Imagine the following scenario: an impactful, talented, well-liked employee walks into your office and tells you that they quit. You’re shocked – betrayed, even, and in spite of your best efforts to make things right, that employee is so sure that they’re done working for you that there’s no winning them back.
From a management perspective, it’s easy to say, “I don’t know what happened; they just snapped one day,” but that shows a complete lack of introspection and talent-minded thinking. Those sudden, damaging separations are often the result of a very real condition called employee burnout.
As a business leader, one of your top goals should be supporting your workers’ job enablement and mental health in a way that prevents burnout and keeps the great talent you have plugged into your team.
Moving forward, we’ll explore:
- What exactly is employee burnout?
- Why burnout management/prevention is crucial to growing businesses
- What are the most common factors that lead to employee burnout?
- How to proactively address burnout at your organization
What is employee burnout, really?
In a nutshell, employee burnout is work-based exhaustion or frustration that has grown and festered beyond the point of no return.
Burnout is very much a workplace mental health issue because, when someone is burnt out, they can’t cope or connect with their work in a positive way. In our career-centric culture, that can easily erode someone’s feelings of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-worth.
The problem of burnout isn’t just localized to the office, either. When employees are burnt out professionally, they’re not the same strong, reliable, positive friends, partners, or family members at home or on the weekends.
Burnout isn’t just about being “fed up,” it’s about not being able to continue anymore. If that sounds like a dark place, that’s because it is!
Why is recognizing and preventing burnout a top business priority?
Preventing burnout should be a crucial business priority for two key reasons:
- Recognizing and fighting the burnout problem protects your talent and human capital investments as well as your productivity
- It’s the right thing to do for your employees
Let’s talk about that second reason first. Given the rising public awareness of mental health and the current social/political climate with regard to labor relations, it’s important to be an organization that treats people right. Part of demonstrating you’re a modern, forward-facing business is considering the whole employee: mind, body, and spirit.
From a bottom-line perspective, preventing burnout is like preventing errors in code or promoting workplace safety: a little proactive investment and effort up-front protects the long-term health and viability of operations.
If you hope to achieve steady, sustainable growth and maximize your talent, you can’t let productivity and quality of work slip due to burnout, and you certainly can’t let yourself fall behind the pace of business due to talent turnover.
What factors lead to employee burnout?
There’s no one thing that burns employees out; it’s generally a combination of factors. Here are the most common problems/situations that contribute to the overarching burnout issue.
Lack of employee agency
Your workers may be “employees,” and that means they’re there to work for you, but they still need to feel like they have ownership of their individual responsibilities and a voice within the organization.
When workflows are over-structured, managers and supervisors micromanage, or company initiatives and directives constantly pull employees in different directions, it’s a perfect recipe for burnout.
The more freedom and self-determination you can give your employees while still providing the structure and accountability to accomplish great work, the better.
Lack of work/life balance
Your employees are yours 40-or-so hours a week, but there are still 125-plus more hours in the week when they are full-time spouses, parents, friends, family members, neighbors, and so on. In order to be a great, employee-centric manager or leader, you need to value your team members’ ability to enjoy their time away just as much as you value the work they do in the office.
When employees constantly have work to do from home or there’s the expectation of staying late into the evenings, it eats into their ability to be a strong, engaged person away from the office. That means too much work (or even too much communication about work) can easily eat away at a worker’s ability to relax or feel fully invested in their families, hobbies, etc.
That frustration from home boomerangs back to the office, where resentment, frustration, and steam that wasn’t able to be blown off quickly combine into the perfect recipe for burnout.
“Suffering in silence”
The vast majority of burnt out employees who quit suddenly (as we described above) didn’t just decide they were done that day. Those folks have usually been suffering in silence for months!
There are all sorts of minor daily frustrations that many great employees simply won’t bring up, either because they don’t want to complain, they fear they’ll be ignored, or it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.
