The modern workplace has a full range of stress-inducing situations. As your company navigates work needs, personal situations, and social demands, it can be hard to know how to prevent employee burnout and retain your best employees. But the answer is simple: when your organization does what it takes to help employees enjoy their quality of life, it leads to improved health, heightened motivation, and improved performance.

What Is Employee Burnout?

Have you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf? In this classic Aesop fable, a bored shepherd boy raises a false alarm, causing the townspeople to come running. Then when real wolves come to menace the flock, no one responds to his cries, leaving the sheep (and, in some versions, the shepherd) to be slaughtered. When employees burn out, they begin dealing with a brain that cries wolf as their physiology changes due to constant stress signals.

What Long-Term Stress Does to Your Body

Normally, the body responds to stress by releasing two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. This has several effects on the body:

  • Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies.
  • Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and enhances your brain’s use of glucose, leading to sharper memory creation.
  • Cortisol suppresses reproductive, digestive, and growth systems.
  • Cortisol activates the fight-or-flight areas of the brain.

But what happens when the threat isn’t a wolf in the pasture, but rather a rumor of a layoff next quarter? When cortisol levels remain high over a long period of time, it leads to increased blood pressure, digestive issues, sleep problems, and memory impairment. Then cortisol levels drop well below safe levels, leading to poor blood sugar regulation, inflammation throughout the body, and plaque buildup in the coronary arteries.

In addition, the brain adapts to try and preserve its safety mechanisms. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions like fear and shock, and in patients with burnout, scientists discovered significantly enlarged amygdalae and reduced emotional control centers. This makes sense: if you don’t have as much cortisol to cry wolf, you need a bigger receiver to pick up the message.

In summary, dealing with employee burnout means helping employees who are experiencing emotional irritability, physical pain, and a lack of motivation as potential risks and rewards get swamped in a numbing flood of stress responses. Experiencing burnout can feel like being slowly swallowed whole.

What causes employee burnout?

Why do employees burn out? Why do some employees thrive under pressure while others crack? Understanding the two types of stress is the first step to answering these questions:

  • Eustress, or positive stress, helps motivate and focus energy, brings excitement, and improves performance.
  • Distress is a more familiar word—this form of stress feels unpleasant, causes anxiety, and leads to the host of mental and physical problems associated with employee burnout.

Eustress and distress lead to similar physical responses. But where eustress sees an exciting challenge, distress sees a disaster waiting to happen. Employees often walk the edge between these two stresses, seeking work that’s fresh and exciting yet also doable. How your company supports employees in managing stress can make the difference in whether they operate at a steady burn or flare up and burn out.

Distress can come from as many sources as motivation can, all the way from basic needs like putting food on the table to advanced needs such as realizing your ultimate potential as a person.

To prevent employee burnout, your employees need two things: confidence in their ability to complete their responsibilities (both at work and at home) and recognition from your company. Helping employees feel secure in these two areas is key for promoting eustress to move forward instead of distress to weigh things down.

How to Prevent Employee Burnout

So how do you resolve your employees’ insecurities and prevent burnout? It takes more than counting hours at the office vs. hours at home, even though endless hours at the office clearly contribute to burnout.

Here are some ideas to help employees feel secure in their individual work while feeling that your company recognizes their efforts:

Help Employees Recognize Burnout Symptoms

The road to burnout is often paved with good intentions. Even top employees can tip over the edge from pushing the envelope to burning out. Recognizing burnout symptoms in your employees can help you intervene before a rough patch becomes a chronic condition. Look for the following:

  • Cynicism: How does the employee engage with your company? Are they offering feedback, or have they retreated into their shell? A drop in participation can be a sign that an employee has given up hope that things can be better.
  • Exhaustion: While it’s easy to spot employees who are asleep at their desks, it’s a little harder to spot mental exhaustion. Some signs of emotional exhaustion include absentmindedness, a lack of concentration, and feeling a lack of control, which translates to missed meetings, increased revisions on their work, and a passive attitude toward projects.
  • Loneliness: Often, the other symptoms of burnout lead employees to isolate themselves from their co-workers. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle. While it’s important to get work done, it’s also important to foster cordial relationships between co-workers in the office.

Encourage Focused Time

The first step to dealing with employee burnout is to help employees manage their individual responsibilities. These include everything they need to accomplish at work as well as everything they need to handle at home. All of these activities need focused time, so it’s essential to give employees the tools and framework they need to focus and stay on top of everything.

The concept of work-life balance scratches at the surface of this issue, with the idea that work and personal hours should somehow equal out. But many work-life balance issues are actually focus issues in disguise—personal needs cry wolf at work, work notifications cry wolf at home, and none of these tasks get the full attention they deserve while the alert system burns out from a sense of false urgency.

At the company I work for our work/life balance is: “Enjoy Quality of Life.” Focusing on this value means we do our best to work hard at work, then we leave work at work to enjoy time at home.

Here are some ways to make focused time a priority at your company:

  • Establish office-wide focus hours: Set aside a block of time where your employees can work without official interruptions. Block it out on the company calendar and encourage your employees to keep it meeting-free.
  • Plan in advance: While some tasks seem easy, shoulder-tapping a coworker can pull them away from focusing on their project. Plan focus buffers into your projects.
  • Practice what you preach: Many companies pay lip service to work-life balance while their employees see it as an opportunity to shine as a work martyr. Train managers to spot work martyrs and encourage them to spend their after-work time on healthier pursuits.

Emphasize Employee Development

For employees to feel secure in leaving work at work, they need to know that your company recognizes the difference their contributions make. Providing development opportunities for your employees shows that your company recognizes their potential as much as their results. These opportunities can be as simple as recommending personal time management apps or as intensive as regular one-on-one performance conversations.

Recovering from burnout doesn’t happen overnight or without a coordinated effort. Some employees will also face stressful life events that are out of your control. But taking the time to assess, diagnose, and treat employee burnout helps create a culture where employees enjoy the quality of their life at home while looking forward to a future full of meaningful, challenging, successful work.