While leafing through the New York Times last weekend, I came upon a disturbing article. Not surprising, I know. Today’s papers are filled with stories of death, destruction and general gloom and doom. This particular article was actually more subtle than all that. On some level, in fact, it was a tale of success. It was the story of a group of bright, motivated youngsters gearing up for college by taking advanced placement courses and striving for top-notch scores on the SAT.
The downside to all this high achievement? Well, it seems these kids are taking things just a bit too far. As they engage in this tremendously pressured race to the top, they are jamming their school schedules with four, five, even six AP courses. They’re skipping lunch because they simply haven’t got the time to slow down and eat. The result is that many of these intelligent, diligent, ambitious adolescents are headed for a crash. Many of them are already showing signs of severe stress. Before the ripe old age of 18, these children are well on their way to burnout.
And burnout is serious business. If unaddressed, it can lead to debilitating levels of anxiety and depression. At worst, it can lead to physical symptoms or even self-harm.
From an organizational perspective, burnout among employees is a significant issue. Burned out employees are less productive, less collaborative, less creative, less motivated and less likely to stick around. It’s important to spot burnout before it’s severe – and then take measures to stop it in its tracks.
First, let’s look at some telltale signs of worker burnout:
Reduced productivity and/or overall performance
Quickness to argue with coworkers or clients
Decreased creativity and innovation
Reduced energy levels; general lethargy; apathy
What you’re looking for is a marked change in behavior, mood or attitude. It’s important to note that these things fall along a continuum. At the most extreme levels, you may be seeing symptoms of clinical depression. (Depression is a potentially debilitating condition that may require the intervention of a mental health professional.) Worker burnout, on the other hand, can be addressed with a few simple measures.
Here are a few pointers for helping your employees – and you – avoid the burnout trap:
Endorse time off. Make sure you’re not only providing but also endorsing the use of personal/vacation time. You should be cultivating a culture in which periodic time away from work is both respected and encouraged. Model this for your employees by taking your own vacation time at appropriate intervals.
Shake things up. Most people require variety and challenge to remain engaged and motivated. Be sure to provide your employees – and yourself - with varied, stimulating work and plenty of room for growth.
Lend an ear. Provide an outlet for your employees to talk about their experiences, including any feelings of stress and burnout. Your culture should be one in which candor is invited and adequately supported. Your employees should be able to talk, without repercussion, to a human resource manager, a mentor, a colleague, or even the boss. While you’re at it, make sure you’ve got someone who will listen to and support you when the pressure begins to mount.
These easy-to-implement measures can make all the difference for you, your employees, and your organization. Stop burnout before it gets hold of your most valuable organizational resource – your employees.