Employee Burnout Costs Businesses Millions—Here’s How Managers Can Stop it

Employee burnout blog post cover

It’s not just a case of the Mondays.

Nearly every manager has witnessed employee burnout first-hand. And many managers feel helpless when they see formerly high-performing employees become unproductive or apathetic or disappear altogether. 

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. What’s more, 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. That amounts to 5 to 8% of national spending.

The costs of burnout to your business, in terms of absenteeism, turnover, and illness, are clearly enormous. There is a lack of data directly measuring the impact of burnout on revenue in the United States. However, according to a 2016 Gallup study, in Germany, employee burnout costs employers 9 billion euros per year.

Business leaders increasingly recognize employee burnout 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, we react with resignation when employees abruptly quit or their productivity falls off. 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.

So let’s talk about 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:

  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling cynical or detached from work
  • Feeling ineffective 
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 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. Instead, burnout is more strongly correlated with management.

As a manager, you can 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 have the emotional intelligence to spot subtle changes in team members’ behavior. They must also 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.” Use such a survey (or design your own) and let your team respond anonymously to ensure they’re honest.

On an individual level, stay alert to changes in behavior in each team member. Burnout manifests differently in different employees. A formerly gregarious employee may become withdrawn, or an 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?

Asking these questions isn’t just about gathering data. It actually helps to prevent 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 individualized support that combats burnout and ensure that employees don’t succumb to exhaustion, cynicism, or feelings of uselessness. 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. 

Managing exhaustion

Employees feel exhausted if their workload is too heavy or they don’t have enough time to accomplish tasks. Assess fatigue levels by asking employees if they’re feeling overwhelmed, and check in on their overall well-being. Of course, many 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, figure out why. 

If their workload is a time-management issue, brainstorm ways to eliminate busywork and unnecessary distractions. If their workload is unmanageable, then discuss, without blame, how you can simplify 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 a report consistently sets very ambitious deadlines and then works unreasonable hours to meet them, that’s a red flag. Don’t encourage unsustainable behavior or a work culture that encourages overwork. 

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.

Restoring effectiveness

Employees feel lost and ineffective at work because 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 give team members clarity about expectations. You do this by 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

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. Work will always be hard (there’s a reason they don’t call it “play”). But you can challenge your team without depleting them.

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.

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