Part of being a proactive manager is recognizing the signs of somebody suffering in silence and reaching out to them to take corrective action before things reach the tipping point. Establishing clear pipelines and resources to address concerns (and honoring that commitment) is crucial as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the minor attacks on workplace mental health that can easily snowball over time and lead to burnout:
Communication is everything when it comes to the employee experience. Employees need to know what they’re expected to do, how they’re expected to do it, who they’re expected to do it with, and what they’re expected to achieve. When you don’t provide that information, you’re setting everybody up for frustration.
Great workplace communication isn’t just about dictating things to employees – in fact, that’s one of the most frustrating and burnout-inducing approaches – but instead maintaining an open, positive dialogue about what’s happening, how people are doing, and where the work is going.
Poor performance management
That great employee who quit out of nowhere probably felt like your managers and organization in general weren’t doing enough to help them get to the next step. Often, high-achieving team members are not included in conversations about improvement, goal setting, etc., and the general assumption is, “They’re doing great. Why fix what’s not broken?”
Often, those employees who are already “doing great” actually see the flaws, weaknesses, or shortcomings of their work very clearly. That’s part of what makes them a great worker – they’re reflective, introspective, and self-aware. As other burnout factors begin to frustrate them or erode their confidence, they start desperately looking for coaching or guidance that never comes.
At the other end of the spectrum, when employees know they are struggling and there isn’t a clear performance management/improvement framework in place, they start getting worried that the axe could be coming at any minute. They wind up with one foot out the door because they would rather get a fresh start somewhere else than suffer through the termination they expect is coming.
Poor human capital management
The way you move employees through your organization should build confidence and make everybody feel like they’re part of a growing community loaded with great opportunities. If your approach to HCM leaves people feeling nervous, left out, or underappreciated, you risk burnout out some of your best core employees.
For example, let’s say an opening has just become available at the marketing director level. You have an excellent content coordinator who has been a member of the marketing team for three years, yet you don’t consult with them about their interest in the job before hiring an outside director who’s worked for a competitor.
That great content coordinator (and the whole team of writers, designers, developers, producers, etc. who know their work and respect their management style) could easily be disappointed, suffer morale damage, and even backslide in terms of productivity. If you had promoted the content coordinator and bumped up other members of the team accordingly, you could’ve boosted morale and generated new authentic engagement and increased buy-in that would’ve improved the quality of work. Making the right decision for everybody isn’t cut-and-dried, but it’s worth thoughtful consideration when it comes time for any human capital decision.
Lack of recognition
When people know they’re doing great work for long stretches, they don’t like to feel that their employer is wringing every last drop of work and energy out of them like a sponge. Feeling “used and abused” without proper check-ins and positive reinforcement is one of the things that burns out great employees faster than anything!
Preventing burnout requires a proactive approach to calling out, recognizing, and rewarding strong work. That doesn’t just mean slaps on the back, friendly emails, and positive callouts during team meetings, either; it means real rewards like bonuses, promotions, new opportunities, and so on.
Lack of proactive mental health dialogue
So often, thoughtful, sensitive, and productive employees don’t realize they’re getting burnt out until they’re typing up their letter of resignation. As their employer (and, from a business/profit standpoint, an investor in their talents), you need to create a support system that gets your team members the help and resources they need to recognize, navigate, and solve mental health issues early-on to prevent burnout.
In any mental health scenario, the most important thing you can do is talk about it. Talking destigmatizes the topic and helps everybody come together and recognize that everyday challenges are a shared experience, not an individual struggle.
Workplace mental health is one of the hottest topics in human resources and labor relations right now. Unfortunately, employee burnout is still frequently treated as an individual employee problem rather than a business-wide health issue to be addressed.
- Employee burnout is a workplace mental health issue (i.e. your responsibility to address as an employer)
- Addressing/preventing burnout is part of maximizing your talent investment
- Burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, but most of them involve feeling powerless, overworked, out-of-the-loop, or under-appreciated
- Most employees who “burn out suddenly” have actually suffered in silence for a long time
- It’s crucial to start a dialogue about burnout and mental health issues to eliminate the stigma and connect your employees with what they need to strengthen operations overall