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The Startup

When Employees Burn Out

Navigating Hard Realities with Compassion in a COVID World

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

I used to work with this guy, Brad. When he got frustrated, he would just pound his keyboard.

You’d hear the furious clicking and clacking of keys in the next row of cubes, across the office, on the far side of our cube farm near the windows … even if you called into the office from the road.

When the keys went quiet, we’d wonder what was going on with Brad.

But, he had one of those pole cubes. It was really hard to see Brad without peering around the pole and then committing to starting a conversation.

So, we’d just stare and we’d never go over to investigate or ask.

Looking back, that wasn’t the right thing to do.

Let’s Talk About Employee Burnout

This isn’t the kind of article that’s going to help you find the Brads in your office — or on your Zoom call. You already know who they are. And you probably already avoid them, whether they have the pole cube or not.

But, maybe it’s time we had a chat about employee burnout.

It’s real.

We’ve all seen people there. We’ve all been there too.

The studies from the Big 4 haven’t come out yet, but I bet more people are burnt out now than before — with the pandemic, social distancing, working from home, remote schooling. An eternity of Zoom calls. Well, you get the idea.

Burnout costs us energy, and money, and people. Ignoring burnout actually causes more burnout.

How Big of a Problem Is Employee Burnout?

In 2018, Gallup asked nearly 7,500 full-time employees about burnout. They found that two of every three employees felt burnt out at least sometimes.

One of every four reported being burnt out often or all the time.

Maybe that’s not very surprising. And, this was in 2018, when we still had diversions and our worlds spilled out beyond the square footage of our houses.

Why Should We Care?

We spend the majority of our waking lives working. We want those hours to mean something. We want to work with people who aren’t burnt out, who don’t sap our energy.

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

These days, we don’t have a lot of excess energy to be sapped.

But, beyond these very valid reasons, addressing burnout and preventing it in the first place makes financial sense too.

Beyond broken keyboards and hurt feelings, those burnt-out employees are 63% more likely to call in sick even when they’re not. And, they’re 2.6 times more likely to be looking for a new job, according to Gallup research. What’s more, a full 91% of employees say high levels of workplace stress and frustration impact workplace performance.

That goes beyond that vortex of negativity swirling around the office’s water cooler talk or those post-meeting Zoom wrap-ups that are really just about doubling the number of people we’ll connect with in a day.

Burnt-out employees are disengaged and distracted. They’re not getting their tasks done efficiently. Or, worst-case scenario, they’re pushing those deliverables and milestones off to other team members, who might be edging closer to burnout themselves.

Burnout is contagious. And, like a disease, it eats away at the health of your workplace and workforce.

Where Does Burnout Come From?

In its 2018 Burnout Survey, Deloitte asked 1,000 full-time corporate employees in the US where burnout comes from. Their top three answers came up nearly equally:

1. Lack of Support or Recognition from Leadership

Nearly one-third, 31%, of employees cite ineffective leadership as a key source of burnout. And that makes sense. We all make sacrifices to show up and to deliver what’s needed. We want to matter. Money may get us to accept a job, but it’s not a good motivator. We give vast amounts of our time, effort, and knowledge to our jobs. We want to know that our contributions are both recognized and valued.

2. Deadlines And Expectations That Don’t Make Sense

It’s not just leadership’s support in the execution of a project and its recognition of the project after completion that matter, it’s also leadership’s set-up of the project that counts too. Assigning deadlines or expectations that aren’t possible or, worse, reflect leaders’ misunderstanding of a project, doesn’t push people to succeed, it makes them give up before they start. And 30% of respondents identified this as a leading source of employee burnout.

3. Weekend Work (And Other Long Hours)

People need to recharge. While there’s value in stretch goals and challenging deliverables, consistently demanding weekend work and other long and late hours from employees leads to burnout, according to 29% of survey respondents.

What to Do About Burnout

Motivating employees and keeping them engaged starts at the top, with leaders. As leaders, we’ve heard the advice in every flavor of management training course we’ve gotten in each company where we’ve worked:

  • Support and recognize your employees.
  • Set deadlines that make sense.
  • Level-set expectations.
  • Make time for employees to live their lives.

It sounds simple, right?

But, burnout still exists.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Leaders matter. A lot — and especially now. But leaders have managers too. And sometimes burnout is endemic in an organization. What then?

We can only ‘manage up’ so much, before we have to ‘manage down’ and get things done.

It’s hard enough to get our own jobs done, without also doing the jobs of those in higher pay scales.

As leaders and employees, we have to accept some people in our work lives for who they are — and who they aren’t. Some bosses will never recognize effort and performance. Others will never understand how to set a reasonable deadline and project budget.

But, there are things we can do at our own level to combat the specter of employee burnout:

1. Control What You Can

Set the rules for your galaxy, if not your universe. You may not set the rules for your department, division, company — whatever — but use the autonomy and authority you do have to create the environment you need for your project. Develop fair workplans. Assign fair workloads. Give people the right amount of time to get the project done, and for reviewers to review deliverables. Don’t waste weekday business hours at the expense of late night and weekend hours later.

2. Dial Down the Drama

Manage the personalities on your projects. Consider which people work well together and which don’t. If your project has time for teachable moments where co-workers learn to overcome their differences and work together for the common good, great. If — like most projects — it doesn’t have that time, design your project assignments so that tasks are assigned not only based on skillsets and competencies, but also by synergies and personalities.

3. Stay Vigilant. Watch for Burnout

Read the tea leaves. Watch for burnout and act on it before it surfaces. Maybe it’ll be Brad hitting the keys in the pole cube, or Kim snapping at co-worker questions, or Fred skipping lunch. Burnout can surface in many ways. Watch for it. Talk with those involved. Act on it. Most importantly, don’t let it lie. Burnout spreads like disease.

Burnout is real, and it comes with real economic and psychological costs. It’s hard to protect our workplaces against burnout. And no one fix will work in every workplace. But, by treating people like humans, managing with reason, intuition, and empathy, and by recognizing the contributions that people bring, we can go a long way in motivating those who work with and for us. And we can make our workplaces not just more enjoyable, but more productive as well.





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Ryan W Owen

Ryan W Owen

Writer / Photographer / Linguist / MBA