Your Company Can Crash from a Single Disgruntled Employee
I recently saw a question in an online HR group asking what I would tell an employee that somebody told you was experiencing job burnout. Apparently, she was starting to miss work, and was slowly drifting from an energetic top performer into a sad and cynical bottom-feeder. She was an integral member of the team, and her under-the-breath grumbles started to affect the morale of the team, as a whole.
Addressing the Burnout
You may think that burnout isn’t something that you need to worry about if you have a great, effective team. You may think it’s important when it happens, but don’t need to keep the potential for employee burnout at front-of-mind. Well, here’s the thing. According to a 2018 Gallup study of more than 7,500 employees, about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. That means there’s a good chunk of top performers in that category.
When employees burn out on the job, understand that it costs you productivity in time, money, and emotional capital.
How you respond to burnout could impact all the above. Many people think you can talk away serious problems instead of addressing them. To be frank, nothing you could tell her is going to change anything. Here are some things you can do to investigate the cause, and take action to address burnout.
1) Hit the reset button.
Have a one-on-one sit down, to set new expectations of regular discourse and two-way feedback. Is the only time you check in on your employees when quarterly/annual performance reviews are coming around? If you are her manager, it is a good idea to start having this talk regularly. Early signs of burn-out are usually evident, if people would only sit down and listen. Before all else, hear her out. A poor manager will hear bitching, moaning, and complaining. A great manager will hear a cry for help, listening for triggers that allow you to understand the source of the stressors.
2) Audit a normal work day.
Find out where things are going wrong. Are long meetings pushing back the rest of the work day? Do workplace emergencies happen regularly? Are her methods just generally inefficient and time-consuming? A work day audit answers these questions and more to ease her burnout.
To execute this audit for a single employee, follow a version of these steps. First, set out the causes of problem. No, burnout is a result – the first one-on-one sit-down should inform you as to what may have caused it. Keep these possible causes in mind as they may relate to questions in the audit. Second, for each cause, list questions you would ask as you walk though an employee’s work day. Next, create a list/chart that covers the entire work day. It should cover the time between when they first start getting ready for work and when they conclude for the day. Sit down with the employee again, and this time you’ll be doing the talking, asking questions. Work your way down the audit, hour-by-hour, noting what the employee does and experiences that would either add or reduce built up stress. Pay careful attention to these potential burnout causes:
– unreasonable deadlines & mindless tasks
– management & staff quarrels
– putting out fires & unscheduled emergencies
– scheduling conflicts & long commutes
Finally, conclude the audit with the employee, and review the responses. Use your intuition and information at hand to craft a mental narrative of the aspects of employee’s burnout that are attributed to the workplace vs. life outside of work. Actions #3 to #7 address what to do based on what you found in the audit. The actions below should impact the entire workplace. Simply because you are working through burnout with one employee, does not mean that there are not others that are just to proud or busy to be noticed or approached.
3) Drip small cultural changes that make it a better place to work.
These are changes so small as to be unnoticeable, but can be rapidly tested easily. Is the company culture such that people and rewarded for time spent at work instead of creative solutions, high-quality production, team successes, sales goals, and customer service? Change that; it’s toxic and ruins people’s health. Here’s a quick and easy one – open up the window blinds or shades in the workplace. People take notice of the outdoor views and natural light, even if subconsciously, and boost productivity temporarily to get to see the “light of day” for themselves. This one trick can discreetly cut overtime hours and improve general moods.
4) Evaluate the workspace.
If it’s not ergonomic, make it ergonomic. Bad desks, chairs, and computer setups could be causing back pain, eye strain, etc. Is the workspace safe? Make sure everything about it is conducive to ease of access and higher productivity, and is fully OSHA and ADA compliant.
Related: On Workplace Design
5) Ease up on strict work culture as much as can be done.
I don’t know your industry, so this many be only minimally possible. However, habits such as taking breaks and eating lunch socially (instead of working through lunch) reduce the potential for burnout. This one is basic and everyone should be allowed to do it unless they’re in a war zone, police/fire call, or ambulance. Nothing else you can tell me is going to convince me that it’s more important than eating lunch and preparing your mind and body for the second half of the day.
Related: Is it a Holiday? Well, Get to Work!
6) If you have access to these services, inform employees of the EAP.
Persistent anxiety and depression are key symptoms and predictors of burnout in the workplace. According to a 2006 ADAA survey, 56% of employees say that stress and anxiety affect workplace performance. For companies which offer benefits, there is a resource called an EAP (employee assistance program). Health care provider offers EAPs and can assist in ways to keep physical and mental health strong. It is in your best interest to allow employees to look after their mental state.
Read more about EAPs: What is EAP? (Employment Assistance Trade Association – EASNA)
It’s the employees’ decision whether or not they should tell you about any mental issues they deal with. However, even if you only suspect that stress is negatively impacting work, still reiterate access to an EAP as part of benefits. In fact, make sure that EAPs are clearly and regularly communicated as part of their benefits package. Give the employee time during work hours (even if it’s not paid) to address these concerns of burnout, because, let’s face it – if anyone is burned out and still trying to get anything done at work, they are losing productivity anyway.
Try to spot whether employees have positive means of releasing stress, to get ahead of burnout from stress. Let’s say you have two people with the same workload and stressors: one who practices yoga and reads, and one who just goes home and sits on social media or looks at tv. The first one will return to work refreshed, and the other one will have accelerated her burnout.
7) Make work meaningful.
Does she have purpose and alignment? Does she operate as an island without help? Is she being included in the company discussions? Is she being handed busywork? It’s easy to get discouraged when management discards your ideas regularly, or hands you work under your abilities because that’s what’s always been done. A lot of that extra work may be able to be handed off to someone more willing to do it, or can be replaced with software. Get her back to work on things that matter.
Other Questions to Ask to Get to the Root
In the past, I’ve worked with companies that are so big and sprawling, they used analytics to find who was at risk of being burned out, so they can prevent it. They didn’t have direct eyes on every employee, and some were remote. What they looked for is:
– who do people go to most often for knowledge and advice?
– who has the most safety violations/demerits?
– who has to cover for other people’s absences?
– who is using the least of their vacation?
– who logs the most worked hours, but takes the least time off?
– who uses sick days frequently, but not vacation?
– who is regularly late, but frequently stays late?
These are just a few of the many things you could do to address a burned-out person directly, and satisfy the need for a better workplace. More importantly, put anti-burnout protocols into your feedback systems with the employees by taking actions and continuously asking the right questions.