Burnout doesn’t happen overnight.  Burnout is usually not the result of a single stressful event.  And the employee who is burning can be stubbornly and unconsciously oblivious to their downward spiral into burnout. 

So, what can a manager do to prevent burnout in their employees (and themselves)? 

While it’s not easy to identify, there ARE early warning signs that should raise red flags for any manager who cares about the mental well-being and productivity of their employees. 

But according to Freudenberger (the Freudian psychoanalyst who first identified the burnout phenomenon), when other people begin to recognize that a colleague or subordinate is suffering from high stress, that worker is usually far along the downward spiral to burnout. 

Waiting to respond until someone is in a full-blown burnout wastes precious time in helping to STOP the downward spiral. 

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 video previously 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

But these warning signs are not exclusive to star performers.  In fact, a workplace that is characterized by one or more of these warning signs is the “canary in the coal mine” that should warn organizational leaders that something is wrong within the organization – and it’s time to take action now! 

How to Help a Burned Out Employee

Too often managers introduce ideas to help an employee to de-stress only after the warning signs have appeared.  Often these managers are also burned out themselves – making it even more difficult to help their teams and colleagues. 

The other problem with burnout is that it can manifest differently based on employee personality and organizational culture.  While there are some similar traits and cultural characteristics that made individuals and entire workforces more susceptible to burnout, how they are manifested can be quite different.  

According to my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC), one of the crucial steps to recovery is self-reflection and self-awareness on both individual and organizational levels.  Taking it one step further, replacing assumptions about what stresses out your workers with fact-based evidence makes it much easier to avoid future burnout. 

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, much, much more difficult in practice.  Due to the high demands of the modern marketplace and the constant need to innovate in order to survive, many corporate strategies over-emphasize the bottom line while disregarding the effects of that strategy on their on the workers who have the greatest impact on that bottom line. 

So, how do you begin to investigate the probable causes of employee burnout in your organization?

Step #1:  Assess Organizational Stressors

A common mistake that well-meaning managers make is to assume that better time management is the panacea for solving burnout.  It usually doesn’t work because the low productivity of burned out workers is the result of feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and cynical. 

So instead of trying to heal a broken process with a band-aid, step back and look first to unearthing the unwritten rules of cultural behavior found within your workplace.  Culture is what is actually being done within the organization (not what is written in an employee handbook). 

For example, may company leaders say that they want their employees to have work-life balance – yet these same employees struggle with last minute demands that change deadlines, deliverables, and even stated gals. 

While doing this kind of deep dive into the unwritten rules that govern the workplace, there are 10 organizational stressors that I discovered in researching my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC). NOTE:  Your organization does not have to display all 10 of these stressors to create a high stress workplace; sometimes only 2 or 3 of these stressors can create sufficient stress to burn out an entire workforce. 

  1. Poor leadership is the #1 stressor that leads to burnout – in fact, it can be the tipping point between a highly productive workplace and one that is overwhelmed and stagnant.  Especially watch out for autocratic management that often dehumanizes workers.  How does your organization define “effective leadership?” 
  2. Lack of organizational caring is profoundly felt by burned out workers.  It is often seen in little to any recognition, understanding, and respect for the sacrifices that employees make in striving to achieve organizational goals.  Do you make a concerted effort to recognize and praise employees for their hard work? 
  3. Negative coworkers create a destructive, toxic environment that is often characterized by bullying, mistrust, or poor support.  A word of caution:  many of the so-called resistors may not be considered to be “negative” – in fact, they just might have some insights that could help the organization achieve its goals.  How do you respond to employee negativity in the workplace – or are you ignoring its existence? 
  4. Politics or sabotage should never be tolerated in the workplace.  Unfortunately, “gamesmanship” seems to be an essential yet unwritten requirement in order for employees to be considered for promotions or other opportunities.  Politics and sabotage cloud transparency and decrease trust.  What safeguards have you implemented to ensure that promotions are determined in an equitable, fair manner? 
  5. Lack of organizational resources can be a challenge.  Competition is fierce, customers can be fickle and price sensitive, and good workers are increasingly hard to find.  But slashing budgets can lead to outdated technology or insufficient manpower that hinders the most conscientious employee’s ability to complete their work efficiently and effectively.  Don’t assume you know what your employees need.  When was the last time you asked your employees what they need to perform their jobs better – or do you expect them to do more with less in order to “make it happen?” 
  6. Over-emphasis on ROI arises from managerial reports that focus exclusively on quantitative metrics to determine success.  But by eschewing qualitative performance indicators and standards, managers miss out on the opportunity to understand the context contributing to those quantitative results.  Do you ignore the broader context when evaluating performance? 
  7. Work overload occurs for a wide variety of reasons – but my research has found that the workload itself is generally not the sole cause of employee burnout.  Whether the overload arises from continually adding new projects or responsibilities to different roles, it has generally been determined that workloads requiring a minimum of 60 hours per week to complete can be a precursor to burnout.  Have you checked in with your employees to help them prioritize their responsibilities and delegate the rest?    
  8. Poor communication is the result of engaging in one-way monologues rather than building two-way dialogue across all organizational functions and levels.  Stress can lead to forgetfulness as well as an abandonment of civility when talking with others.  Employees are adults and have the right to know and understand what is expected of them; the source of that knowledge is their immediate supervisor as well as the communications received from the C-suite.  Are you telling rather than communicating (i.e., talking “at” employees rather than talking “with” them)? 
  9. Unethical or illegal requests puts the individual and the organization in jeopardy.  While some unethical requests might not result in prosecution, their presence in the workplace creates an extremely stressful situation for employees when they are asked (or even demanded) to take actions that starkly contrast with their values system.  How are you ensuring that the organization’s ethical standards are internalized as the basis of decision-making and action rather than viewed as a “suggestion” of what is or is not appropriate? 
  10. No clear vision or direction leads to confusing and contradictory priorities.  Employees are confused when they don’t understand the reasons behind the tasks, duties, and responsibilities demanded of them.  Without a clear direction guiding the entire workforce, the result is mayhem.  But when the path is clearly defined and the values underlying decisions are articulated, employees gain a sense of self-direction that invigorates them.  Do you conscientiously provide the “big picture” when assigning tasks to employees? 

