Diana Kelly Levey

How to Help Your Co-Workers Deal with Burnout

A woman feeling burned out at work

January 5, 2020 | Categories:

You or your colleagues may have complained you’re “burned out” before. But have you ever thought about what it means, and what the differences between burnout and extreme stress are? It turns out: Burnout is now officially a medical diagnosis. This May, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared burnout an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. (And yes, stress can cause physical symptoms.)

Doctors can now diagnose someone with burnout syndrome if they have the following three symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Hopefully, this official declaration brings to light the severity of this mental-health issue and how workplaces can make improvements to improve employees’ well-being.

According to The American Institute of Stress, one of the largest causes of stress is “workload” (46 percent). Nearly one in four employees (23 percent) from a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 employees said they reported feeling burned out at work “very often or always,” and an additional 44 percent felt burned out “sometimes.”

It’s not just corporate America that’s experiencing the burden of burnout. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that physician burnout costs between $2.6 and $6.3 billion each year. Previous research found that doctors who reported feeling in control of their environment and their workflow were less likely to experience burnout, according to an analysis from 2018.

Let’s explore what burnout really is, signs to look for, and how to help and retain an employee who’s experiencing it.

What You Need to Know About Burnout at Work

What Is Burnout?

Now that there’s an official medical definition, it’s important to understand how mental health professionals think of this issue. “When you’re burned out, you feel like, ‘I don’t want to do anymore’ and may leave that job,” says Mary Karapetian Alvord, Ph.D., director of Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC, in the Washington, D.C. area. “When I think of stress, it’s a feeling like, ‘I can’t get it all done in the time that I have,’ or ‘I’m not capable of doing it.’ But you’re still able to move to the next step,” she says. “Stress generates a lot of energy, but burnout is like a fire that was snuffed out.” (Wait, is anxiety different, too?)

What Does Burnout Look Like in Your Employees?

Is one of your associates exhibiting a lack of energy or enthusiasm for their job? Have they been calling out often or been late to work? According to Gallup, burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.

“They’re calling out sick a lot or not doing their job,” says Alvord. Another change in behavior to look for could be: Are they withdrawing and not talking to others on the team anymore? “Accomplishing less work and being withdrawn are two huge signs, and they’re actually signs of depression, too,” says Alvord. Having a burned-out employee might also look like someone with a shorter fuse, especially if that’s not typical behavior for them. “They’re more likely to get upset, angry, to engage in conflicts, or to break down and cry,” says Alvord.

How to Help Burned-out Employees

Ask How They’re Doing

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s a first step people often forget. Say, “Hey, I noticed you’ve been sick. First of all, are you okay? I don’t want to intrude, but is there something I can do to help?” If you see this is repeat behavior, point that out. Say, “I see a pattern and I’m wondering what’s going on and if there’s something about the job or your duties that’s troubling you,” Alvord suggests.

“Sometimes, it’s someone’s personal life that causes their behavior change and they don’t want to share, but at least you’re acknowledging, ‘You’re not alone and I’m here to support you if I can,’” says Alvord.

It’s important for a manager to be able to recognize some signs and symptoms of burnout in their employees. During a weekly one-on-one, you might ask questions like, “Are you satisfied with your current responsibilities?” and “Do you have the support and resources you need?” It’s also important to ask a question that shows you’re interested in their overall happiness with something as simple as, “How was your weekend?” The type of check-in where you’re really listening to their needs helps your employees feel like they’re being heard, suggests Sue Hawkes, CEO and founder of YESS! (Your Extraordinary Success Strategies, Inc.), a program that helps CEOs and their leaders succeed, and author of Maximizing Success Journal.

Encourage a Life Outside of Work

Hopefully, you and your employees pursued this line of work because you were passionate about it. But with any job, no matter how much enthusiasm you bring to it, there comes a time when you have to do undesirable tasks, and, well, it just feels like work. When your team is in the weeds logging hours on cumbersome projects that no one is excited about, it can feel, at times, like you’re just going to work to get a paycheck. This is where pursuing outside hobbies and passions is key.

“Whether you burn out or not is up to you,” says Hawkes. “So, if you’re doing too much, and that’s not equating to your own happiness, then what are you doing with the hours where you’re not getting paid for work? I think burnout has as much to do with life dissatisfaction as it does to do with job dissatisfaction.”

She says it’s important for every employee to do things to care for themselves when they aren’t at work, whether that’s exercise, fostering a healthy relationship, making time for family, spending time with friends, engaging in hobbies, reading, or whatever the things are that make you feel happy and relaxed. Managers should also make sure they’re practicing these healthy behaviors, as well, by leaving work on time and encouraging employees to do the same. (And try to avoid emailing employees during nonworking hours. If you have to write emails, schedule them to be sent when your employees are at work.)

Delegate Their Responsibilities

If your employee informs you that they’re overwhelmed with their workload or going through a hard time, see if you can off-load some responsibilities to someone else, or if your company could hire someone on a freelance basis, suggests Alvord. As they get better and feel healthier, those responsibilities could be returned to them. Employees look to their managers to be their advocates for what they can and can’t accomplish and for finding others to help them when their workload is unmanageable, according to the Gallup study.

Read the full article on Happify.

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