One of your top performing employees suddenly isn't themselves. You notice a change in their quality of work and a general indifference toward their job. Could it be job burnout? Below, we review common warning signs of burnout as well as how to help prevent and respond to it.
The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defines occupational burnout as a syndrome resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The ICD-11 classifies it as an occupational phenomenon (rather than a medical condition) with three characteristics:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. Employees may express that they always feel tired. You may even notice that they look more tired. They may complain about difficulty sleeping and may dread coming to work. You may also notice an employee who is typically punctual is all of a sudden coming into work late, especially on Mondays.
- Increased mental distance or feelings of cynicism. Employees suffering burnout may have more friction with co-workers and clients and come across more irritable or impatient with them. The employee may be complaining a lot more than usual and expressing negativity more frequently. They may start to distance themselves from lunches with co-workers and after-work activities that they typically attended in the past.
- Reduced professional efficacy. Top-performing employees who are suffering burnout may start being less productive or produce lower quality work. While small fluctuations in work can be normal, you may notice a more significant decline in their work even though they are putting in about the same or even more hours.
Your Action Plan:
You can help reduce burnout by providing a positive, equitable, and supportive work environment. Consider the following:
- Look for ways to promote employee engagement, such as creating an effective employee recognition program, offering flexible work arrangements to help balance work and life responsibilities, giving employees autonomy in how they complete tasks, planning morale-boosting activities, and providing career development opportunities.
- Encourage employees to use their earned time off. For example, some employers put a reasonable cap on how much vacation an employee can accrue before they have to use it. In this case, employees have to "use" some of their time in order to earn any additional time. In states that permit use-it-or-lose-it policies, employers may encourage use by limiting the number of days that can be carried over into the next year.
- Clearly communicate workplace rules and procedures so that employees know exactly what's expected of them. Confirm expectations when setting performance goals and provide employees with feedback on a regular basis. Avoid overwhelming employees with too much work or disengaging them with too little work or menial tasks. Make sure that you hold supervisors accountable for providing employees with the support they need.
- Administer employee surveys and conduct exit interviews with departing employees to help assess employee satisfaction and engagement. This will allow you to course-correct if needed.
Don't make assumptions.
If you notice any changes to an employee's work performance or attitude, don't assume you know the cause. While the above warning signs could reflect that the employee is experiencing burnout, it could also mean there's something else going on. For instance, if an employee is being subjected to harassment, it's possible they would exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as withdrawing from company activities.
Meet with the employee.
If an employee isn't meeting performance or conduct expectations or is violating company policies, address the situation promptly. Meet with the employee in private, express your appreciation for their contributions and be straightforward. Let them know that you've noticed changes in their performance and/or attitude and give examples. Explain that you are trying to help the employee improve and give them an opportunity to respond. If they reveal symptoms of burn out, offer company resources that may help, such as an Employee Assistance Program, and help them develop a plan for improving. Confirm that the employee has fully understood the expectations for improvement and have them acknowledge the discussion in writing. Retain a copy in the employee's personnel file.
Consider other obligations.
Keep in mind that the information the employee shares during the meeting may trigger additional obligations. For instance, if the employee reveals they have a disability, such as depression, you may be required to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation. Or, if the employee tells you that workplace misconduct has impacted their performance and attitude, launch a thorough investigation into the allegation.
Schedule a follow-up meeting with the employee to see how they are doing. If their performance or behavior hasn't improved, further action may be necessary.
Make sure you are taking steps to help address and prevent job burnout. You may also want to consider changes to the work environment.