The manifestations of these workplace stressors are as unique as the individual organizations themselves.  Addressing these stressors is difficult, but essential in order to avoid not only the burnout of individual employees, but also the organization as a whole.  When 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? 

Step #2:  Consider Personality and Work Habits

Although workplace stressors definitely contribute to the onset of employee burnout, the organizational culture is not the sole criterion.  While burnout should not be considered as an individual’s maladaptive response to stress, there are six personalities that tend to be more susceptible to burnout: 

  1. Over-Achiever who pushes too hard, too long, and may set unrealistic goals or time frames.  NOTE:  Over-achievers are not necessarily high-performers. 
  2. Perfectionist whose rigid standards of excellence are ultimately self-defeating and often lead to missed deadlines due to procrastination (i.e., “if I can’t do it right, then why to it at all”). 
  3. People Pleaser whose low confidence in their abilities can lead to overwhelm by misunderstanding the amount of time and effort necessary to complete their tasks.  Eventually, they usually surprise themselves and others with their angry outbursts when they are burned out. 
  4. Denier who “sugar coats” issues or hides behind a façade of humor as part of their denial; closely related to both the people pleaser and over-achiever. 
  5. Loner who lacks a powerful support system to lean on when the going gets rough and often suffers in silence as the stress builds to excruciating levels. 
  6. Single-Tasker who can’t see the big picture, but focuses exclusively on their own area of responsibility.  NOTE:  This does not mean that it is better to multi-task everything, which can lead to work overload and unmet deadlines. 

What’s important to recognize is that each of these personalities is aligned with specific behaviors and work style.  However, most people may initially deny that they have any of these personality traits.  Since denial is a major component in the burnout process, it is important that managers communicate with employees honestly and without judgment about the stress that they might be experiencing on the job. 

By comparing the organizational stressors that an employee may be experiencing as well as their personality traits and work habits, you and your employee can build a plan that is a win-win-win for you, the employee, and the organization. 

If the organizational stressors and one’s own personality traits are NOT addressed, burnout is likely to occur and lead an employee to leave the organization in order to reduce their stress. 

Since communication is an essential part of leadership, engaging in two-way communication about the employee’s workplace and work style helps to build a culture of trust.  As a result, workers are more likely to discuss their stress with their immediate supervisor 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.  While the Covid pandemic shone a bright light on the pervasiveness of employee burnout in the modern workplace, many people are reluctant to admit the degree of their stress believing instead that such an admission means that they are insufficiently prepared or unable to handle “routine” job stressors. 

While burnout may be ubiquitous in the modern workplace, it is NOT inevitable. 

As a manager, it is critical that you watch out for the most common So, it’s no surprise that most employees will attempt to self-medicate by hiding behind false cures of burnout

  1. Increased use of alcohol may begin with a cocktail or wine after work, but can soon escalate into binge drinking in order to “get the edge off” job stress or even make a clear delineation between their work life and personal life. 
  2. Drug use (either over-the-counter or illegal) is another attempt to escape from unmanageable work stress. 
  3. Workaholism is a common self-medicating strategy used by over-achievers when their stress levels escalate.  One potential reason is that the chemicals associated with burnout depress cognitive functioning, making it noticeably longer to complete routine tasks.  This leads to the employee arriving earlier, staying later, or taking work home in order to maintain their pre-burnout level of performance. 

None of these false cures 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 comprised of denying the stress while simultaneously attempting to escape from that unrecognized stress. 

So, be alert to changes in employee behavior that may indicate an attempt to alleviate stress by escaping into false cures.  Due to HIPAA rules, compassionately address your concerns by focusing on problem-solving rather than blame.  If your EAP (employee assistance program) offers well-being services, recommend that the stressed out employee take advantage of this service. 

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 manager, an important part of your responsibility is creating a workplace that is conducive to your company’s success through the successful performance of its employees. 

If burnout is occurring in your workplace, step up and take responsibility by identifying the context of that stress.  Be proactive in identifying and changing the organizational stressors (e.g., policies, processes, procedures, etc.) that may be contributing to employee burnout.  Be compassionate in addressing personality traits that might be contributing to your employees’ stress.  And finally, be aware that the denial of burnout will often lead to futile attempts to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or even the work itself. 

But perhaps most importantly, work alongside employees to develop new protocols that will minimize these stressors.  Not only will communication and trust be enhanced by the organization and its workforce working together, but the foundation will be laid for a sustainable workplace in which success is achieved without burnout. 

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).

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