how to prevent employee burnout

How to Prevent Employee Burnout and Empower Your Team’s Performance

Are your employees experiencing burnout at work?

Are you noticing that your employees are taking more sick days? Do they seem tired, unfocused, or disengaged? Has your team’s performance noticeably diminished? If the answer is yes, your team may be suffering from burnout.

Indeed, burnout is a common concern for people managers. According to a recent global survey of nearly 1,500 people, most of us are struggling with a burnout at work since the start of COVID-19.

Survey statistics show that:

  • Only 21% of survey respondents rated their well-being as “good,” and 2% rated it as “excellent.”
  • 25% found it difficult to maintain a strong and healthy connection with family, 39% with workmates, and 50% with friends.
  • 55% found it hard to manage their work-life balance, with 53% citing home-schooling as an issue.
  • 56% said work demands had increased.
  • 57% of employees felt that the pandemic had either “completely dominated” or had a “large effect on” their work.
  • 62% of employees who were struggling with their workload had, in the previous three months, experienced burnout either “often” or “extremely often.”
  • 85% admitted to a decline in their well-being.
  • 89% stated that their work-life balance was deteriorating.

In today’s blog, we discuss the causes of employee burnout and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted workplace stress levels. We also share some tips for managers on how to prevent employee burnout.

Understanding burnout

When it comes to preventing team burnout, we first have to understand what it is.

Burnout is not a new phenomenon – the concept originated in the 1970s. In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. It defined it as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

how to prevent employee burnout

While burnout was already a problem before COVID-19 hit, the swift changes to workplace structures meant many organisations were ill-equipped to support their employees proactively. Some remote working practices increase burnout risk:

  • High workloads – the risk of burnout increases significantly when a working week averages more than 50 hours.
  • Lack of control and flexibility – working parents struggled with caring responsibilities while working from home, and boundaries between work and personal life became blurred.
  • Increased meetings – Zoom meetings increased substantially during the pandemic, leading to unhealthy levels of screen time and extended workdays.

The above findings are not surprising, given what we know from burnout research. According to a study conducted by Maslach, Jackson, and Leiter, and published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, burnout has six root causes:

    1. An unsustainable workload
    2. Perceived lack of control
    3. Insufficient rewards for effort
    4. The absence of a supportive community
    5. Lack of fairness
    6. Mismatched values and skills

It’s clear that while burnout affects individuals, it’s not just an individual problem. Instead, the WHO definition recognises that it is an organisational problem that requires an organisational solution. Therefore, as managers, we have a responsibility to both understand and prevent employee burnout.

Below are our top 7 tips for managers on how to prevent employee burnout.

Tip #1 – Monitor for signs of employee burnout

Among our tips on how to prevent employee burnout is to be vigilant with observation; monitor team members for signs of burnout. Burnout is a long-term stress reaction that has both physical and mental symptoms. Physically, people experience fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite and disrupted sleep patterns. Mentally, people tend to worry constantly and find it hard to focus. People can also become more irritable and cynical, and more detached from colleagues and loved ones.

Pay attention to employees who don’t seem like their usual selves, and have an open and honest conversation with them to find out if they’re at risk of burnout.

Tip #2 – Regular mental health check-in’s

Many employees are not comfortable with being vulnerable in the workplace, especially when it comes to mental health. People who don’t believe they can openly discuss their mental health are more likely to experience burnout.

As a manager, it’s important to create a safe environment where people are comfortable expressing themselves. For example, when someone makes a mistake, ask what help is needed to get back on track, rather than apportioning blame.

Catch up with each employee regularly one-on-one, and ask how they’re coping with workload and stress. Ask open-ended questions like “How is everything going this week?” or “Tell me about your week”.

If you know people on your team are burnt out, act. Support your employees and encourage them to take time out and recover. You can also offer access to mental health support, such as:

  • mental health resources at your company, such as access to employee support lines or lists of local health practitioners.
  • reduced or flexible hours for staff who have health concerns.

Ensure your team knows that it’s ok to discuss mental health and that they will be supported if there are any concerns.

Tip #3 – Reassess priorities and manage workload

manage workload

According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory General Survey (MBI-GS), a heavy workload is a leading cause of burnout. Because workloads are often strenuous, it can be challenging to know how to avoid burnout at work.

Employees reported meetings and unrealistic demands as key pain points. Meeting fatigue contributed to overwork because employees had to abandon essential tasks to attend meetings.

Managers can help their teams to manage workloads better and cut down on unnecessary meetings. As a team, discuss and agree on the team’s core value-add. Agree on the team’s top priorities and remove any unnecessary tasks from the to-do list – this will help each employee prioritise tasks and say “no” to tasks where their value-add is minimal.

Be clear about the purpose of any meeting before agreeing to attend. Help your team say “no” to non-critical meetings. If a meeting is necessary, ask the following questions:

  • Can it be kept to 30 minutes?
  • Can it be done on audio-only? (to encourage walking meetings)
  • Which members of the team are essential attendees?

Here are some more tips to make the most out of every virtual meeting.

Tip #4 – Establish boundaries

Many employees have struggled with maintaining healthy boundaries between work and home life. As managers, we have the power to set social norms for the team. If employees see their managers sending emails on weekends or late evenings, they might assume that they’re also expected to work long hours. They might feel pressured to always be available, even if it’s out of office hours.

A simple strategy is to set a delayed delivery for your emails until the next workday. Or you can include a line in your emails that you don’t expect them to respond right away. For example, “I work flexibly and send emails when it suits me. I don’t expect you to reply until a time that suits you”.

Tip #5 – Lead with empathy

In a 2020 survey of 3,900 employees across 11 countries, 29% of employees wish that organisations would act with more empathy. Empathetic managers show genuine care for their employees. They actively listen to staff, acknowledge and overcome personal bias, and take appropriate action.

Take time to know your team. What are their needs and struggles? For example, parents may need more flexible hours to juggle childcare responsibilities. Employees who live with elderly relatives may want to limit their exposure to public transport. Whatever the need, try to be accommodating wherever possible.

Leading with empathy prevents team burnout and boosts staff morale, which means better business results.

Tip #6 – Purpose and autonomy

provide hand over

Research shows that feeling a sense of purpose helps to defend against burnout at work. This could be because employees who believe in the purpose of the company are more engaged and motivated. As a manager, help each employee understand the company and team’s purpose and vision – this will help them prioritise high-value tasks.

Once the “why” is clear, let your employees decide on the “how”. This helps to give employees ownership of their goals and give them as much autonomy as possible. We know that having autonomy is incredibly motivating. As managers, the more autonomy you can give your team, the more engaged they’re likely to be.

Tip #7 – Lead by example

Finally on our tips on how to prevent employee burnout is to set a good example for your team and look after your own wellbeing. Share your strategies for how to cope with stress. Take time off work to normalise it and make it acceptable for others to do the same. Be more visible about how you’re spending your time, and hold yourself accountable for how you manage team workload. Make conscious choices to focus on what really matters, and stop just being “busy”.

At PEPworldwide, we work with teams and individuals to sustainably increase productivity and workplace wellbeing. See how our tailored programs can help you and your team to achieve team goals without burning out. We will work with your team to build workplace resilience and implement practical strategies that can be applied straight away to your workday.

By Simon Nicholls

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