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Preventing Employee Burnout

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Stress in the workplace can be hurtful to both employees and organizations. Learn how to deal with stress and avoid burnout in your best employees.
Employee stress and burnout imperil individual employees and the health of a business. It's often the best employees that experience burnout first or most severely. Burnout can be prevented by some structural and cultural changes in the workplace. Employees can take responsibility for dealing with their own stress. Several approaches are presented on how to deal with stress and avoid burnout.
Duration: 12:47 Audio MP3
© 2009 St. Louis Community College
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Transcript

I'd like to talk with employers about employee burnout. If you're an employee, it's OK to listen in. Later I'll be talking directly to employees, and it's also OK if employers listen in.

These days, when more employers are calling upon their employees to do more with less, there seems to be a rise in employee burnout. This podcast is about identifying and dealing with burnout on the job. But first, what is burnout?

Burnout results when individuals experience increasing amounts of negative stress. Stress itself is a neutral event, and it is up to the employee to interpret the stress as either being helpful or unhelpful. For example, you can have two employees each with the same job assignment and deadline, and each of them interprets the stress associated with the deadline differently. The employee who sees the stress positively feels motivated, energized, and excited. He or she is motivated to put in the extra work and hours to do their best work. They feel a strong sense of accomplishment when they are done.

The employee who interprets the stress as negative, feels instantly overwhelmed, irritable, and starts to worry. They most likely put the same amount of work into the project, but it is done out of fear and obligation and not out of purpose and meaning. At the end of the project, he or she will feel drained and will not likely be very energized for the next project. Put enough of these projects and their negative stresses together and you have an employee heading for burnout.

Why should an employer care if an employee is burned out or not?

1.) The employees most likely to develop burnout are the best employees. The organization's superstar employees are more likely to feel burnout because they usually put more of themselves into their job, spend more quality time at work, and take work more seriously and personally. An employee that does not take his work personally will not likely experience burnout. Burnt out employees are employees that care, and only caring employees are going to experience burnout.

2.) The superstar employee who is burnt out is likely to be the last to see it. Furthermore, before they correct the problem, they will likely do all the wrong things to try to correct it themselves. They might increase the amount of time they spend at work, become more personally involved in their work, and increase the amount of effort they put into their job. Their methods of coping are likely to only make the problem worse and not better because they are attempting to outperform their stress. For example, a sales person that attempts to sell more product each month is likely to be heading for burnout when she doesn't realize that other aspects of her job might be just as important as her sales numbers. Employees who attempt to outperform their stress usually end up feeling discouraged and quit at some point. When this occurs, the employer has lost one of their best employees.

3.) Employees who report experiencing a high level of stress are three times more likely to suffer from frequent illness. The experience of burnout is a stressful event in and of itself, so an employee who is burnt out has not only the original stress to deal with, but also the stress of being burnt out.

4.) Burnout is a relatively easy problem to resolve. It usually doesn’t require formal counseling, medication, or a trip to the family doctor. It's also possible to recover from a mild case of burnout within a day, or at the most a few days. If an employee has not resolved his or her burnout within a week or two they may not be experiencing burnout at all, but a case of depression. Clinical depression can mimic the symptoms of burnout, but clinical depression will also affect the person at home and burnout usually is a workplace problem. On the other hand, it's not unusual for someone's unresolved workplace stresses to spill over into their home environment, with negative effects on the family.

How can an employer help an employee who is experiencing burnout?

1.) Organizations can create an atmosphere that promotes employee health; one that emphasizes balance along with productivity. One company rented out a movie theater once a month so all their employees could watch as many movies as they wanted to for a day. Their employees went back to work feeling cared about and more energetic. Your company may not need to rent a movie theater; the point is, a good way to burn off stress and to re-energize employees is with fun and laughter. In fact, it can be the best way. How can your organization build some fun and laughter into the workplace?

2.) Create job diversity for employees that have to perform repetitive tasks. This is not only good for the employee but also for the company to have their employees crossed trained. That way if one employee has to take a day off or even an extended leave, others are there that know how to perform their duties. Have you given any thought about which functions could best be cross-trained, and which employees should be selected?

3.) Keep employees involved. One way to decrease burnout is to increase the amount of control that an employee has in his work. Employees who feel they have a choice in what they are doing, even if it is a small choice, are more likely to feel better about what they are doing. Think of where small choices can be added to an employee's day.

4.) Encourage employees to chat with each other informally and frequently at work. Chatting about non-work related events is one way in which employees can decrease and prevent burnout at work. Even when they do talk about work-related situations, they can release some tension and perhaps generate ideas about how to improve on what they're doing. Do you have an employee lounge or some other area where employees can relax during the day? It's counter-intuitive, but more relaxed employees can turn out to be more productive in the long run.

5.) Lastly, make sure you are not trying to do too much with too little. It's okay for an organization to ask employees to give 110% occasionally, but not every day. So make sure that your company is staffed appropriately, provides competitive personal leave and vacation benefits, and that you remember to recognize and reward employees for their accomplishments and contributions.

OK, here's the part where I talk directly to employees. It's about preventing and ridding yourself of burnout:
Here's some good news:

You are probably not burnt out due to your work or boss directly, but you are experiencing burnout by how you are coping with both the negative and positive stress in your job. Since you can rarely escape stress, it is extremely important to learn how to change the stress that you feel into either a neutral or positive force in your life.

Here are some suggestions on how you can change stress into a positive or neutral experience:

1.) One way to change stress is to change the way in which we interpret any stressful event. We change how we interpret an event by changing how we think about the event. Instead of saying, "I can't do this, it won’t work out," it is better to say, "I will break this project down into small steps and talk with my boss later to negotiate more time." Even slightly changing how we "choose" to evaluate an event, will greatly decrease the amount of burnout we feel. Try to eliminate words and phrases such as, "hate," "can't stand it," "no way," etc... Make a list of those negative words or phrases that you most often use, then mentally flag them each time you say them, and replace them with a more neutral word or phrase.

2.) Try to have some fun at work. You don't need to throw a party, but you can have fun by talking with a co-worker, listening to music, and by just increasing those tasks that you do enjoy at work. Attempt to complete tasks that you don’t enjoy as soon as possible, so you don’t think about them all day long, and have them hanging over your head. If you honestly can't find anything you enjoy about your work, you might not be experiencing burnout at all, but a true feeling of needing a new job.

3.) Work to create job diversity for yourself. If you go in the same door every day, sit at the same desk, and start the day off with the same phone calls, that's a routine that can easily lead to boredom. Add some job diversity to your day; for example, ask to change your start time, redecorate your office or cube, and ask to take on new job tasks. I said new, not more! Don't ask to take on additional busy work, but ask to take on a new assignment you think you will enjoy.

4.) Realize that one reason that you are burned out might be because you are a creative person whose creativity is not being used. So, be creative. Wear a unique necktie or outfit so you get some positive comments from co-workers. Be creative by looking at the work you are doing and thinking about how to modify it or improve it. Take these ideas to your supervisor and show her how they will increase productivity or save the company money.

5.) Ask for some control in your job. If you need permission to take control, ask your employer to take a risk by allowing you to take control over your job for one week to see if production increases. If they won’t allow complete control, look for a way to gain control only over one small aspect of your job. Then slowly ask for more and more until you have as much as you want.

Stress is a normal part of life, and certainly of work, but you don't have to allow your stress to overwhelm you and cause you to burn out. A combination of structural changes in the organization, the work flow, and more autonomy for employees can make a positive difference in a stressful work place and prevent employee burnout.