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How To Prevent Employee Burnout And Keep Hold Of Your Best People

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

person sitting at computer with head bowed

Most of us have read stats about The Great Resignation: 41% of the global workforce is considering leaving their jobs, 54% of Gen Z (Microsoft); 1 in 4 Americans planning to quit, for millennials, the largest generational population in the workforce, it’s 1 in 3. (Pulse of the American Worker; Eagle Hill Consulting.) Whatever stat you look at, the numbers are alarming.

There is a combination of factors for why people are leaving the workforce in such significant numbers, but high up on that list is employee burnout -- the extreme stress and exhaustion that comes from feeling overworked and overwhelmed. According to the Eagle Hill Consulting study, 57% of US employees say they are burned out, and those that report burnout are four times more likely to leave their companies.

Burnout can cause symptoms that overlap with depression such as extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and negativity. Given that, it should not come as a surprise that people who work for a burned-out manager are also more likely to quit. The Predictive Index’s 2021 People Management Report found that of the 36% of employees who said they believed their manager was burned out, 58% were considering quitting, versus 16% whose managers aren’t burned out.

So, what should you do about it?

Watch for the signs of employee burnout

Burnout is caused when someone feels extreme stress and exhaustion. According to The Mayo Clinic, employees with burnout are likely to be more negative than usual, more critical of others, or express greater cynicism. Keep an eye out for team members who are showing increased irritability, a shorter temper, or greater detachment from work and colleagues. If you notice a negative change in performance in someone whom you would normally consider a high-achiever, that could be a strong indication that they are burning out.

Listen, communicate & respond

If a feeling of lack of support is among the causes of burnout, demonstrating compassion and empathy is part of the solution. To do that, begin to make a habit out of checking in with employees.

Ask them how they are doing. Instead of accepting a superficial answer like, “good” or “fine,” you might probe a bit deeper, “Really?” Then stop. Just listen. Let them talk and when they are finished, repeat what they say back to them to make sure you got it right and so that they feel heard.

Make checking in a practice, and build it into your culture. Add it as a regular part of one-on-ones, team meetings, and pulse surveys. Finally, if you see patterns emerge that might point to burnout, take appropriate action and do it early.

Model good behavior

Most of us model the way we behave at work on the people above us. Leaders set the tone and the expectation. As a leader, if you are working long hours, sending emails, texts, and Slack messages late into the night, you normalize that behavior for the people who report to you. When you see your team working hard, under extreme stress, and in need of R & R, it’s great that you encourage them to take a few days off, but if you don’t do it yourself, will they? Be the good example.

Be vulnerable

Everybody has stuff they are dealing with, but keeping it to ourselves can be isolating, making us feel like we are the only ones going through it. As a leader, one of the most impactful things you can do is share what you are going through with your team.

A couple of months ago, I read a LinkedIn post from Nicola Catton, a VP at Penske Media Corporation. I don’t know Nicola, but the post stuck with me. In an effort to raise awareness and normalize conversations around mental health issues, Nicola shared the following note she wrote to her team:

“My anxiety is very bad today and I’m struggling to get it under control so am signing off for the night to try and manage it. I’ll likely be reading or watching mindless TV for a bit, so ping me if there are any emergencies. Should be back tomorrow, all being well.”

In her post, Nicola commented about the overwhelmingly positive response she received from her organization. In being vulnerable herself, Nicola was making it okay for her team to recognize and speak up about their own needs and in sharing it more broadly, hopefully opened up that possibility for others.

Keep engagement high

Sometimes, even as a leader, there is little we can do about the amount or intensity of someone’s workload, at least in the short term. But if you want your employees to stick around, especially the high potentials, make sure you are working with them on their professional development. Millennials, in particular, want to understand their career path – what it is and how they will get there.

According to Gallup, 87% of millennials rate professional growth and development opportunities as important to them, and ‘opportunities to learn and grow’ is a top retention factor. Knowing that the hard work they are putting in is leading somewhere, can help even stressed employees stay engaged and avoid burnout.

Recognize hard work

Spot bonuses and gifts are great of course, but more frequent non-monetary recognition might be even better. Recent research highlighted in Harvard Business Review suggested that “symbolic awards” such as certificates, public recognition and cards can significantly increase motivation, performance and retention rates. It can be as simple as saying ‘thank you,’ or better, sending a hand-written note. Make it personal and let individual employees know that you see them, recognize their hard work and you appreciate them for it.

Employee burnout is nothing new, but the pandemic and social justice movement wrought a collective trauma the likes of which most of us have never seen. It has raised our awareness of the everyday challenges many employees face and put a spotlight on the need for compassion and empathy in management. As we consider the future of work, employee well-being should continue to be forefront in the minds of leaders if they want to engage and retain their best people and head off The Great Resignation.


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