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November 12, 2019
Brad Jamison

What is employee burnout? How to talk to your manager about burnout at work

You know that feeling when you’re trying to come up with an awesome idea for an important project and it feels like no matter what you do you can’t muster up even the smallest concept? Or when you’re trying to write an email update to the team but you can’t seem to type anything that makes sense. You’re exhausted and overworked it seems like everyone just keeps throwing more and more work on your plate. 

Sounds like you’re dealing with employee burnout. 

You’re not alone. About two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout and it generally happens after an extended time of working as hard as you possibly can without being invested or engaged in the work. 

If you’re not quite clear on what employee burnout is, how it’s different from normal, healthy stress, or you’re not convinced that burnout is even real, let us get you up to speed.

What is burnout at work?

The psychological definition of burnout is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”

To put it into terms we all understand, you’re over it

The causes of employee burnout can vary from workload to toxic work culture to feeling like there’s little reward in the work you're doing. The signs are sometimes hard to identify and many people confuse symptoms of burnout with everyday stress. 

Feeling stress is common and sometimes normal—it signals responsible engagement in meaningful work and can even improve cognitive function.

So what is burnout, then? Burnout at work is persistent, damaging emotional exhaustion. It stems from too many demands—and too little control and support.

The way we see it, if the feeling is fleeting or tied to a specific project, it's more likely to be stress. If you never feel ready to face your job, and it feels like projects have become impossible tasks, burnout is likely looming.

Other signs of burnout include:

  • Feelings of detachment
  • Lack of accomplishment 
  • Lowered productivity 
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion 

If this sounds like you, it might be time to face the facts and take the necessary steps to deal with employee burnout. The first step? Have a conversation with your manager.

Dealing with employee burnout 

You probably think it’s way easier said than done. And we get it.  

How are you—the employee—supposed to have a conversation with your boss where you’re telling them that they’ve worked you into the ground and you feel like you are so exhausted you have nothing to offer? 

And how are you—the manager—supposed to react to an employee coming to you with feelings of exhaustion and lack of enthusiasm for the work and find a solution that improves your entire culture without feeling overwhelmed? 

Even if your boss is the most relaxed person on Earth, we know this is a hard conversation to have—on both sides. But we’re here to help! Here are a few steps you can take to have a constructive discussion with your manager about employee burnout and vice versa.

How to talk to your manager about burnout

  1. Find your support system 

First things first, you don't have to go through this alone. You can start by opening up to a friend or your partner about what you've been experiencing. This is also a good way to gauge how you’re feeling. Sometimes all you need is someone you care about to say, hey, your feelings are valid.

Talking about how you're feeling might be difficult, but it's an important step to take to feel supported and confident while you’re having a difficult conversation about burnout at work with your manager. 

  1. Be clear and honest 

You know when you're gearing up for a conversation, and outside of the room, the voice your head is totally clear, you’re 100% in control of your emotions, and then you go inside the room and once you're on the spot everything changes?

Well, we want you to try to avoid that. If it helps, write down exactly what you want to say to your boss and keep it with you for reference during your meeting. That way, you don't downplay your experience. 

One time, I was gearing up for a tough conversation with someone I was dating. And while, sure, it was weird to bring a clipboard into a bar, as I read the list out loud, I realized it helped keep my emotions at bay and my points were made loud and clear.

Be honest and specific about what you need to remedy the situation (time off, specific projects moved off of your plate, more flexible hours, etc.) If it's reasonable and backed by doable solutions, it will be harder for your boss to refuse.

  1. Don’t worry about how it seems 

We tend to tell ourselves things that keep us from being honest. You might be thinking: if I talk to my boss about this, it probably seems like I don't know how to put in hard work, or maybe it seems like I'm whiny or ungrateful. But you're not, and it's probably time to reframe your thinking.

Psychology today refers to employee burnout as "being in a state of chronic stress." So, instead of thinking that employee burnout is just a buzzword, think of it as a terrible cold. If you're exhausted from a cold, you usually do what's necessary to heal (without fear of judgment), and this is the exact kind of attention and care you need to give yourself when you're dealing with employee burnout.

  1. Do what’s best for you

We know it might be challenging to put your to-do list to the side and prioritize your health and wellbeing, but dealing with burnout is hard, and taking a step back is critical in moving forward. Listen to your body and trust yourself to make decisions that serve you well. 

If you’re a manager, spotting employee burnout and talking to your team about solutions is crucial, and it can be hard to hear that someone on your team is suffering from employee burnout.

Still, just like an employee’s first step is talking to their manager, your first step is talking to your employees. 

How to talk to your employees about burnout

  1. Ask specific questions 

Like we said before, it can be hard for employees to determine if their feelings are stress-related or if they are reaching the point of burn out. If you notice the motivation in one of your employees has gone down, they could be dealing with employee burnout and you can ask specific questions to get to the bottom of their feelings. 

Questions like what are you working on right now? Is there anything you would change about your workload right now? Do you feel motivated when approaching your projects? Usually, asking specific questions about their workload and their feelings around the work will allow them to open up, and together, you both can come to a solution.

  1. Acknowledge their feelings

When an employee comes to you about burnout—or you notice an employee struggling with burnout at work, even if they don’t say it, you should let them know how important it is to you that they overcome this.

Let them know that you value them, you’re open to hearing from them, and that you support whatever they need to get through it. Let them know you’re going to take the necessary steps to help fix the problem and avoid it in the future.

  1. Discuss balance 

If an employee is struggling with their workload, they’ll sometimes work long and late hours or even weekends to get things done. Although this feels like showing up and working hard to the employee, and is certainly necessary from time to time, it’s a slippery slope to causing burnout. As a manager, you should encourage your employees to enforce a cut-off time. 

If you openly acknowledge and share that you don’t want your employees working themselves into the ground, it gives them permission to prioritize time for themselves. And sometimes employees just need permission.

  1. Talk about switching things up 

If you have an employee who’s assigned pretty much the same tasks over and over again, talk to them about sprinkling a variety of work into their day-to-day routine. This approach shouldn’t be used to add more work on their plates, but just something to change up their workload throughout each day.

Let’s say you have an employee who is continuously working on one of your most demanding clients; try giving them a project with a less challenging client. Or, if you have an employee who is continuously crunching numbers, ask them to assist HR in planning a fun, creative event. Most importantly, talk to them about what makes them excited. You want your employees to feel good about switching things up, not stressed at the thought of doing something new. 

Sadly, there’s no magic spell to fix employee burnout quickly. Sending them on vacation or giving them a day off won’t cure burnout at work. It takes changes to the work itself, their environment, and their emotional state, but the good news is, you’re in the position to be influential in those aspects of their work and life. By talking to, supporting, and leading your employees into a healthy work style, you can reshape their experience.

Dealing with employee burnout is an emotional endeavor—at times, you can feel like you're not good enough, or you could've taken steps to avoid it, or you're going to lose all of the hard work you put into your job. It's a rollercoaster of emotions, and much like a rollercoaster, it's hard to know which way is up.

But this feeling is a real part of burnout. So, take a breath. Take care of yourself and know that it isn't going to last forever. 

Talking to your manager about employee burnout can be intimidating, but in order to get back to putting your best foot forward, you have to acknowledge that you've hit burnout, ask your manager for what you need, and commit to the healing process.  

And know this: If you've been a reliable worker and a productive team member, and your company cares about your growth and success, they will find a way to make it work—no matter how busy things are.

Zestful: recognize and reward your employees—minus the admin work.

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