Workplace & culture

Coming back from burnout

Learn how to support employees coming back from burnout. Discover proactive strategies to prevent and address burnout in the workplace effectively.

How HR can support an employee returning to work 

Employee burnout is far from being a peripheral problem. Rather, it has reached record levels. 52% of respondents to a recent Indeed survey reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% pre-pandemic. Additionally, nearly 60% of leaders report feeling used up at the end of the day, a very strong indicator of burnout as well. The fact is, employee burnout has become the main event, and it demands your attention.  

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about one’s competence and value as an employee. If you have a top-notch employee showing up late, tired, anxious, or in a bad mood, you may want to investigate further. 

If this sounds like your staff, it’s time to get proactive. Not just because it’s the human thing to do, but because burnout sabotages workplace retention, engagement, productivity, and ultimately, your bottom line. From unfair compensation to unrealistic workloads and poor management, the culprits are many. 

How to prevent burnout in the first place 

As they say, prevention is the best cure. Here’s how you can offer meaningful support to staff who might be heading toward burnout but are not there yet! Bonus: paying more attention to the well-being of your staff is likely to increase your own wellbeing too.  

Hold outdoor meetings 

Sitting in one spot all day without access to fresh air and movement affects both productivity and morale. Consider holding a weekly outdoor meeting, or a small-group walking meeting a couple of times a month. After all, strolling promotes focus and clarity. Just be sure to have an agenda to keep things focused. 

Offer (and encourage) mental health days 

Particularly during busy periods, stress increases and morale does the opposite. Whenever possible, encourage your employees to take a mental health day. The mere knowledge that you support mental health days can alleviate any anxiety they may have about requesting one. 

Take time off seriously 

If yours is a culture of fear around taking vacation time, that needs to change. Encourage employees to use their allotted vacation and check regularly to ensure everyone is doing so. Find ways of offering support if someone feels they’re unable to take a vacation without the office falling apart. 

Communicate, always 

Some employees may hold back discussing their struggles at work because they worry they’ll be judged incompetent. In many cases, however, burnout can be prevented with some regular checking in on your part and the development of a genuine rapport. Quality communication also involves giving helpful feedback as well as asking for feedback on how to run things better. As well, always include employees in decisions that affect them! 

Set a positive example 

Encouraging work-life balance for your employees is a lot easier if you’re also living it. Determine what kind of balance your company can afford, and go there. You might offer peaceful offline spaces in-office, close early for the holidays, or even bring in an office masseuse on designated days. Perhaps most importantly in the case of remote work, only message people during their work hours. 

Don’t overload your staff 

When creating your staff schedule, it’s natural to consider your bottom line, but you must also consider employee wellbeing or your bottom line will struggle anyway. Do your best to distribute responsibilities fairly, and take it easy on last-minute requests, as those can cause burnout regardless of the volume of work being assigned. 

Be flexible whenever possible 

It’s one thing to enforce rules for a purpose. But if employees have shown they can accomplish quality work from home, there is no reason to insist that everyone be onsite every day. Different people are also more productive at different hours. If flexible scheduling is an option for your company, don’t hesitate to integrate some telecommuting. Not only does it save money and time in gas and commutes, but it shows your employees you trust them to manage their time. 

Foster community…outside the office 

Employees who know one another and like one another are happier, more motivated, and less likely to burn out and leave. You might hold the occasional non-work event during work hours, such as a weekly social, to give employees a reason to leave their desks and mingle. You might also schedule holiday celebrations, birthday parties, or nights out as a team. Fact: there’s nothing like karaoke to forge an unbreakable bond! 

How to help an employee who is burnt out  

Once an employee has already reached the point of burnout, chances are high that they need a break. When an employee comes back from burnout, there are things you can do to show support and make reintegration as painless as possible. Your employees need to feel you care about them and not just their performance. It’s important to emphasize the positive aspects of the work and find ways of helping them enjoy being there. 

Here are some tips for helping employees that are burnt out: 

Put mental health at the top of your list 

Mental health has already been mentioned, but it can’t be said enough. Similar to other types of workplace training, bring in mental health professionals to offer confidential group and one-on-one sessions to anyone interested. Additionally, train managers to identify employees who might need some added support, and find non-invasive ways to check in with them.  

Offer rewards…just because 

While performance-based rewards have their place, if all rewards were based on performance, burnout would be guaranteed. Come up with some rewards geared at simply showing your appreciation. It could be a gift card, a casual dress day, extra break time, bonus vacation hours, or new and amazing snacks. Showing appreciation for your employees in small but frequent ways can go a long way toward relieving stress and improving retention. 

Is it time for a more flexible work arrangement?

Avoid being reactive 

If an employee is making snide comments, getting their work done late, or acting resentful, they may be trying to communicate that something’s amiss. This is far more likely if these behaviors are out of character, of course. The best thing you can do is avoid assumptions and quick punitive reactions. Instead, talk to the employee privately, and seriously consider what they have to say without taking it personally. 

Remember that your employees have other obligations too 

Crazy notion: learn to value the other jobs an employee has to do that aren’t for you. You may have employees who are working a second job or doing freelance work just to make ends meet. Maybe you aren’t able to pay a living wage. If so, this is a problem that should be at the top of your priority list. Or, they may only be part-time. While other obligations shouldn’t interfere with their work for you, try to be sensitive. Check in with your employee to see how they’re doing. 

Give the gift of goals 

While it probably isn’t possible for every job to offer the opportunity for a promotion, it may still be possible to create goals your employees can work toward. These might include chances at a wage increase, opportunities to attend conferences, and even the creation of micro-positions that allow for horizontal promotions

Assess your company culture 

In many instances, employee burnout can be linked to poor company culture, whether remote or onsite. Identify areas that need improvement and make a plan for changing them. You might promote a sense of humor in the office, or facilitate workplace friendships through group activities. Or, you could slow the pace of work by extending deadlines when possible. Finally, you might encourage clear communication between managers and employees, and ensure that company goals and expectations stay well-defined. 

Bottom line

As you may have noticed, there is a clear overlap between strategies for preventing burnout, and strategies for addressing it once it occurred. Why? Because it’s all connected, simply. Employee burnout doesn’t only happen when an employee has too much work. There is so much more to it than that, which is why there are so many different ways to counteract it. The important thing to remember is that employees who feel respected, heard, trusted, and part of a community are significantly less likely to experience burnout and more likely to remain integral members of your team.

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