How managers can help employees avoid burnout

Employee burnout is a hot topic for decision-makers right now, and with good reason. Especially in light of the significant and accelerated working practices which have resulted from COVID. 

A previously Gallup report from 2018 found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out ‘often or always’. Another 44% reported feeling it ‘sometimes’. In certain industries, such as tech, this figure rises to 60%. And that was post COVID. The resulting rates of burnout are so steep that the World Health Organisation has added it to their International Classification of Diseases.

Young professional female suffering from employee burnout with head on desk

Workplace changes are moving fast. Faster than any other time in human history. New roles are created and old roles become obsolete with each passing week. Employees are expected to keep pace with new technology in order to stay hireable. The lines between work and life are increasingly blurred as mobile phones make it harder for us to ‘switch off’. And the world outside of work feels less stable and predictable than it used to.

The World Health Organisation describes the effects of employee burnout on individuals as:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

On an individual level, employee burnout can lead to mental ill-health. But those negative effects are amplified at an organisational level, where burnout can have serious business consequences. Signs that businesses are struggling with burnout include:

  • Increased rate of employee turnover
  • Decreased productivity and an increase in errors such as missed deadlines
  • Increase in both presenteeism and absenteeism
  • Breakdown of personal and managerial relationships
  • Lack of participation in social activities
  • Low employee engagement

How can decision-makers help avoid employee burnout?

Managers have a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of their employees. High-performing employees want to be challenged and thrive under pressure but not at the expense of their health and wellbeing.

If managers want to help their employees to thrive in these fast-moving times, they need to put processes in place that both challenge and nurture. Here are six ways you can reduce the risk of burnout in your business.

Invite employee feedback

Managers who maintain an open channel of communication between employees and themselves will be more able to spot and resolve issues than managers who close themselves off.

On a personal level, scheduling regular one-to-ones with employees to see how they are will help you get a feel for how they’re coping and what support they need. It will also help build an open and honest relationship. Employees with managers who take the time to check-in with them may also feel more valued and appreciated.

On an organisational level, quarterly or bi-monthly engagement surveys are a great way for HR teams to get a feel for the level of pressure that employees are experiencing. If employees are reporting increased levels of stress or struggling to handle the tasks they’ve been assigned, this feedback can be passed onto managers who can then act on it.

Discourage an ‘always-on’ culture

The majority of employees will have a work phone or will sync their work emails to their personal phone. This can make it hard to ‘switch off’. It’s easy to get sucked into answering emails in the morning before work, in the evenings or on weekends.

But employees need time and space away from work to destress, unwind and regain their focus. Overwork has been proven to have a disastrous impact on productivity. The majority of managers would rather have employees who are focused and motivated during work hours than available 24/7 but rarely at their best.

For this reason, some managers discourage employees from answering non-essential emails outside of work hours. Or make it clear that answering emails outside of work isn’t required or even encouraged. Both of which help employees recharge when outside of work, so they can deliver their best work when they’re in work.

Help employees to manage their time

The average UK worker spends around 39 hours a week working. That may sound like plenty of time, but most workers spend 2.5 hours answering emails each day (if not more). And the average worker spends 35% of their working life in meetings, increasing to 50% for managers. Which leaves us relatively little time to actually do our job.

With this in mind, some managers are encouraging employees to opt-out of meetings if they don’t feel that they’re required or can add value. Managers are also encouraging employees to block out ‘offline’ time in their own calendars. During this time, employees aren’t expected to respond to emails or instant messenger.

These policies allow employees to focus on key tasks and prevents them from getting distracted by meetings, emails and IMs. Distraction and overwork have both been proven to have a negative effect on productivity and morale. By empowering employees to make decisions about how they use their time, you help them to focus their time on their most important tasks.

Encourage employees to take time off if they need to

Some employees will be more comfortable asking for time off than others. High-performers are often the least likely to ask for time off for mental health reasons. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most likely to suffer from burnout.

Managers who want to protect their employees from burnout should take steps to de-stigmatise asking for time off for mental health reasons. HR teams may want to create and share an internal policy for dealing with burnout that details who to ask for help, how to do so and the steps that the company will take to help them recover.

Managers should also consider how employees return to work. It’s no good giving someone time off and then putting them back in the exact same situation. Some companies phase an employees’ return to ease them into it. It can also be helpful to give employees who take time off for stress tips on how to manage questions from colleagues about where they’ve been.

Every employee will deal with burnout differently, and so it is important employees are encouraged to be aware of their own coping mechanisms and the support that is available to them. Managers should be able to signpost employees to services such as an Employee Assistance programme, occupational health or the employees GP.

Implement flexible working

Flexible working policies are increasingly commonplace. They help employees combat burnout in a number of ways. Firstly, as we’ve talked about before, they help employees to focus. Working in the office can be distracting. It’s easier to get sidetracked by impromptu discussions or dragged into meetings than it is when you’re working remotely. In fact, according to one survey, when asked to rate their productivity out of ten, home workers gave themselves 7.7, while office workers gave themselves 6.5.

Remote working also cuts down on travel time. The average UK commute is 54 minutes, which adds up to nearly two hours a day travelling to and from work. Working from home cuts out this time, giving employees more time to focus on core tasks and less time stuck in traffic. Travelling to work can in itself be quite stressful, as anyone who has to catch a busy commuter train or drive in rush hour traffic each morning will know.

Finally, a quiet home is typically a more calm environment than an office. The hustle and bustle of the modern workplace can be invigorating but it can also be overwhelming.

Help employees focus on their strengths

A common source of burnout is feeling like you’re under-performing or out of your depth. While it’s encouraged managers to challenge employees in order to help them grow and develop, you should also play to their strengths. Finding tasks that suit an employees skillset will increase the chance of them doing well. And everyone likes feeling good at their job.

Employees whose roles and responsibilities are constantly changing are more likely to feel overstretched. Learning new things is tough and takes time. Employees who are always having to adapt to new things may feel like they’re falling behind, even when they’re making good progress. Managers who are guiding employees through a period of change should try to balance familiar tasks with unfamiliar ones. And tasks which are likely to be challenging with tasks that are likely to be easier.

Sign the Time to Change Employer Pledge

Time to Change is a UK mental health charity that’s trying to end mental health discrimination and create a more open dialogue around mental health issues. Employers can sign up to their Employer Pledge, which is a commitment to changing how we think about and act toward mental health in the workplace. At the time of writing, over 900 UK businesses have signed up, including Ricoh UK.

One of the best parts of the Time to Change Pledge is their idea of having Wellbeing Champions in the workplace. These are people who are passionate about mental health and want to help the people around them. Champions are given training and materials that will help your business deal with mental health issues, reducing burnout, providing support and destigmatizing mental health conversations.

We can do more to prevent employee burnout

Work isn’t the only source of stress in our lives. In fact, work can be a source of fulfilment and pride. But overwork can leave us feeling drained, unhappy and unmotivated. Managers have a duty of care for employees and it’s more important than ever for managers to be able to spot the signs of employee burnout and have a plan for how to deal with it.

By listening to employees, empowering them and introducing clear policies that help them focus on tasks that they enjoy, managers can get the best out of their employees without risking their health and wellbeing. Click here to find more advice on Empowering your People.

Rebekah Wallis

Board Director - People & Corporate Responsibility and Ricoh UK

Read all articles by Rebekah Wallis