Helping Others Fight Burnout

Burnout. Stress. Languishing. Quiet quitting. Chances are good that you’ve read about or talked about one or more of these topics in the last few months. These issues are currently getting a lot of attention because of their prevalence across organizations and the impact they have on so many people at work.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a legitimate occupational phenomenon that results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

Most studies indicate that burnout was on the rise before the pandemic even began. But COVID has exacerbated those feelings for many individuals. In the last two and a half years, many aspects of our life have required additional effort: working, parenting, caregiving, etc. And many of us are figuring out how to do this extra work in new hybrid environments.

Burnout is a significant problem. It causes us to be less productive, express more negativity, and feel less engaged in our work. Because of its considerable cost to organizations, I have been working with a number of clients on how to recognize, address and reduce burnout.

5 Steps to Help People Who Are Experiencing Burnout

  1. Pay attention, listen and look for any changes. The first thing any of us can do is to pay close attention to those with whom we work and those who work for us. How is their stress level? Have there been any significant changes in how they act or the attitudes they display? Do they seem less engaged in their work or unable to get as much work done as they used to?
  2. Talk about it. Ask others how they’re doing. Some aspects of burnout can be internal (weariness, feelings of inadequacy, difficulty focusing) and may be more difficult to observe. By asking about it, you may have a better chance of hearing how others are actually doing and what is causing it.
  3. Build psychological safety. Psychological safety is a shared belief that the environment is safe for taking interpersonal risk. We establish it by being open and curious about what others have to say and then ensuring there aren’t negative consequences to them having shared. When we build this sense of safety, we provide an outlet for others to talk about how they feel and what they need. People suffering from burnout need this safety in order to feel comfortable enough to open up and ask for help without fearing repercussions.
  4. Look for ways to lighten their load. Helping someone alleviate burnout is more than just encouraging them to engage in self-care. You can have a greater impact by helping them look for opportunities to reprioritize or get support for their work. If they work for you, discuss together how you could take things off their plate or eliminate work that is no longer necessary.  
  5. Help them find meaning in their work. Another factor that reduces burnout is the extent to which people can find meaning in their work and believe their efforts are making a difference for the company. Help others by drawing clear connections between the work they’re doing and the larger goals of the organization. Feeling like they’re doing work that matters can bolster them and combat negative feelings.

The most important thing to do is to engage in these behaviors in an ongoing way. Ensuring you have a psychologically safe environment with strong connections, are helping others manage their workload, and are encouraging them to find meaning in their work will have a significant impact in reducing the chance of burnout while maximizing employee engagement.

After all, it is far easier to prevent burnout than it is to fix it.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.