It’s not just a case of the Mondays.
Nearly every manager has witnessed burnout first-hand, when formerly high-performing employees become unproductive or apathetic or disappear altogether, and many managers feel helpless in the face of this phenomenon.
The good news is, you’re not alone. Workplace burnout is an epidemic plaguing the American workforce, and the statistics about it are alarming. According to a Gallup survey, two-thirds of employees experience burnout, and those employees are 63% more likely to call in sick, and 2.6 times more likely to be looking for a new job. Harvard Business School estimates that workplace stress is responsible for up to $190 billion in healthcare spending per year, or 5 to 8 percent of national spending.
The costs of burnout to your business, in terms of absenteeism, turnover, and illness, are clearly enormous. While there is a lack of data directly measuring the impact of burnout on revenue in the United States, a 2016 Gallup study found that in Germany, employee burnout costs employers 9 billion euros per year.
Burnout is increasingly recognized as a serious problem that is taking a toll on the physical and mental health of individuals and on the economy as a whole. In 2019, the World Health Organization even added workplace burnout to its International Classification of Diseases.
Despite how pervasive and costly burnout is, many workplaces still treat it as an individual problem, rather than a systemic one. Too often, when employees abruptly quit or their productivity falls off, it’s greeted with an air of resignation. Yet employee burnout is preventable, not inevitable, because burnout isn’t a personal failing; it’s a sign that an employee isn’t receiving adequate support. According to Gallup’s research, employees who feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to suffer from regular feelings of burnout.
Yet employee burnout is preventable, not inevitable, because burnout isn’t a personal failing; it’s a sign that an employee isn’t receiving adequate support.
Managers who want to keep their teams healthy and productive need to understand what burnout is, how to spot it, and how to use one-on-one meetings to give their employees the support they need.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a somewhat nebulous term, but experts agree that it’s composed of three distinct elements:
- Feeling exhausted
- Feeling cynical or detached from work
- Feeling ineffective
Source: Neil Patel
So why do employees start to feel cynical, ineffective, and depleted? The Gallup survey mentioned above concluded that burnout doesn’t happen just because employees can’t handle challenging workloads; it’s more strongly correlated with how someone is managed.
As a manager, it’s your job to provide solutions to all three of the elements of burnout, each of which requires specific tools. But to help an employee in danger of burning out, you first have to recognize that they’re in trouble.
Spot the Signs of Burnout
Unfortunately, the people at the greatest risk of burning out (the hardworking, independent, high-achievers) are often the people who are most reluctant to admit that they have a problem. So, for managers, half of the battle is knowing what to look for.
Identifying and counteracting burnout requires equal parts information and intuition. A good manager must be emotionally attuned enough with their direct reports to spot subtle changes in behavior and must be methodical enough to record and monitor those changes over time.
Start by getting a sense of how burned-out your workforce already is. The National Academy of Medicine recommends the Maslach Burnout Inventory to assess burnout. It asks employees to rate statements such as “I feel emotionally drained from my work” or “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in the job” on a scale from “never” to “every day.” You can use such a survey (or design your own) and let your team respond anonymously to ensure greater candor.
On an individual level, stay alert to changes in behavior in each team member. Burnout will manifest differently in different employees, so a formerly gregarious employee may become withdrawn, or a usually even-keeled employee might start being short-tempered and sarcastic.
Tracking these changes starts with establishing a baseline for each employee, so you know what their “normal” looks like. You can find this baseline by asking questions in your first one-on-one with a team member, such as the following:
- What times of day are you most productive?
- How do you cope when you are stuck on a project?
- What is your current stress level?
When you ask these questions, you’re not only gathering data but also actively preventing burnout by proving to your employee that you’re invested in their well-being. But asking isn’t enough; you should also record the answers and then look back over them to prepare for future one-on-ones.
Prevent Burnout with One-on-Ones
One-on-one meetings are your best opportunity to provide the kind of individualized support that combats burnout and ensure that employees don’t succumb to exhaustion, cynicism, or feelings of inefficacy. To fully take advantage of this opportunity, you have to come prepared to talk about both the bad and the good of your employee’s life, and then roll up your sleeves and address the issues.
Employees are likely to feel exhausted if their workload is too heavy or they’re being given insufficient time to accomplish tasks. You can assess fatigue levels by asking employees if they’re feeling overwhelmed and generally asking how they are. But, of course, some employees won’t admit that they’re feeling strained, so if you notice an employee is constantly working longer hours than the rest of the team, spend some time figuring out why.
If their workload is the result of a time-management issue, brainstorm how they can filter out busywork and unnecessary distractions during the day. If their workload is unmanageable, one-on-ones are a chance to discuss, without blame, how you can break down projects or give some tasks to other team members.
Naturally, you want to encourage and praise hard work, but you shouldn’t let employees run themselves into the ground. If you have a report who consistently sets very ambitious deadlines for themselves and then works unreasonable hours to meet them, don’t encourage that unsustainable behavior.
During one-on-ones, go over their upcoming calendar, and push deadlines back for them when necessary. You can also privately encourage them to take breaks during the day, put work aside on weekends, and generally develop a healthier work-life balance. Getting a manager’s permission to slow down can go a long way toward helping an anxious employee relax.
The primary reason so many employees feel lost and ineffective at work is that they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. As we’ve written about before, one-on-one meetings are the ideal time to help team members gain clarity on what is expected of them by aligning on expectations and setting both short-term priorities and long-term goals.
In every one-on-one, you and your report should agree on some incremental, achievable priorities to accomplish by the next time you meet. Setting your team members up for these wins will make them feel competent and that their work is making a measurable impact.
You should also regularly use one-on-ones to discuss an employee’s bigger professional goals. Some, such as learning a new skill, might take a few months to achieve, while others, such as working toward a promotion, might take longer. But by using one-on-ones as a yardstick for progress at every level, you help an employee keep their eyes on the future, instead of just trudging through the day.
Fighting cynicism might sound a bit tough since you can’t exactly put on boxing gloves and go toe to toe with ennui. But we fight cynicism at work when we show up for one another, so our team members don’t feel isolated and unsupported.
Our workplace relationships, at least as much as our work itself, are what sustain us throughout our careers, and one-on-ones are when you can do the most intensive work on your relationships with your team.
If a team member thinks a particular decision of yours was unfair, one-on-ones give you the opportunity to hash out any disagreements, so your choices won’t seem like arbitrary dictates issued from on high. If an employee is going through a tough time outside of work, one-to-ones are the place where they can confidentially share their issues, and you can help to manage the pressure so they’re not burning the candle at both ends.
Use one-on-ones in this way and your employees will know that you’re not just their boss but also their advocate. Reassuring your employees that you’re in their corner positions you as a crucial bulwark against the cynical belief that work is every person for themselves.
Only You Can Prevent Employee Burnout
Every team member who reports to you is a precious and finite resource. It is your job to safeguard those resources, not exhaust them in the name of short-term productivity. While work will always be hard (there’s a reason they don’t call it “play”), you can make sure your team is challenged without being depleted.
By taking time to offer team members individual support and guidance, you can head off burnout and ensure that your team works better, healthier, and longer.