What to do about Employee Burnout

Feb 24, 2015

As a manager or executive, it is your role to keep your company running smoothly. Executives pour over annual reports and worry incessantly about the organization’s financial health. But what about the emotional health of the company? Your goal is to maximize retention, and one factor that figures into this formula is employee burnout.

Burnout will result in turnover, and turnover will affect your bottom line. Current research indicates that four out of five workers experience burnout in their jobs. That figure rises to 86% among millennials. Are you able to recognize the signs of employee burnout and do you know what you can do about it?

Take Your Company’s Temperature

Just like you have an annual physical, your company also needs an annual health check-up. This means you need to evaluate your employees with an eye towards the warning signs of burnout. Many companies use SurveyMonkey or their own anonymous surveys to get employee feedback. Surveys can help gauge employee satisfaction and can be done routinely with minimal disruption. However, I am convinced one of your best tools is the routine performance review.

During the review process, you should take time to read between the lines and evaluate more than just performance. Look at the employee’s goals and progress towards them. An unexplained discrepancy between the two may signal employee burnout.

Does the employee seem frustrated or overly critical of the company, policies, or co-workers? Do they seem to lack motivation? Has the employee indicated he is dissatisfied with any tasks associated with the job or any company policy? Has the employee been using more sick time lately?

These are all red flags that warn of employee burnout. They signaling that your retention rate is about to drop. When any of these employee burnout indicators are seen, is there anything the company can do to help?

Things That Make Matters Worse

Don’t ignore the problem. Ignoring stressors on the job contributed to the burnout. Continuing to ignore them won’t make things better. Don’t try to keep up a normal façade by continuing to add additional assignments or responsibilities. That’s like dragging a drowning victim into deeper water.

Don’t expect the employee to “pull out of it.” Employees who are in the throes of burnout generally have tunnel vision. The only solution they see at the end of the abyss is to quit and find something else. This is not the solution you want, nor is it always the best remedy for the employee.

Recovering from employee burnout generally requires some time. Immediately jumping into a new job won’t bring the relief anticipated and will likely create even more stress.

Things That Make Matters Better

Do you have a company EAP and representative? Your employee may be receptive to professional counseling. In addition, see if you can identify factors that contributed to the employee’s burnout. A major element in burnout is a negative work-life balance.

Do your employees spend long hours at the office with emails chasing them home? This is common practice in many organizations. You might consider a cut-off period, after which no employees are expected to send or answer company emails.

There is probably more than one employee burnout trigger. Ask the employee directly if there is anything you could do to relieve some job stress or increase job satisfaction. Having more control over her schedule or workload might alleviate burnout in some situations. How is the department or team functioning? Is poor management or a dysfunctional personnel situation contributing to the stress? Maybe some changes are in order.

Consider the social climate. Is the employee in a position where he is isolated from others? Many upper management and C-suite executives are prone to employee burnout due to the isolation that is inherent in their jobs. Perhaps another executive could be assigned as a mentor or coach to provide empathy and support.

Would a vacation help? Yes! Very often some time away from work will allow an employee time to renew and de-stress. Along those same lines, perhaps telecommuting and allowing flex time could also provide some relief.

Do you have a company gym, or does your company sponsor organized group activities like jogging or biking? Exercise kicks in endorphins that can provide some relief. Invite the employee to participate in some physical activity with you or as part of a workgroup.

The idea is to make some change. Any change! The tunnel vision associated with employee burnout is magnified when the worker feels that nothing will ever change.

Remember the Little Things

So often in life, little things you say and do make a big difference. If you suspect an employee is suffering from burnout, reach out to them. Be sure to point out his current accomplishments and express your appreciation for his past successes.

No one ever receives enough praise; honest praise is always appropriate. You can also offer to help lighten the load. Say, “I have a little bit of free time. How about I help you finish off (whatever)?” Then do it! Hand out some movie tickets or gift cards for dinner, and tell the employee you are going to cover for her so she can leave early and go out with the family. Insist!


Although stress and burnout are found in all jobs, we know that employee burnout in many jobs is almost a certainty. No one can continue indefinitely in a position where hours are long and expectations are high. Or, can they? Is there anything that may inoculate workers and keep them emotionally healthy? The cure lies in changing how we lead people. Employers who placed among Fortune magazine’s “Top 100 Places to Work,” all have one thing in common. They have put into place incredibly supportive management practices. You have to trust your employees and treat them like people—not like equipment.

Company perks are proven to increase retention and are geared towards relieving stress. Keep an eye on Netflix, the Virgin Group and Aptify; all of whom have implemented unlimited vacation time. These companies assume employees can be trusted to take only the time they need and to take it at a time that won’t negatively impact the company or other workers.

Apple encourages teams to have fun outings. Managers occasionally use part of the work day to take their teams skiing, diving, to an amusement park, or any number of other activities the group might suggest. This is not only a team building exercise, but it also acts as a built-in pressure relief valve.

SAS in Cary, NC has a 35-hour standard work week. Employees enjoy subsidized cafeterias and free snacks, as well as a health care facility and a pharmacy on site. Tax preparation and dry cleaning are also available on the SAS campus. And everyone has a private office. The idea is to show employees respect and minimize stressors that may affect job satisfaction.

Another perk common in the Top 100 is the availability of a paid or unpaid sabbatical. A sabbatical allows employees to have a change of pace and pursue other interests while keeping a foot planted in their current job.

This is all part of a management philosophy that is meant to support employees in every way possible. It proves to employees that they are important—that they are trusted, valued and appreciated.

Make Positive Change

Remember the stat given earlier? Four out of five workers experience burnout in their jobs. At some point, almost everyone feels career burnout. It’s one of the unfortunate side effects that comes with every job. Some employees have a good emotional foundation and inherently have better coping skills. Others have better social support and are able to vent stressors and relieve burnout.

Many employers have perks in place that are meant relieve stress. However, in the end there are times when there is no cure for burnout and an employee decides to move on. In these cases, there is often no blame. You can do everything right and employees can still burnout.

If you lose an employee to burnout, realize that this is probably not an isolated case. You likely have other workers who are at some stage of employee burnout. Resolve to reevaluate your workplace. Are there are any improvements your company could make to increase employee satisfaction? Are there programs you could start to help employees develop coping skills?

Little things can make a big difference. Be empathetic. Offer support. Be generous with praise and offer kind words to all. Do things that show each employee he is special and is important to your company. Everyone needs to feel they are valued. And be sure to make some positive changes. Even a subtle change can help an employee see light at the end of the tunnel.

About the Author

Charlie Kimmel

As President and CEO, Charlie has dedicated his 25+ year career to executive search at Kimmel & Associates. Charlie began his career at Kimmel & Associates in 1990 as a Recruiter. In 1993, he graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he received a BA in History.

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