A lone, white candle burnt out, leaving a trail of smoke against a black background. It depicts employee burnout.
Image: © genoph97/Stock.adobe.com

What should employers do about employee burnout?

23 Oct 2018

It’s essential that employees are mindful of their own stress levels to avoid burnout, but what about an employer’s duty of care?

As long as employees continue to overwork, become stressed and suffer from burnout, I will continue to write about the importance to be mindful of the signs and look after yourself at work.

However, the onus shouldn’t only be on an employee to make sure they don’t get stressed. Burnout can often be caused by too much work and stress that’s put on them by their own employer.

Furthermore, even when it is not the fault of the employer, don’t they have a duty of care to ensure that this doesn’t happen again to that employee or any other?

Burnout, stress leave and mental exhaustion are all health issues that should be taken as seriously as other ailments. However, they shouldn’t be brushed off by managers as something that ‘just happens’ like a common cold.

There is always a reason for burnout and there is more than likely a stage where it could have been prevented. After all, prevention is far better than cure.

So, when an employee comes to a manager with burnout, what should the manager do? Joyce Rigby-Jones is a joint managing director of leading human resources consultancy Voltedge. She said the first thing a manager needs to do is ascertain what the issue is. “Once the manager understands the real reason for burnout, they can then help address the issue with the employee.”

Burnout could of course be from overwork, but it could also be from other factors such as bullying at work and insufficient training. “If there is a trend with employees complaining, then there should be a review of work in that area to evaluate if there is too much work or a lack of tools/systems,” she said.

A workplace evaluation is important to understand the issues.

The cost of employee burnout

Managers should always have their employees’ best interests at heart, but they might also be thinking of the business itself, which can make them lose sight of the individual employee’s needs.

However, Rigby-Jones said employee burnout, even for one person, has a domino effect. “Employees who are burnt out may well go on extended sick leave. At the very least, they will be much less productive in their positions,” she said.

“Employees who are burnt out will have poor morale, they will be demotivated and they will affect people around them with their behaviour.”

She went on to say that when employee burnout isn’t fixed, those employees leave, and suddenly you have a company with high employee turnover. This can potentially affect relationships with customers and clients.

For personal reasons

Obviously, an employee’s personal life is none of their manager’s business, and personal matters can ‘just happen’ and be outside of the control of the employer or the employee. However, Rigby-Jones said employers are not off the hook just because employee burnout didn’t come directly from the workplace.

“The employer should be very empathetic and understanding to this employee – they can do a number of positive things.” She said these things include offering time off to help the employee sort out whatever issues they may have. “This could be unpaid or paid depending on the employer’s decision but could be invaluable for the employee.”

‘Good managers are the best way of ensuring happy, healthy employees’

Rigby-Jones said the employer should also be active in meeting the employee regularly to ensure that, whatever the issue is, they are being supportive and helping the employee as much as possible – and none of this support requires the employer to know what exactly the issue is.

Another option is to offer an Employee Assistance Programme. “This is a completely confidential helpline and support programme that an employee can go to and discuss personal issues, including financial and emotional issues. These programmes can be brought in for all employees or can be offered to individuals when needed,” said Rigby-Jones.

Who does what?

An employee’s manager has the most responsibility when it comes to employee burnout and should be the most involved and aware of the situation.

HR should be made aware of the concerns and support the manager through whatever support plan is decided on. HR may also want to undertake further conversations and support the employee.

When it comes to the team and other colleagues, it may not be appropriate for them to be in the loop about what is going on. However, Rigby-Jones said a safety statement should be in place. “So, if a colleague realises that their fellow employee is struggling/is very stressed/upset, then that employee should approach their manager and/or HR to alert them to his/her concerns.”

Prevention still better than cure

It’s important to address employee burnout properly when faced with it. However, as I said at the beginning, if employers can prevent it from happening to the best of their abilities, all the better.

“Many companies are focused on wellness at work, and have many initiatives for employees. Communication and education of all employees is key to maximising the benefits of these types of intervention,” said Rigby-Jones.

As well as these initiatives, managers who are trained to properly watch out for signs of burnout can help them get to the root of the issues before they snowball. For example, high turnover rates or absenteeism can be major indicators of systemic burnout.

“Companies with a supportive and positive working culture have a much better chance of minimising burnout due to employee satisfaction and high emotional attachment to their company,” said Rigby-Jones.

She said another important detector for managers is doing independent exit interviews where employees leaving the company can give honest opinions and can flag issues leading to burnout. “Good managers are the best way of ensuring happy, healthy employees.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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