13 Mar 2020

By Mark Murphy

When someone is so exhausted that they don’t care about things they previously considered important, they’re burned out. Burnout is not having “a case of the Mondays” or the occasional bad days we all experience; burnout is a deeper loss of optimism and resilience.

And while it might seem like burnout is unrelated to your company’s bottom-line, if your goals require that employees give maximum effort this year, you need to stop employee burnout (and any loss of optimism, resilience, etc.).

For example, in the recent study, Employee Engagement Is Less Dependent On Managers Than You Think, we discovered that optimistic employees are 103% more inspired to give their best effort at work. And if employees aren’t giving their best effort, there’s little chance that any company survives a turbulent economy.

Fortunately, there are three straightforward and practical techniques you can employ today to halt, and even reverse, the vast majority of employee burnout.

Technique #1: Intervene Quickly And Directly

One of the first signs of burnout is frustration. When employees are irritated by seemingly trivial issues, especially when that frustration is expressed multiple times and in public venues, you’re typically witnessing early stages of burnout.

If I roll my eyes in an unproductive staff meeting, that’s not burnout. But when an ordinarily agreeable employee starts muttering loudly, “this is such a pointless waste of time,” in two or three different meetings, that’s a likely indicator of looming burnout.

And those are indicators you want to catch and address quickly. If you engage that employee while they’re still in the muttering or griping stage, there’s a good chance you’ll halt, and even reverse, the inchoate burnout.

Unfortunately, many leaders brush aside, or ignore, the muttering. In the study The Risks Of Ignoring Employee Feedback, we discovered that only 23% of people say that when they share their work problems with their leader, he/she always responds constructively.

But it doesn’t take much effort to successfully engage with a frustrated employee. Simply ask them two questions:

  • Could you tell me about a time in the past month when you felt really frustrated?
  • Could you tell me about a time in the past month when you felt really motivated?

And after you’ve asked your employee those two questions, sit quietly and listen. Don’t dismiss their responses, don’t defend yourself or the company and, most importantly, don’t argue with them. Just calmly listen and acknowledge what they’ve said (both the good and the bad).

From the employee’s perspective, knowing that your boss hears you, and is earnestly trying to empathize, is a form of social support. And research shows that social support can significantly diminish burnout.

Technique #2: Help Your Employees Problem-Solve

It’s pretty common for burned-out employees (and leaders) to experience diminished problem-solving skills. In fact, any stress can potentially erode a person’s ability to think clearly, rationally and generate alternatives.

When you see your employees struggling to solve problems that seem pretty simple, it should be a warning sign for looming burnout. And in those cases, you’ve got two easy options. First, help them calmly and rationally dissect the problem and then serve as a sounding board. This can be as simple as asking the employee to describe the problem they’re facing, and then ask them questions like:

  • Tell me about what steps you’ve taken so far?
  • What are you thinking about doing next?
  • How is that the same or different from what you’ve tried before?
  • If Plan A doesn’t work, what might be a good Plan B?

These questions have been shown to deescalate catastrophizing and, in a very gentle way, encourage employees to reengage the critical thinking parts of their brain.

A second option is to simply force the burned-out employee to take a break; sometimes, a little space really is the best solution. An extended lunch break, a day off or time to pursue an outside interest can make a big difference.

Technique #3: Stay In Close Contact

While it can be stressful for leaders to spend time with burned-out employees, it’s critically important to maintain close contact.

The study Optimal Hours with the Boss discovered that people who spend six hours per week interacting with their direct leader are 30% more engaged and 16% more innovative than those who spend only one hour per week.

So devote extra time to interacting with any employee that seems to be heading towards, or is already in, a burned-out state. Set discrete periods of time to check in with employees. Invite them to coffee. Or even pick up the phone for a touch-base chat.

One final thought for leaders: If your employee is expressing signs of burnout, that’s potentially a good thing (especially when the alternative is the employee withdrawing or staying silent). Consider their expressions a way of reaching out and a big sign that they trust you.

Covid-19 – Johns Hopkins University

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