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Employee Burnout: 15 Prevention Strategies for Managers, HR and Staff

Sep 21, 2020

frustrated young business man working on laptop computer at office-1

Employee burnout is a multibillion-dollar problem—but it doesn't have to be.

For example, imagine if your company's next team-building exercise did away with worn-out scenarios about how to get off a desert island, and focused instead on how to prevent burnout companywide. How much more productive, engaged and energetic would your company be? How much more profitable?

Whether your goal is to prevent burnout or deal with the employee burnout at hand, here are 15 smart strategies to discuss with your team—along with why these conversations can't wait. 

1. Educate yourself on employee burnout causes and cures

For a quick primer on employee burnout, please see my earlier post, Employee Burnout Signs No Manager Should Miss, which covers the following:

  • Employee burnout definition
  • The 3 biggest signs of burnout at work
  • A list of causes, and more

In addition, here are three burnout statistics too big to ignore:

  • According to a 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, the annual healthcare costs of burnout in the United States alone ranged from $125 billion to $190 billion.
  • A 2018 Gallup study found that more than one out of five workers (23%) reported feeling burned out at work very often or always.
  • According to this same study, burned-out employees were 63% more likely to call in sick, 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, and 2.6 times as likely to leave their employer.

To give your company a common framework for discussing burnout, I invite you to share today's post, calling attention to the above statistics, as well as the earlier post

2. Challenge the belief that employee burnout is inevitable

"The way we see the problem is the problem." —Stephen R. Covey

Here are three of the most pervasive myths about employee burnout, or burnout at work: 

  1. it's not that big of a deal (tell that to someone who can barely function, due to fatigue)
  2. it's the price you pay for productivity (on the contrary, burnout undermines productivity, not to mention employee engagement)
  3. it's just part of life (only if we allow it to be)

All three of these would make an excellent conversation-starter at your next staff meeting. Simply divide your team into three groups—one for each myth—invite them to brainstorm alternative viewpoints, then come back as a large group to debrief. Based on what you find, what will your company do differently?

3. Trade us vs. them for collaboration

"Go apologize. You guys are on the same damn team, okay?" —Rocky Balboa, in Creed

An employee trainer I know communicates the following to both new and experienced hires:

"We've got enough drama just dealing with the population we serve. Let's let the drama come from the outside. But in here, among our staff, let's support each other. Let's have each other's backs and give each other the benefit of the doubt." 

How much better could your company perform if your entire team shared that perspective? If they already do, more power to you. The higher up you are, the more responsibility you bear for promoting companywide collaboration—again, not through make-believe scenarios but everyday conduct.

A few examples: 

  • Giving team members a chance to be heard, especially on decisions that affect them
  • Leading with simple authority, as opposed to asserting your title
  • Offering to pitch in, without being prompted

What other examples would you add? Bonus link: video clip of the above-mentioned Rocky quote

4. Trade flavor-of-the-month programs for long-term solutions

Nothing wrong with Take Your Dog to Work Day, for example. But when it comes to burnout prevention, let it pays to dig deeper—to make more foundational changes. Which brings us to the next strategy to prevent employee burnout:

5. Have fewer meetings

Don't be that company that responds to a burning building by forming a committee. Your employees are already stressed. Some or all of them feel overworked. Meetings and excessive collaboration cut into much-needed focus time. They also contribute to employee burnout. 

6. Stop overloading your high performers

Most high performers are intrinsically motivated. That doesn't mean, however, that they're immune to stress or the injustice of chronically imbalanced workloads. Look for ways to ease this pressure. For example:

  • granting extra vacation time to compensate for above-and-beyond performance
  • sitting down with your high performers, even virtually, to find out how you can support them
  • challenging those with less than high performance to increase their capacity and/or confidence (e.g., with coaching, online training, or new assignments to help them stretch their abilities)

And if your team has low performers, why is that? And what would happen if you raised the standard?

7. To prevent burnout, teach employees how to manage themselves

A few summers ago on a long layover at O'Hare, I wandered into a nearby bookstore and picked up a copy of Harvard Business Review's Managing Yourself. Though clearly aimed at executives, I could see it having value for employees at every level. Sample topics include:

  • Resilience
  • Becoming a better leader 
  • Leaving a legacy

Imagine the impact on employee engagement if everyone at your company had the tools to become mentally and emotionally resilient (and stay that way), and if they knew how their work contributed to a meaningful legacy.

These things don't have to be expensive. But how many companies make them a priority? The ones who do see a payoff when it comes to recruiting and employee retention. 

8. Acknowledge and appreciate others in their own language

On one hand, any nod of appreciation is admirable. On the other hand, have you ever had one that fell flat?

