Responding to Employee Burnout
"We need to fire her."
My client was at the end of his rope with this employee. He went on to say that for the last three months, this employee hadn't been performing. She was unorganized and losing simple details in projects. Even worse, she had lost faith in the rest of the team.
"She just hasn't been the same since we added more clients to her plate."
That was my thoughtful and strategic response. As I asked the manager to tell me more, he went on to explain that she was given some very large and even difficult clients. This increased her workload substantially. Since the addition, she not only was less productive, but also less engaged in her work.
This situation can feel familiar - and frustrating to us as leaders and managers. We give a strong performer more - perhaps more work, higher responsibility, etc. - only to see a drop in their typically great performance that we've grown to love.
What this particular client and I came to realize is similar to what many of you have discovered in your own work or in the work of others - that this wasn't a performance issue but rather a burnout issue.
In this particular situation, the employee's workload was well beyond her capacity. But burnout doesn't only involve increased work. It can also arise because of a decrease in control - unable to have input into decisions that impact work and capacity. Or additional longer term stressors such as difficult boss or co-workers, as well as lack of challenges at work.
Regardless of the issue, burnout involves ongoing stress and frustration at work that leads to feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment from others, and lack of accomplishment. As my client realized, burnout can impact our performance at work. As leaders and managers, it is important to recognize these signs, as well as support the employee.
Look in the mirror. Burnout symptoms, if gone unaddressed, can catch us off guard. Before we confront the employee on their lack of performance, consider what some of the unintended consequences are of your leadership style. Answering emails late into the night or the early AM might signify to the employee that it is expected that they work 24/7. Talking consistently about how "busy" you are may show that busy-ness is the norm.
Talk beyond the job. The quantity and quality of your one-on-one conversations truly do matter. If we're not talking frequently, we won't have the chance to build the trust and rapport to have a deeper conversation when these burnout symptoms appear. I had a similar call from a client who had a drop in performance from one of their team members - that coincided with the loss of a close family member. The leader had never considered the toll this might have taken on the employee.
Get the team involved. Consider how the team might support the employee or be an influence to the burnout. In one past situation, the employee had isolated herself after ongoing inappropriate comments from a male colleague. By removing the colleague, and surrounding the employee with a more supportive team, that employee continues to flourish.
Review workload. Workload can typically be the root of the problem. Sit down and review what they're working on and how they prioritize. Think of their work in four distinct buckets - work that must get done by the employee, work that can be delegated to others, and work that can be delayed or deleted.
Give them permission to control. Burnout can stem when we feel we lack control in our work. In this situation, the employee felt she needed to schedule overlapping meetings to accommodate the customer. The manager helped her set boundaries to better control her work and schedule.
Ensure they're aligned. They might be doing work that isn't challenging or isn't a match to their strengths or even their values. People perform best when they are able to bring what they do best to the table.
If you truly believe that the health of your employees matters, ensure you're considering their mental health and overall well-being when you see a change in their performance. Your involvement can help improve their overall productivity and engagement in and outside of work.