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FitOn HealthMarch 03

Recognizing ‘smoke signals’ is critical in preventing employee burnout

When there's smoke…there's burnout.

Are you familiar with that old saying, “Where there's smoke, there's fire”? When it comes to employee burnout, the adage rings true. Employers suffer from rash waves of burnout, taking a toll on many full-time employees. A staggering two-thirds reported feeling job burnout, leading to negative consequences like absenteeism and decreased confidence in their work. Stress is driving them in droves to quiet quit, disengage, or even avoid discussing performance goals with managers. With ever-increasing pressures, workloads, expectations, and a lack of employee recognition, it's no wonder that employers are struggling to retain their employees without the promises of juicy compensation packages and questionable perks.

If you’re a manager in the 21st-century workplace, chances are you’ve seen first-hand how burnout can take a toll on your employees and the company. It's time organizations take this significant issue seriously – employee burnout can cause severe damage that’s both costly and difficult to reverse without proactive steps toward improvement.

Recognizing the 'smoke signals' of employee burnout

While dealing with employee burnout may seem impossible, it doesn’t have to be – there are simple changes that managers can make today to combat its detrimental effects on morale, productivity, creativity, and the overall culture of their teams. Preventing employee burnout starts at the source. You can snuff workplace burnout at the source by recognizing the following five ‘smoke signals' of chronic stress:

1. Low Morale

Workplace morale is like a seesaw: when it's up, productivity and creativity tend to rise; when it plummets, employees can feel bogged down by burnout. Burned out employees have lost their spark - they've gone from a bundle of energy to an uninspired work slouch. Before you know it, deadlines are being missed and tasks unfinished with nothing but pessimism in their wake.

Preventing employee burnout in this stage is easy. Start simple with weekly stand ups to call out and recognize your most engaged employee. Encourage employees to nominate each other for this form of recognition. Stress rises proportionately to work, and chronic stress contributes to our next ‘smoke signal’.

2. Hyper-criticism

Our inner critic takes us for a ride when we push ourselves to the absolute limit. We start seeing everything through hyper-critical goggles: colleagues and customers become objects of scorn, tensions rise in the workplace, and interpersonal relationships are strained until the negative engagement is met with derision or followed by complete disengagement. Hyper-critical employees are often dealing with a build-up of chronic workplace stress. They often feel like they can't depend on others–let alone expect help from management.

Preventing employee burnout in this stage requires an action plan that recognizes the workload of each team member and reorganizes primary duties to align with employer expectations and employee needs.

3. Social withdrawal

Burnout makes many flee from the social interaction at work. While many may think preventing burnout in this stage would require encouraging employee engagement, we recommend quite the opposite. A socially withdrawn employee feels trapped by their circumstances. Conspiring an offsite, where the disengaged employee is trapped in an environment tied to their performance, only ensures further withdrawal.

Instead, encourage said employee to take time off to realign and create a healthy work life balance. That extra distance could mean the difference between thriving and simply surviving.

4. Overall withdrawal 

When burnout affects employee well-being you have reached a point of no return. A workplace that doesn't prioritize physical and mental health, leads to increased sickness and absenteeism. This leads to high employee turnover, reduced employee productivity, and poor employee retention over the long run.

HR Leaders must work to ensure chronic stress doesn't lead to a mass workplace crisis. If any of your employees are reporting physical symptoms, it's time to overhaul your working culture.

5. Quiet quitting and employee disengagement

The death knell for a workplace that encourages burnout is not an employee who quits but an employee who doesn't quit. Burned out employees may become apathetic and detached from their work and duties, often leading to a decrease in productivity, quality of work, and commitment. Ultimately, employees may become so disengaged that they choose one of two routes: leave the position without formally resigning, which creates gaps in institutional knowledge, or remain inactive in their position, which places a costly work burden on the rest of your active team.

How can HR managers prevent employee burnout?

If you’ve noticed an increase in the ‘smoke signals’ coming from your team members, don't ignore them. Be proactive. The earlier you can address burnout, the better. Employee burnout is often caused by a combination of factors, including an excessive workload, lack of autonomy, feeling undervalued or unrecognized and chronic stress. Once you can recognize the symptoms of burnout, it's easier to create a plan to prevent it. You can start by:

Replace pace with “peace”

Provide resources to help employees better manage their stress and workload, encourage them to take breaks during their day, and provide flexibility in scheduling. Set realistic expectations for your team. Managers should be aware of an employee's workload and enforce project management to prevent tasks from piling up.

Rebuild your company culture 

We've talked before about the importance of workplace culture, but it's a critical piece when it comes to preventing burnout. Help your employees feel appreciated and valued by implementing employee recognition programs and encouraging team-building activities. Most importantly, encourage a healthy work life balance so that employees feel empowered when making decisions for their health.

Provide personalized and preventative wellness options

People are more conscious of maintaining a healthy work-life balance than ever before. In the past, employees worked without regard for their emotional and physical states and often burned themselves out. Workers today are much more self-aware, and HR professionals must recognize this.  Many employees are looking for more than a basic benefits package and offering more than the standard packages can prevent burnout and reduce employee turnover. But where do you start? 

Crafting a well-built benefits package generally falls to the HR director. Researching insurance and other benefits can be a difficult task, but staying within certain budgets can also add a whole new dimension of difficulty. HR directors have to be creative and flexible to make it work.

Whether you have a full staff in the office, utilize a hybrid work model, or are fully remote workers, when an employee feels locked down in their working environment, their mental health is often the first to deteriorate. This is why fitness and wellness programs can do more than help employees lose some weight. In fact, regular exercise can help reduce depression and anxiety by increasing self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to go when it comes to preventing burnout, job satisfaction, and improving the employee experience.

For some, however, offering compensation for a gym membership is not enough to get them to take advantage of the service. Committing to a single gym membership is overwhelming, especially considering that some gym cultures can be very off-putting and intimidating for many. One of the main reasons for worker burnout is the feeling of a lack of personal control. Most people need variety, specific workouts, and individualized services to get what they need from a wellness program. Human resource management teams must ask their employees and listen to their needs. And with job openings around the U.S. at record highs, it's never been more important to listen to your workforce's demands.

Only HR Managers have the power to prevent employee burnout

Workplace burnout should be taken seriously. By educating management and creating policies that reduce stress and promote employee productivity, workplaces can avoid the negative impacts of burnout on their organization. Human resource teams must observe their employees’ workloads and know when they might become overloaded before they reach the brink of burnout.

Instilling a sense of community in the workplace is essential — from team-building activities to open communication channels, employers should create an environment where employees feel valued. Employees should also take regular breaks, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and try incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily activities whenever possible. Lastly, employers must support their staff with mental health and wellness resources such as employee benefits programs. Working smarter rather than harder will go a long way in reducing the prevalence of employee burnout at work. 

It's important to recognize the smoke signals that come before an employee reaches full-on burnout since it is easier to prevent it from happening than to deal with its negative repercussions. When employers join forces and create a supportive climate for their workforce, everyone benefits, thus fostering engagement and loyalty in the organization. Ultimately, these are the organizational goals employers should aim for. Implementation of successful preventive strategies against burnout coupled with an understanding and awareness from both sides is key; For this reason, recognizing stress before it evolves into burnout should become part of the day-to-day working culture.  

A happy working atmosphere leads not only to employee productivity but also prevents chronic stress and burnout in your most valuable asset - your dedicated workforce.


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