Confirming what most of us already knew, employee burnout is a real thing. Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized employee burnout as an official medical diagnosis and identified signs of burnout in employees.

What is employee burnout?

According to the WHO:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

3) reduced professional efficacy. 

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Note the last sentence: While it’s certainly possible for your employees to feel burned out in other aspects of their lives, in terms of a medical diagnosis, burnout is a work problem.

Which means it’s also your problem—because a burned-out employee is less productive, less collaborative, less creative—less everything.

Want to know how to prevent employee burnout? The process starts with recognizing what causes employees to burnout. 

What causes employee burnout? 

When I ran a manufacturing plant, the best employees tended to come up with the best ideas.

So I naturally assigned responsibility for implementing the idea to the person who came up with it. Not only were they skilled, I assumed their interest would result in greater effort. (We all care more when something is “ours.”)

The problem was, the best employees were already working really hard. Putting them in charge of every suggestion they made eventually made them stop stepping forward.

As one employee admitted, “I finally realized I needed to stop suggesting things to you, because every time I did you just added another responsibility to my plate.”

In short, I penalized them for having great ideas—and burned them out.

Granted, that’s an unusual example. Other employee burnout causes are much more common:

  • Excessive workload. On small teams, too much to do and not enough hands is an everyday reality—and also a perfect recipe for burnout.
  • Insufficient authority. Like the manager who has the responsibility—but not the power—to make a key initiative happen. 
  • Ambiguous role. I was once responsible for “improving employee morale,” which sounded great in theory. But I had no idea how to determine the impact of my work, much less which efforts were actually working. 
  • Insufficient resources. Sometimes “making do” is impossible.
  • Limited feedback. Without praise and recognition, difficult tasks are just hamster wheels.
  • Restricted opportunities for input. The more you tell employees what to do instead of involving them in the decision-making, the more likely they are to burn out. Feeling like “part of” rather than “a by-product of” the process increases engagement, promotes a sense of esprit de corps, and turns tasks into missions.
  • Skill misalignment. Because we all enjoy doing things we do well more than steep learning curves.
  • Lack of reward. When pay doesn’t match results. When the feeling of a job well done is rare and hard to come by. Or when connections with others are strained or nonexistent. We all like to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

That’s a long list, but it’s long for a reason. Employee burnout is seldom caused by one factor. Typically, employee burnout results from a combination of several. 

An employee who feels overworked and underpaid, who feels unappreciated, who isn’t sure how their job makes a real difference—that employee is much more likely to feel depleted and distanced from their job. 

But keep in mind, those are work-related causes for burnout. Ultimately, burnout is both a symptom and a cause of stress—which means employees can get burned out for personal reasons, too.

Personal causes of burnout

While a positive work-life balance is something we all strive to achieve, in the end, there’s no such thing as work-life balance—there’s just life. Your employees can take their work problems home with them, and they can also bring their “home” problems with them to work.

The result? A higher likelihood of burnout. 

An employee who constantly worries about financial problems has much less tolerance for normal workplace stressors. An employee dealing with family issues won’t have as much patience for ambiguity, limited resources, or unrealistic expectations at work.

Add “home” stresses to work stresses, and the risk of employee burnout only increases.

This can have a significant impact on your workday, as research shows many employees expect their bosses to provide them with emotional support.

So how can you prevent employee burnout—and deal effectively with employees seeking help with personal problems?

5 tips for dealing with employee burnout

1. Take a step back and assess relative workloads. In my case, that meant no longer piling ever-greater loads on the broadest shoulders. 

Beyond that, take a few moments and list the “extra” duties each employee has. I don’t mean the theoretical “core” job, but rather the real-world expanded list of tasks and responsibilities. Chances are, there’s an imbalance.

Fix it.

2. Re-align tasks with interests. Bob loves helping people; shift duties so that Bob spends more time training, mentoring, or working with dissatisfied customers. Julie loves process improvement; make sure she gets to lead a few projects. Mary loves making the trains run on time; make sure some of her duties require organization and attention to detail.

Never sacrifice individual interests in the pursuit of creating “well-rounded” employees. Sure, it’s awesome to help employees gain new skills—but not at the risk of burning them out.

3. Provide more praise and recognition. No one receives too much gratitude. No one.

See saying “thank you” as a daily occurrence.

4. Actively seek input and feedback. Ask what’s going well. Ask what’s not going well. Ask what your employee, if given the authority, would change. Make sure every person on your team feels like their ideas, opinions, and input matter.

This is especially important when a particular employee’s level of input drops; that’s a definite warning sign of burnout. Don’t expect employees to re-engage. 

See it as your job to re-engage them.

5. Effectively manage employees who seek help with personal problems. Research also shows that bosses who help direct reports with personal issues suffer a decrease in mood, at least for the day in question. 

So how can you make the process less stressful?

First, determine whether you can actually help. If you’re not particularly financially savvy, you may not be able to offer advice to an employee struggling to make ends meet. But you can help the employee find someone who can: a financial advisor, a local organization, etc.

Simply say, “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you should do, either. But together we can find someone who can help.”

Then determine to what extent your assistance is appropriate. Dispensing relationship advice is a slippery slope. The same is true for childcare, parenting, and other personal problems.

Listen, be empathetic, offer general advice if it feels proper. But don’t hesitate to defer to professionals. If your company insurance includes an Employee Assistance Program, refer the employee. If not, suggest other resources. 

Always remember that, no matter how hard you try, you’re unlikely to be able to solve an employee’s personal problem.

But you can show you care. And you can help put the employee in touch with people better able.

In the process, you’ll help the employee avoid burning out—and, more importantly, make their life better.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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