Burnout refers to a psychological condition in which an employee is demoralized, exhausted, and no longer productive. There are internal factors, such as personal problems in the employee’s life that are impinging on their ability to work. There are also external factors, such as an unhealthy workplace. I worked at a place that had extremely high turnover. It was in the HS (Human Services) area. An average of one person a month in an organization of about 60 would quit or get fired. Morale was low, staff were constantly devalued by administrators, there was favoritism, nepotism, unreasonable rules and expectations, and office politics that were almost psychotic. There was no loyalty between staff, and the most frivolous intra-employee complaints were indulged by management as valid. The best and brightest employees, who would question the unhealthy dynamics of this workplace, or try to promote positive change, were made miserable enough to leave if they were not dismissed outright. The organization had a reputation in the professional community as a place to stay away from. This is a toxic workplace, which somehow continued to operate in-spite of itself. Don’t let your workplace become this.
First and foremost, as an employer, you must value your employees; not see them as expendable assets. Recognize that the success of your company is contingent on the morale of your employees. Start before you hire, by careful screening and pre-employment practices to get the very best people. Set high standards from the start, and give potential employees a clear picture of expectations, and the challenges and difficulties associated with the job. They need to make certain the job is right for them as well. Let people know what to expect, so they go into a field with a realistic set of expectations, and they know what they are getting themselves into, and do not feel let down or betrayed later when things are not as first described. This is about the employer having integrity. This can also screen out people that will not be appropriate for the job.
Consider post-interview briefing. How many times have you interviewed someone who is just wrong for the job, in terms of skill set, education, credentials, or temperament or presentation? People walk away from an interview like this without knowing how to improve themselves, and be better prepared. A post-interview email, or phone call can give people you turn away some direction for self-improvement. The benefit is this is the potential to produce a pool of potential employees who are going to have what you are looking for, and can also prevent people from feeling so disgruntled and demoralized.
Once you hire people, treat them well. Don’t insult their intelligence. Listen to your employees and value their opinion. In many workplaces, there is a rift between workers and management. Management has a macro view, workers have a micro view. Workers may have very effective ways of operating day to day, which conflict with policies that have been made in a vacuum, without consideration of the realities of the job, or are no longer applicable due to other systemic changes in the workplace. Ask your employees how they do things, and which polices and procedures work and do not work.
Train and prepare your workers. Don’t just tell them to strive for higher levels of excellence, or other corporate motivational poster nonsense. BTW: Get rid of the motivational posters- people laugh at them- they are not sources of motivation, but ridicule. Many of the corporate espirit de corps and team building efforts can backfire, especially if your employees are educated, mature professionals. I went to a required training one time where the presenter told us to clap our hands twice to show we understood whenever a point was made. Such theatrics are demeaning to adults, and unnecessary. Provide professionally delivered in-services to your employees, appropriate to their education and maturity level. Encourage your employees to read trade journals and relevant literature on their own, and take continuing education courses. Provide them with support and opportunities to do this.
Detect Burnout Early:
Burnout is insidious and gradual. Know the signs and symptoms, and provide assurance well in advance that you as an employer will work to support an employee who is suffering from burnout. Notice the following signs:
- Frequent absenteeism.
- Frequent tardiness.
- Lowered productivity or performance.
- A pattern of mistakes or minor accidents.
- A pattern of lack of energy, interest or enthusiasm.
- Emotional outbursts in the workplace.
- Unwarranted complaints toward the workplace, co-workers, and administration.
- Repeated complaints from co-workers, customers/clients directed at a specific employee.
It is also important not to over react and create an oppressive environment, where employees feel like they cannot vent frustration appropriately or occasionally, or can’t have the infrequent time where they are just not up to the task and need a break or day away. The above signs are associated with a pattern, not isolated events.
Deal with Burnout Appropriately
In the HS (Human Services) field, here is the ironic approach to dealing with burnout, at least in some places: Fire the employee at the first sign of, or admission of burnout. I say ironic because the HS field is supposedly about patience, tolerance, compassion, and understanding. In too many workplaces, these values are just not applied to employees. A referral for counseling through an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) may be indicated. Failure to handle burnout appropriately will send a message that will be counterproductive to employee morale. As an employer, you can also lose good people, and experience the added expense of increased turnover, or a bad reputation in the professional community.
Commentary by Dr. Carlo Carandang:
It is important for employers to prevent burnout in employees, as this can confer a significant increase in productivity and efficiency, thereby increasing profits and improving client services. However, employers can’t just pay lip service to helping their employees- it requires the CEO and executive team to put their money where their mouth is, and do the work and fund the expense of optimizing their employee output by helping them manage stress.