Canary in Coal Mine

Burnout.  It’s (finally!) beginning to make national news.  In May 2019, the World Health Organization identified burnout as a workplace phenomenon that occurs when “chronic workplace stress…has not been successfully managed.”

So if your workplace is full of overworked, stressed out, and burned out workers, then it’s the employees’ problem that they ineffectively manage their stress.  They’re just aren’t “resilient enough” to handle the demands placed on the modern workforce.

Is this really the case?

I contend that it is the employer’s responsibility to mitigate the chronic workplace stress that leads to employee burnout.

This is not an altruistic, “feel good, “touchy-touchy” assertion.  It is not only the most humane way to run a business, but also one of the best ways to create and sustain a responsive, innovative, and profitable enterprise.

The premise is quite simple:  when employees burn out, organizational performance suffers.  The organization as a whole becomes incapable of achieving strategic goals, innovating for market growth, and sustaining a profitable competitive advantage.

Workplace Burnout:
A Sign of Things to Come? 

Back in the original days of coal mining, it was well known that some mines emitted a toxic gas.  Miners released canaries to determine if a mine was dangerous to workers:

Canary in Coal Mine - Statement

These birds were kept in cages to prevent them from leaving the mines while they “did their job.”  Only if they survived were the mines deemed to be safe.  But many birds met an untimely end in order to save the miners.

Isn’t this a lot like the modern workplace?

Are employees considered to be expendable canaries in the pursuit of organizational goals?

Organizational policies can create a toxic work environment that burns out workers.  Based on my research that culminated in my proprietary Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), long work hours, unclear goals, and poor leadership are just a few of the workplace stressors that are causing your employees  to burn out.

In other words, it’s time to look at what you are expecting from employees, how you are expecting them to achieve those results, why you’re asking them to take these actions in the first place, who is leading and managing them, and when you’re going to step up to the plate to replace your current workplace stressors with practices that build employee resiliency.

How to Spot the Burnout Canary in Your Workplace

In a previous blog post, I shared ways to spot (and help) a burned out employee.  But in this post, I’ll discuss some of the organizational outcomes that arise from a burned out workforce.

  1. Are things going “missing?” I’m not talking about employee theft.  Burned out workers tend to physically leave the organization in order to get out of a work culture characterized by high levels of negative stress.So, I’m talking about things like turnover (missed employees).  I’m also talking about poor performance in the form of missed deadlines.  Inaccurate assessment of the market environment in the form of untimely or unresponsive actions to emerging opportunities and threats.
  2. Is there a decrease in your “soft skills?” Soft skills are NOT “niceties” – they are integral to the overall performance of the organization and create a nonduplicatable competitive advantage.Have you noticed an increase in employee conflict – either verbal or (even worse) physical?  Have you heard anything via the office grapevine about employee disharmony, low morale, or intentions to quit?  How well (e.g., efficiently and effectively) are you solving problemsMaking decisions?  Meeting the needs of clients with better than expected customer service?
  3. Does the “status quo” reign supreme? Management seeks to maintain the status quo, but the modern hypercompetitive marketplace requires leadership to challenge it in order to create a distinct competitive advantage.When was the last time that an employee who is not responsible for creative product ideas or solutions brought new ideas to organizational leaders?  How often to you formally recognize the efforts of employees who have created innovative solutions to issues plaguing the company?  Do you listen and consider what the change resistors in your organization are warning you about?
  4. Is there an increase in negative outcomes? Burned out workers are emotionally and physically incapable of performing optimally – even though they will work longer hours and say that they can meet expectations.But if their best efforts meet with failure, you must ask:  are my timelines to reach goals reasonable and achievable?  Are more employees turning to HR with complaints about their work environment?  Their coworkers?  Their bosses?  Their work-life balance?  So, how’s your company reputation doing?  Are your online company reviews less than glowing?  Are customers directly complaining to your company representatives about your product or service?
  5. Have you ever considered the role of BURNOUT in these outcomes? Burnout is NOT an employee’s problem.  Nor is it an indication that a worker (or group of workers) has a maladaptive response to stress.

Burnout IS the canary in the coal mine that reflects the health of your organization.

I know that many people believe that I consider burnout as a factor in every workplace situation.  That’s because the effects of burnout negatively impact employees’ emotional and physical well-being – which, in turn, affect organizational performance because all companies rely on their workers to achieve results.

Employers have an obligation – to themselves, to their customers, and to their shareholders – to mitigate the organizational practices that are contributing to employee and workplace burnout.  Only when burnout is eliminated can the organization and its workers fully achieve their ultimate potential.

Eliminating the stressors leading to workplace burnout is a win-win.  If you’ve spotted its signs, then consider it to be the canary in your organization’s coal mine – and take immediate steps to eliminate the stressors to re-engage and build employee resiliency.

© 2019 G. A. Puleo.  Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

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