signs are not exclusive to star performers, the abrupt change in what the stars used to do versus what they are currently doing (when they’re burned out) is more noticeable than in your organization’s B and C players.

Many organizational leaders attempt to make “stars” out of their entire workforce – but realistically, this simply won’t happen.  Employees have very different reasons to come to work; some simply need a paycheck, while others enjoy the support roles that keep them out of the spotlight.

Although the C players are the nonperformers who probably should leave your organization, the B players are not in this category.  B players are just as valuable to the organization as the A players (or “stars”) because:

B players are those competent, steady performers –
the workers who always do what they say they will do. 

But there is something else that differentiates B players from the A “stars”:  they tend to have better work-life balance while still meeting performance expectations.

So, when B players begin to show the signs of burnout, this is the “canary in the coal mine” that something is wrong within the organization.

Although many managers focus on retaining their star performers, they should also spend just as much time focusing on the stress levels that they are placing on the backbone of the organization:  the B players.

How to Help a Burned Out Employee

The first step is to avoid burning them out in the first place – don’t wait until the warning signs appear!

While this makes perfect sense in theory, it is much more difficult in practice.  Due to the high demands of an international marketplace and the constant need to innovate in corporate strategy and daily operations, it is very easy for managers to over-focus on the bottom line while under-focusing on the workers who impact that bottom line.

Step #1:  Assess Organizational Stressors

Don’t make the common mistake of assuming that time management training will help a burned out worker recover.  Look first to the unwritten rules of cultural behavior found in your workplace.  Based on my research that culminated in the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), I uncovered ten organizational practices and characteristics that are most likely to burn out employees:

  1. Poor leadership is the #1 stressor that leads to burnout – especially if it is autocratic management.
  2. Lack of organizational caring is found in a lack of recognition, understanding, and respect for the sacrifices that employees make in order to achieve organizational goals.
  3. Negative coworkers can create a destructive environment of bullying, mistrust, or lack of support.
  4. Politics or sabotage should never be tolerated in the workplace – but “gamesmanship” seems to be essential in order to be considered for promotions or other opportunities in some high stress workplaces.
  5. Lack of organizational resources stemming from slashed budgets lead to outdated technology or insufficient manpower to achieve corporate goals – employees are forced to do more with less and still “make it happen.”
  6. Over-emphasis on ROI usually arises from managerial reports that are driven solely by quantitative metrics and eschew qualitative performance indicators and standards.
  7. Work overload is often the result of continually adding new projects or roles without delegating or eliminating previous duties or responsibilities.
  8. Poor communication relies on one-way monologues rather than creating two-way dialogue across all organizational functions and levels.
  9. Unethical or illegal requests may (or may not) result in civil or criminal prosecution, but their presence in the workplace often starkly contrasts with employees’ value systems.
  10. No clear vision or direction leads to confusing and contradictory priorities that rob employees of autonomy and self-direction in organizing their work.

These workplace stressors not only increase the likelihood of an individual employee burning out, but also the potential for an organization-wide culture of burnout.  If burnout is pervasive, workers are cognitively impaired and unable to effectively solve problems, make decisions, interact with stakeholders, and unleash their creativity on the organization’s behalf.

Consider each of these organizational stressors.  Do any of them exist in your organization?  What are you doing to maintain these stressors – and what can you do to mitigate their damage and eventually eliminate them?

Step #2:  Consider Personality and Work Habits

Whether an employee is classified as an A or B player within your organization, personality traits and work habits provide important clues relating to their propensity to burn out.  The following six personalities are more susceptible to burnout:

  1. Over-Achiever who pushes too hard, too long, and may set unrealistic goals or time frames.
  2. Perfectionist whose rigid standards of excellence are ultimately self-defeating.
  3. People Pleaser whose low confidence in their abilities can lead to angry outbursts.
  4. Denier who “sugar coats” issues or hides behind a façade of humor as part of their denial.
  5. Loner who lacks a powerful support system to lean on when the going gets rough.
  6. Single-Tasker who can’t see the big picture, but focuses only on their own area of responsibility.

Each of these personalities is aligned with behaviors and a work style.  Remember that denial is a major component in the burnout process.  Therefore, it is important that managers engage honestly and without judgment in open dialogue with employees about the stresses that they might be experiencing on the job.

If leaders can build a culture of trust in the organization, workers will be more likely to discuss their stress levels without fear of recrimination and before they suffer the debilitating effects of burnout.

Step #3:  Offer Support Through All Stages of Burnout

Burnout is the “dirty little secret” in many organizations and professions.  Feeling stressed out is ubiquitous in the modern workplace.  To admit to feeling stressed is akin to admitting that a worker is insufficiently prepared to handle the “routine” stressors of the job.  This bias can result in being overlooked for promotions or other opportunities.

So, it’s no surprise that most employees hide behind burnout’s false cures in order to avoid detection by their peers and managers:

  1. Increased use of alcohol may begin with a cocktail after work, but can soon escalate into binge drinking in order to “get the edge off” workplace stressors.
  2. Drug use (either over-the-counter or illegal) is an attempt to escape from constant work stress.
  3. Workaholism is often displayed by A or B players when their stress levels escalate. Because burnout depresses cognitive functioning, it takes noticeably longer to complete routine tasks – so the employee begins to arrive earlier, stay later, or take work home in order to maintain their prior level of performance.

The problem is that these false cures do NOT work – even though they are routinely used to combat the effects of stress on emotional well-being and mental health.  Regardless of the false cure used, it represents a paradox of denying the stress experienced by the worker and attempting to escape from that unrecognized stress.

Be alert to changes in employee behavior that may indicate an attempt to escape via false cures.  Address your concerns in a compassionate way that focuses on problem-solving rather than blame.  If your EAP (employee assistance program) offers well-being services, recommend them.

But, above all:
DON’T blame the employee for burning out!!!

Workplace burnout has been identified by the World Health Organization as a syndrome arising from chronic workplace stress.  As an organizational leader or manager, an important part of your responsibility is creating a workplace that is conducive to your company’s success through the successful performance of employees.

When B players’ normal ability to effectively balance their work-life responsibilities is compromised, stop to consider the role in which your organizational policies, practices, and management may be contributing.

If burnout occurs in your workplace, step up and take responsibility for its context.  Don’t delay in taking action to change the stressors that are contributing to burnout.  By working with employees to develop new protocols to minimize these stressors, the organization and its workforce can create an environment in which burnout can be avoided and success can be achieved.

© 2019 G. A. Puleo

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