A friend from college told me the funny story of how when he was just a little kid, his class went on a field trip. Long field trip. Partway through, the bus driver got lost. No GPS in those days. Somehow my friend, who was probably about eight years old at the time, knew the way and stepped up to save the day. 

For this, he received a stick of gum. 

On a more serious note, there are different ways to show appreciation to your team. While you don't have to bend yourself into a pretzel to get it just right, it does pay to ask your employees and/or your boss how they like to be appreciated. 

Example: Your manager may not care at all about receiving compliments—but he may care tremendously about people showing up on time. Appreciating others can smooth the rough edges off burnout, making it easier to bear.

9. Burnout prevention is everyone's jobdo the part that's yours

  • If you're the owner, lead by example and champion efforts to overcome burnout, companywide. Rarely will the results of these efforts exceed your support.
  • If you work in HR, promote policies and trainings that prevent burnout and assist those who are already in the throes of it
  • If you're a manager, look for ways to grant your team flexibility and autonomy
  • If you're an individual contributor, take initiative; this means, among other things, meeting deadlines without being reminded, speaking up, and asking for help when you need it

10. Prevent burnout with the 3 Cs: challenge, commitment and control

This concept first came to my attention in a program from Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was describing exceptional cancer patients; i.e., those who had experienced the best patient outcomes. 

But it's been well-documented for decades that those who deal best with workplace stress—even managing to turn setbacks into opportunities—exercise the three-part framework: challenge, commitment and control. A few words about each:

Challenge. When faced with job stress, those who land on their feet choose risk over security. They look for opportunities, sometimes creating them. Paradoxically, they have fewer negative health effects than those who aren't so quick to adapt.

Commitment. This could just as easily be called "connection." Those who deal best with workplace stress are committed to choosing connection over isolation. Could the same be true for workplace burnout?

Control. Those who handle job stress best (e.g., layoffs) take charge of what they can. They rise above the temptation to believe they are powerless.

For a more scholarly look at how these constructs have played out in the real world, see The Story of Hardiness: Twenty Years of Theorizing, Research, and Practice by Salvatori R. Maddi, one of the original researchers on this subject.

11. Fight burnout with boundaries

Easier said than done in our digital world. But not impossible either.

5 ways to fight burnout with better boundaries

  1. Turn off the news an hour or more before bedtime
  2. Take a lunch, away from your desk
  3. Start and end your workday with something helpful; for example, making your workspace more organized—over time, these efforts add up and reduce stress
  4. Resist the urge to ping your employees/co-workers after hours
  5. Set boundaries for what you want, not just what you don't want; for example, if morning exercise helps you sail through the workday with more energy, that's a boundary worth setting

Finally, and we could do a whole separate post on this, learn how and when to say no.

12. To prevent burnout, plan more vacations

Along those lines, I decided last Friday to take a week in October as a staycation. I could use it now—but not surprisingly, I need time to prepare for it. And to prepare my team, so that work can get done while I'm off the grid. Besides, having time off to look forward to is at least half the fun, and half the benefit.

When you do take time off, whether it's a week, a day, or an afternoon, let it be a true vacation. Managers and HR leaders, when your employees have approved time off, let them enjoy it. No emergency meetings, emails or phone calls. 

13. Don't wait for a vacation to deal with employee burnout

Or as my teenage niece Rachel would say, "Treat yo'self." (Rachel is the daughter of my friend/cousin Janis. She has known me her whole life as Aunt Gina.) 

The point is, don't wait for employee burnout to reach a fever pitch before doing something about it. Find ways every day, throughout the day, to manage stress. 

5 Simple Ways to Combat Daily Stress

  1. Set a reminder on your phone to stand up several times a day and stretch
  2. Make sure you're getting enough water
  3. Get a journal (and maybe a good shredder)
  4. Show appreciation; it will probably benefit you as much as or more than the recipient
  5. Create a morning routine you love waking up to

14. Put laughter high on your self-care list

"All you earnest young men out to save the world ... please, have a laugh."—Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian

I must admit, there are days when I go for hours before I remember to laugh. The mere reminder to do so now brings a deep sigh of reliefone of laughter's many benefits. A few humorous links to get you started: 

Along those lines, surround yourself with those who help you laugh and find the humor. It's next to impossible to be laughing and burned out at the same time. 

15. Make it your mission to eliminate employee burnout

You can do this no matter what your rank or job title. Will you always be successful? Probably not. But by exercising the influence that is yours, you may find your influence expands.

A few years ago I wrote a book called Thriving at Work: Make Your Mark, Lead With Confidence, Stomp Out Drama, Get Home By 6:00. You were born to thrive. It is your birthright. Don't settle for anything less. 

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