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Uncomfortable (but Necessary) Conversations About Burnout

Uncomfortable (but Necessary) Conversations About Burnout

by E.Beth Hemphill

Story Highlights

  • 3 out of 4 employees feel burned out on the job at least sometimes
  • Burnout signs and symptoms often go unnoticed and unsolved
  • Managers should aim to alleviate employee stress and remove roadblocks

Picture this: You’ve just left a meeting where you and four of your team members spent time talking about upcoming projects and expectations.

Statistically speaking, three out of those four team members likely feel burned out on the job at least some of the time.

Gallup has discovered that 76% of employees experience workplace burnout at least sometimes. That’s a big number -- three out of four employees.

But what’s really alarming is when you think about your own team within that context.

That’s when it becomes more than a statistic. You can envision the faces of struggling employees, the names that they carry and the other roles (e.g., parent, mentor, friend) that form their identities.

In other words: Burnout is felt individually but can affect organizations holistically.


Burnout is not just an inconvenience -- poor wellbeing affects your organization’s bottom line through lower productivity, higher turnover, higher absenteeism and higher medical costs (due to preventable conditions) and can cost organizations 15%-20% of total payroll in voluntary turnover costs, on average, due to burnout.

The long-term effects of burnout on individual employees? They take more sick days, feel less confident in their performance and are more likely to actively seek another job.

Burnout Solutions? One Size Doesn’t Fit All.

Managers must have routine and authentic conversations with employees about burnout. In your check-in conversations -- the conversations when an employee and their manager review successes, barriers and priorities -- consider adding burnout as a topic.

In other words: Burnout is felt individually but can affect organizations holistically.

These conversations should be as custom to an employee as conversations about receiving recognition, work-from-home preferences or individual strengths. While there are best practices to consider, there should also be a uniqueness and individual standard for recognizing the signs and symptoms of burnout.

According to the World Health Organization, general burnout signs in employees include:

  • depletion or exhaustion
  • being mentally distant from their job or having negative feelings or cynicism about their job
  • having reduced professional efficacy

But for most managers or leaders to truly know how these burnout signs present themselves in individual employees, they need to ask about it more frequently in conversations.

Talk to Your Employees About Burnout Before They Talk to You

Don’t wait until your employees initiate a conversation about burnout. Whatever they’re saying they feel today, they were probably feeling weeks ago, but today mustered the courage to talk with you about it. When someone vocalizes burnout to you, you should assume it’s gotten worse -- and keep having conversations.

In each of these check-in conversations, aim toward one of the following outcomes: 1) alleviate their stress, 2) make sure they have the tools they need to succeed or 3) remove roadblocks.

Here are four conversations to try.

  • Authentic conversations about employee workload: Ask, “When you go home, do you think about work? If so, are you anxious about it and feel like you’re missing something, or are you inspired and excited to get back at it?” In other words, has work become more burdensome than beneficial to them? Ask them to describe what’s on their short- and long-term work to-do list. Help them prioritize and remove things from their plate if necessary.
  • Realistic conversations about employee wellbeing needs: Ask honestly, “Are you OK?” Discuss where the root cause of their worry or stress is coming from. It may be work, home, finances, relationships, etc. Discuss each element of their wellbeing and ask, “If I could do something to help in one of these areas, what would you have me do?” Be prepared to help.
  • Supportive conversations about partnership and advocacy: Ask, “When you are feeling burned out, do you feel like you have someone to talk to about those feelings?” When they answer, consider the following: Can the person they mentioned actually help alleviate their burden? Consider how you can step in to be that advocate and partner for your employee.
  • Detailed conversations about their personal burnout symptoms: Ask them, “When you start to feel burned out, how do you feel? How do your responses or relationships change? What’s the first sign I should watch for?” Giving an employee the chance to reflect on their burnout cues and communicate them directly to their manager can offer them a lot of reassurance.

When someone vocalizes burnout to you, you should assume it’s gotten worse -- and keep having conversations.

The Faces and Sounds of Burnout

Burnout isn’t always obvious. As you have the conversations mentioned above, you should be listening intently to what and how the employee communicates. Especially watch for physical symptoms that an employee may be dealing with workplace burnout. Everyone (including managers) experiences burnout differently -- and the best leaders are mindful that their personal experiences and circumstances may be very different from those of their direct reports.

With this in mind, the first step in noticing burnout signs is to understand that burnout looks and sounds different for everyone.

Some common “faces” of burnout for individuals may include:

  • looking tired or withdrawn
  • consistently bearing a different countenance than normal
  • self-isolating when faced with many tasks
  • looking angry or frustrated more frequently (and not trying to hide it)

Some common sounds of burnout for individuals may include:

  • responding with irritation
  • softening their feelings with words or phrases like “overwhelmed” or “a little bit tired”
  • outrightly sharing they are stressed, anxious or struggling
  • referencing having a difficult time “balancing” or “prioritizing”

To know your employees is to know how they react and respond in times of stress. Managers and leaders can’t watch from the sidelines and wait until burnout affects their bottom line. They need to notice it long before then. If they wait until productivity or financials suffer:

1) It will be much harder to turn the effects of employee burnout around when it’s escalated.

2) It may beg the question, “If your employees were struggling or suffering, but it didn’t affect the financial outcomes of your organization, would you still care?”

To be fair, most managers aren’t blatantly ignoring the signs of burnout -- they just don’t know how to identify them. But employees may not know that, which is why having individual conversations with employees is vital.

Moving Past Discomfort to True Change

As a manager, as uncomfortable as it may be, you’ll have to be OK with your employees saying they need more from you in any of these conversations. Set aside the time and space to continually and frequently have these conversations -- you and your employees can put together a plan to move forward, together.

Whether your employees are struggling to hang on and produce quality work or are passionate and highly engaged workers who go the extra mile, every employee needs the opportunity to freely share their thoughts, opinions and struggles. Touching base with their manager will do just that.

When in doubt, have the conversation -- your employees and your organization will be better for it.

Learn how to deal with burnout in your organization:


E.Beth Hemphill is a content lead at Gallup.

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