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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.