As debilitating as burnout can be for an entrepreneur, it's no picnic for employees, either. And burned-out workers can be just as bad for a company as a similarly stressed business owner. Psychologist Kenneth Siegel, founder of management consulting firm Impact Group in Beverly Hills, Calif., spoke with Staff Writer Amy S. Choi about how to deal with burnout among your staff. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Q: What are the signs of burnout in employees?
A: Look in three areas: work performance, interpersonal effectiveness, and physical impairment. If employees are burned out, things take longer to get done, and there's a higher error rate. Issues take longer to be resolved. There's more antagonism and overt conflict, and people become more proprietary within their silos or erect new silos. Physically, the most common sign is substance abuse, whether that's over- or undereating or an increase in alcohol consumption. You might also notice distress in people's sleep patterns, or spot Pepcid AC on someone's desk.
Q: How do you raise the subject of burnout among your employees?
A: Talk to them as a group first. Acknowledge that this is a difficult time. Be very up front about what you're sure of with the business and what you're not sure of. Tell your employees that they are free to talk to you, and convey to them that their mental health matters. If there are resources that you are willing to provide, such as outside counseling, let them know.
Q: How do you prevent burnout?
A: Dealing with things in the open and doing it collectively gives people a sense of support. There's no one-size-fits-all prescription. The principle is that anxiety undiscussed is anxiety worsened. Openly addressing stress helps to prevent it from devolving into that hopeless, chronic state.
Q: What if employees are resistant to opening up?
A: Try to encourage employees to talk amongst themselves if they're not comfortable talking with you. You can't enforce being open. But you can do a lot to ruin openness. If an employee is being ridiculed for talking about their feelings, make a hero of that person. Acknowledge that what they're doing by speaking out is meaningful.
Q: What if you are uncomfortable having those conversations?
A: Some leaders I work with are such interpersonal cripples that doing the things I'm suggesting would be impossible. They can't actually communicate or connect in a profoundly meaningful way. It comes across as stilted or manipulative or false. So seek outside help.
Q: What should you never do?
A: Never make promises about the future that you will be unable to deliver on. You destroy your credibility and hurt the person you are speaking to.
Q: What common mistakes do managers make with their staffs?
A: When people read this, they'll think that the person they work for is the one who needs to read this. Substitute you for they. Even if you think you communicate well with employees already, there is zero cost to overdoing it. Now is a time for you, as a leader, to engage in more connectivity. If leaders cannot engage on a psychologically meaningful level during times of distress, than their utility as leaders is low.
Q: Any last pieces of advice for managers who see burnout in their employees?
A: Go out of your way to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts that people are making. If your business is surviving, it is because your employees are doing it at a greater cost to themselves. You're a fool not to praise them and acknowledge them for that. What really matters is presence and accessibility. But what most executives are good at in times of prolonged distress is hiding.
Return to the BWSmallBiz August/September 2009 Table of Contents