Burnout has been a hot topic for quite some time—and it’s only getting hotter. There have always been pockets of burnout, especially in high-stress industries like healthcare, but over the past two years, the condition has reached an all-time high. So is it easy to tell if an employee is slipping into burnout? Not always. In fact, your clue might be something as subtle as one snarky comment too many.
At times, of course, burnout is easy to spot. If an employee’s job performance takes a nosedive, or they start calling in sick a lot, it’s not too big of a leap to assume burnout could play a role. But most of the time, it isn’t that obvious, even to the employee. Burnout sometimes comes on slowly, and the person doesn’t even realize it’s happening—or at least what level it’s gotten to.
Other employees may hide their burnout simply because they feel loyal to their employer. Even if a person does realize they’re not feeling well, they may think, My organization is short-staffed, and they desperately need me right now. If I don’t come in, the restaurant won’t be able to open, or we’ll lose even more revenue than we already have. They want to help, so they just keep showing up, even if they’re exhausted and struggling.
Plus, many symptoms of burnout aren’t so obvious. Leaders may not immediately recognize them for what they are. For example, let’s say an employee who was previously good-natured starts showing signs of skepticism. You might notice their making snide or skeptical comments about customers or coworkers or the work itself: “What’s the point?” or, “Nobody at this company appreciates me anyway.” Maybe they seem negative or irritable in general. Maybe they turn their skepticism on themselves, saying things like, “There’s no way I can do a good job on this project,” or, “I never do anything right.”
It would be easy enough for leaders to write off the employee as having a bad attitude. But the truth is, they’re probably suffering. The good news is there are things you can do to help defuse skepticism and bring the employee back to a healthier state of mind.
This is not just a nice thing to do. It’s crucial for good performance. Skeptical attitudes harm workplace relationships. They’re the antithesis of engagement, teamwork, collaboration, helpfulness—all the things you want your culture to encourage. Plus, they’re contagious. A few skeptical employees can spread their negative attitude, and before you know it, everyone is infected.
As a leader, here are a few interventions and tips to alleviate workplace conditions that may contribute to skepticism and, often, full-fledged burnout.
Instead of calling people out, call them in. Say something like, “I know you are normally a really positive person and great team player. I’ve noticed lately that you don’t seem like yourself. I am concerned about you. Would you like to talk about what’s going on and what I can do to help right now?”
When an employee asks for something, move heaven and earth to do it. A leader can say they care all day long, but action is what counts. It’s not always easy for employees to go out on a limb and ask for what they need. If you don’t do everything possible to meet the request (for a different schedule, a different work arrangement, more training, etc.), it will only reinforce a skeptical attitude.
Understand the “trust” connection. Usually, skepticism is a sign that people are feeling hopeless and powerless. They may feel unsafe, devalued, not listened to. They may see leaders as not truly having their best interests at heart. Your best defense here is a good offense. Get to work building a culture of trust. This is an everyday commitment—there are no shortcuts.
Relationship Rounding™ is a great way to build trust. It’s basically having regular, one-on-one conversations with employees to see what would make their lives better, check on how they are doing mentally and emotionally, and make a genuine connection. When leaders practice this kind of rounding, it creates a solid foundation of trust that typically defuses skeptical attitudes.
Rethink how you reward and recognize. One big underlying cause of skepticism is feeling unappreciated. Attack this at the source by getting proactive about reward and recognition. You might think you have a good R&R program already, but one-size-fits-all approaches rarely work.
For example, group recognition doesn’t seem genuine. It should happen one person at a time. Better to customize reward and recognition for individual preferences and personalities. Actually ask employees, “How do you like to be rewarded and recognized?” (This is part of the Platinum Rule, which, unlike the Golden Rule, reminds us to “Do unto others as THEY would want done to THEM.” I recently wrote a column on the Platinum Rule. To access it, click here.)
Avoid toxic positivity at all costs. Toxic positivity occurs when we try to be 100 percent positive, all the time (often in an attempt to boost morale). But glossing over real issues and negative emotions and pretending they don’t exist not only prevents us from needed growth and change, it comes across as inauthentic. Employees are aware that things aren’t perfect. Toxic positivity eats away at the trust we’re trying to create and actually fuels more skepticism. True optimism is grounded in reality—we choose to think positively while still acknowledging challenges.
Find ways to drive home the meaning of the work people do. One of the key components of burnout is a sense of disconnection from one’s work. When we find ways to constantly remind people of the positive impact their work has on others (for example, by sharing stories that connect them back to mission), we show them that what they do has real meaning. It’s hard to be skeptical when you can see the genuine difference you’re making in the lives of others.
Stay hyper-alert to dangerous mental health issues. Skepticism may not only be an early sign of burnout; it may also be linked to depression. If you suspect an employee is struggling with mental health issues, don’t hesitate to refer them to the EAP or other resources. (Again, a regular Relationship Rounding practice helps you look for red flags and intervene before things get worse.)
The bottom line? Employees probably aren’t going to tell us, “I’m burned out.” It is up to us to know the signs and to care enough to step in and offer help—and, of course, to make changes inside our organization that keep people mentally and emotionally healthy. Protecting the well-being of the people who’ve chosen to work for us is one of the most crucial, and most rewarding, tasks of being a leader.