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How managers can spot burnout – and what they need to do to help employees

We’re talking more about burnout, and that’s a great thing – it’s vital we learn to spot the signs and take action to tackle it.

But so much of the conversation focuses on the individual struggling: how to work out if you’re on the brink of burnout, what you should do about it.

When you’re suffering from overwhelming stress, though, it’s hard to take the steps needed to look after yourself.

And with so much of that stress coming from our jobs, it’s vital that the people we work with get involved, too – whether that’s lightening workloads, remedying stressful office environments, or providing mental health support.

So, let’s address the managers and bosses. It’s you who needs to learn the signs of burnout in your staff, so they don’t have to take the difficult step of speaking up in order for you to make a change.

This isn’t just a kind thing to do (although that’s important) – it’s also good for your bottom line.

A burnt out team member is not going to deliver their best work, and may need significant time off to recover if their stress isn’t taken care of early on. If you want to deliver the best results, you need to check in on the people you manage and ensure they’re doing okay.

So, how do you do that?

Signs of employee burnout

Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks, tells ‘Unfortunately, many employees do not recognize burnout until it has been going on for a long time.

‘During that time, motivation for many things – particularly work – decreases, the symptoms become worse and the quality of one’s life declines.

‘Very often it takes someone else stepping in to make a difference.’

Some signs of burnout that managers can spot include:

  • A noticeable change in behaviour or attitude, such as increased negativity or cynicism
  • A struggle to focus
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • A short temper
  • Making ‘silly’ mistakes
  • Frequent illness

What to do if you suspect someone you manage is experiencing burnout

‘The first thing for a manager to do when they notice a change in an employee’s behaviour change is to have a conversation,’ Paula explains. ‘The most important thing is to show that you are concerned, because you want the best for the employee.

‘Also be specific about the changes that you have observed. This can help set the stage for a honest recognition of the situation and prevent the denial and irritation that many come if the employee feels that your concerns are vague and unfounded.

‘When your employee understands that your intentions are to support them, then a conversation can begin about what that means.’

Ask what they need

Give the person space to ask for what they need – and to say what’s not helping.

Are they overwhelmed by excessive meetings? Is there just too much to do? Are they in need of more flexible working arrangements?

Listen without getting defensive.

Take concrete action

Once you’ve talked about what someone needs, do what you can to provide it.

‘This might mean reorganising work demands for a period of time or it could result in positive problem solving about how work is done on an ongoing basis, says Paula.

Sort out support

Paula suggests: ‘Managers can also be helpful by supporting the employee’s next step in self-care by recommending and describing the confidential services that are available through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

‘There is still stigma regarding needing any sort of help, but having information about the EAP from a manager who is in your corner helps, employees feel more comfortable in getting the help that they might need to deal with the burnout effectively and comprehensively.’

The pandemic has thrown up new challenges (Picture: Getty Images)

Change the culture

It’s worth asking yourself the big question: Is this person’s burnout an individual issue, or a symptom of a larger, workplace-wide problem?

Then, how can you start to challenge and change this?

Does your workplace need to offer more flexibility? Is there a problem with a lack of feedback? Is communication rubbish from the top down?

‘Motivation decreases with burnout, not because people no longer care about their work, but because they lack the energy to engage fully,’ says Paula. ‘Organisations need to create a culture where staff can not only share their concerns (making it easier for signs of burnout to be spotted) but feel empowered in navigating their own wellbeing.

‘Organisations should offer flexibility and tailor wellbeing solutions to the individual rather than a one size fits all policy. By putting greater autonomy in the hands of the employee, shows trust and empathy, which can reduce stress.’

Be mindful of why burnout is on the rise

‘The pandemic has changed the way we work and for many, it’s meant they’ve worked from home for a large part of the last two years,’ says Paula. ‘As restrictions are relaxed and employers encourage staff to return to the office, they must be mindful of the added stress this change can create.

‘Employers should be aware that burnout is an ongoing and significant issue. This shows itself in exhaustion and high sensitivity to stress.

‘We have also seen and increase in conflict and decrease in motivation due to feelings of being depleted. With this, flexibility, dialogue and support are key.

‘Data from our recent Mental Health Index found that more than one-quarter of Britons are unable to disconnect from work after usual work hours. A staggering 48% of workers blame this on having too much work to do during their workday.

‘Employers should be wary of staff’s workloads against the backdrop of changing work practices. With employees now readjusting to socializing, the commute and an office schedule, people can feel overwhelmed, so flexibility is key to this transition.’

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