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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Tell if Your Team is Burnt Out—and What to do About It

When you have a cynical, disengaged, or underproductive employee on your hands, it’s probably time to dish out a healthy dose of discipline. Right?

Well, actually—when those behaviors are coming from an employee who’s typically on his or her A-game, they might be signs of burnout.

This productivity killer can stem from a few causes: Maybe your employee has too much work (and stress) on his plate—or, maybe she’s tired of working on the same type of projects over and over again and doesn’t feel challenged anymore. Whatever the cause, your employee is completely drained and isn’t performing at his or her best.

During my years as a manager, I’ve learned how to recognize the signs of burnout in my team—and luckily, I’ve found a few successful ways to help reverse it, too. Read on for some of those key signals and the important steps you should take next (ideally, sooner rather than later).

Signs an Employee is Burnt Out

Decreased Productivity and Quality of Work

When you start to notice a decrease in sales and projects completed—or an increase in client complaints and missed deadlines—it’s easy to assume that the responsible employee is just getting a little lazy and needs a swift (proverbial) kick in the pants.

But on the other hand, the issue might run a little deeper. If your typically dependable, consistent employee suddenly turns unreliable and lax, there’s a likely chance that her decrease in productivity is based on the fact that she’s overworked or simply isn’t enjoying her work anymore.


Uncharacteristic Disengagement

A team that’s eagerly making suggestions, offering up feedback, and collaboratively talking through challenges is a team that’s excited about the work at hand. And so it follows that when an employee is feeling burnt out (and not so optimistic about said work), he or she disconnects from that team mentality.

In my experience, that means you’ll see him glued to his desk, refusing to communicate with his co-workers—or in team meetings, he’ll sit in the corner with his arms crossed, instead of offering up helpful tips and tricks like he used to. He won’t even come to you to ask questions (unless he’s asking to go to lunch early).

Increased Cynicism and Complaining

Everyone has bad days—but I’ve found that it’s a bad sign when you suddenly catch your characteristically optimistic employee mumbling, “I can’t wait to call my client today—I’m probably going to get yelled at again,” “I just can’t get ahead on my work,” or, “This job isn’t going anywhere.”

And like I said, the occasional complaint is permissible—and even expected. But when you constantly hear negativity from someone who once was a source of encouragement for the rest of the team, he or she is probably feeling the effects of burnout.

What You Can Do


Dig in Deeper

First, it’s important that you truly understand the motivation behind your employee’s atypical behavior. If he’s had a recent shift in attitude or performance, the true cause could be any number of things. So, have a conversation. Perhaps he’s dealing with a rough situation in his personal life, an illness, or any number of things that can slowly creep into one’s work life.

Or, if your employee doesn’t readily offer up an explanation, ask questions that allow him or her to bring up the possibility of burnout. Try: “What do you have on your plate right now—and if you had the choice, how would you change it?” or “I noticed that you’re not quite producing at the same level as last month. What’s keeping you from getting there?”

When I’ve asked my potentially burnt-out employees this question, I typically hear responses like, “I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again,” “I just can’t stay on top of everything,” or “I’m exhausted”—all signs that point to burnout. And this is good news, because it means you can step in to help turn it around.

Talk About Balance

When an employee has too much on his plate, he’ll do anything to get the job done—even if that means working in the evenings, on weekends, and through lunch. And while you and your employee both may think that working long hours sends out a great “I’m such a hard worker” vibe, it can quickly lead to desperation, exhaustion, and unhappiness.

So when you, as a manager, notice your employee struggling with burnout, work together to develop some tactical ways to head off this behavior. For example, I’ll often work with an employee to set a goal cutoff time at night when he should turn off his computer, cell phone, and everything else work-related. Or, I’ll let him know that I want him to take his lunch hour—and in fact, I expect it.

You may not be able to instantly change your employee’s behavior, but by openly acknowledging your expectations (i.e., that you don’t want your employees to work themselves to the bone), you’ll relieve some of that pressure—and they’ll feel better about making time for non-work-related things.

Switch Things Up

One of the most successful strategies I’ve found to keep my employees’ workloads under control and interest consistently piqued is to make sure that each team member’s workload is varied. So, say you have a burnt-out senior sales rep who is always assigned the largest (read: most difficult) clients. Even though he may be the best man for the job, try giving a few of those big clients to someone slightly less experienced, and some of the small, lower-maintenance clients to your senior employee. Your less experienced employee will be challenged, and your senior rep will have a chance to breathe.

Even better, try adding some variation in the type of the projects you assign. For example, if you have an employee who spends most of her days analyzing pages of numbers, give her a creative assignment—like writing a blog post or creating an outline for an internship program. (That said, make sure you’re involving your employees in these conversations, so you can add projects that will get them excited—not more pressure!)

With this kind of change in their day-to-day routine, your employees will often find a renewed energy and excitement for their work.

Most importantly, recognize that burnout isn’t necessarily something that will pass on its own. As a manager, it’s your job to pay attention to your employees, communicate with them, and recognize the telltale signs that they’re drained, overworked, or overwhelmed. And more importantly—to step in and help them get back on track.

When you do, you’ll notice a huge difference in your employees. They’ll be happier, more productive, and committed to their work once again—and you can both breathe a sigh of relief.

Photo of burnt out woman courtesy of Shutterstock.