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Employee Burnout Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Employee burnout is a hot topic right now, as it very well should be. A July 2021 survey by The Hartford found that 55% of US employees reported feeling always burned out while 16% said they often feel burned out. And study after study has shown that levels of burnout in the American workforce are all-time highs with no signs of dropping. We also know that burnout is one of the factors fueling our current Great Resignation in which employees are leaving their jobs in droves.

At this point in time, if you are an employer or manager who does not realize that employee burnout is a very real issue, something is wrong. Whether employee burnout is real isn’t the question. Rather, the question is: what do we do about it?

As a wellness provider and an employee wellness program provider, specifically, I can say with confidence that employee burnout does not happen in a vacuum. It’s not an isolated incident and it is not the sole responsibility of the employee. The employee does not choose to wallow in stress and burn out. Management plays a critical and massive role in both creating and preventing burnout. So a few webinars on self-care and stress management for employees simply will not cut it.

What Causes Employee Burnout?

A number of factors contribute to employee burnout, but at its most basic burnout occurs when the burden is too great and the outlets too little. Or, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski explained in their 2019 Book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Code, burnout occurs when we become stuck in between our stress response and stress resolution. Something must happen to break us out of that jail and resolve that stress response.

So what gets us stuck?

Causes of employee burnout often have little to do with the employees themselves:

  • Having too great a workload and/or too few resources to deal with it
  • High-conflict work environments/lack of community in the workplace
  • A lack of trust or recognition from supervisors
  • Ineffective or poor management
  • Unclear roles

These are issues that management is responsible for. These are not issues that employees can address or fix. And no amount of meditation or nature walks will remedy them.

Related to these contributors to burnout are factors such as:

  • lack of social support
  • lack of boundaries between work and home life, and
  • poor stress management

What Can Management Do?

Giving employees tools to manage their stress is important – I should know, since I provide those webinars. But it cannot end there. Management must demonstrate to their employees that they are supported and their well-being matters. In this day and age, if an employee doesn’t believe that to be the case, they are walking out the door.

It Starts with You

As a manager, you can model behavior to help mitigate burnout. For example, implement boundaries between work and home life for yourself and adhere to them. Don’t keep it a secret when you take a mental health day or do some type of self-care. Make sure your employees know that you do these things. This demonstrates that it is acceptable for them to do the same. Then, take it a step further and make expectations for employee availability explicit. If you don’t expect them to answer emails at 9 o’clock at night, tell them that…and make sure you’re not emailing them at 9 pm either. This creates a company culture in which caring for your well-being is not only accepted but expected.

But modeling these behaviors isn’t helpful if you aren’t creating an environment conducive to employees utilizing those behaviors as well. As a manager, you need to have open and honest conversations with your employees, even the quiet ones. You need to check in with the regularly. You should know what their workloads are like and whether they are properly resourced for them. You should how they’re feeling. And you MUST be able to offer flexibility to support them. That can mean redistributing the workload, sitting down with them to help them prioritize, reallocating resources to them, etc. It also means that you need to be aware if and when you needlessly contribute to that workload through unnecessary or drawn-out meetings, micromanaging, excessive email or phone communication, etc. And you must reel that in when it happens.

As a manager, it’s critical that you always have your finger on the pulse of your workforce so that you can see the early signs of burnout and take action to mitigate it as best as possible.

Listen To Your Body

When most people think about living healthy, they think eating right and exercising. But there is so much more to being healthy than that. There is spiritual health, mental health, emotional health. It’s about what you put in your body just as much as what’s on and around your body. Nobody’s perfect and if someone tells you they have their act together in all of these areas, they’re lying. We’re human. Life gets busy and stressful, we get tired, and things fall by the wayside from time to time. It’s normal. What is key is doing what is right for you and picking back up as soon as you can.

I want to share a personal story to highlight the importance of something we don’t talk about enough when we talk healthy living in our culture: the importance of listening to your body and being gentle with yourself. Nobody’s perfect and this is a personal example of what not to do.

As for most of us, life was very busy for me leading up to and around the Christmas/New Year holiday stretch. I was taking health coaching classes, working full-time, getting a coaching practice started, working out, taking care of a household, Christmas shopping, cooking, traveling, and meeting my family and friend obligations. On top of that, I was taking on a lot of other people’s problems as my own and all that stress and activity was putting me in a place where all I could focus on was what was going wrong and how much more I had to do.You’ve been there, right?

The signs of burnout were there. Right in front of me. I was tired no matter how much I slept. I was cranky and overly emotional. Life felt foggy. I felt…yucky, like I was just off. But I kept pushing.

By the time the New Year rolled around, I was sleeping 10 hours on the weekends, I had developed a planter’s wart on the bottom of my foot, I had a tension headache that lasted for days, horrendous acid reflux so I couldn’t even take Advil for the headache, a horrible breakout on my face, and I just felt…mopey. I had burnt out and shut down. My body was pulling all the alarm bells telling me I needed to cut the crap and take care of myself.

It was the third day of the tension headache when I had missed out on the holiday weekend because I felt so awful that I saw what was happening. In that moment, I gave myself permission to take care of me. To say “no” to the things that I didn’t want to do. To take a break from working out so I could recharge. To ask for help getting things done.

Most importantly, I didn’t berate myself for doing these things. Listening to your body also means being gentle with yourself. Remember that you’re human and you’re going to need a break now and then and you’re going to have to settle for “good enough” once in a while.

There will be times on your wellness journey that you want to jump right in and take on every goal at once. And if you swing and miss, you’ll want to beat yourself up. Life is not a race; it’s a marathon. You have miles and miles ahead of you, so you need to slow down and check in with your body every once in a while. How do you feel? What do you need? What could you do without? Some miles will be slower than others and you may need people to help you along at some points. That is OK because you’re still moving forward and you will get there.
Connect with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Have faith in yourself.