How to avoid worker burnout: Assign new tasks, listen, acknowledge good work

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Smartt Principles

Nicole Smartt Serres is an author as well as president of Star Staffing, based in Petaluma. She also writes the Business Journal column Smartt Principles (

Burnout is a serious issue in today’s hyper-engaged, high-speed business world. Employees and teams often absorb rising stress as businesses grow and change, and sometimes these intrateam changes are hard for anyone to see until some damage is already done.

Changes in mood, engagement or productivity could indicate any number of issues going on at an individual level. Home, family or health stresses can impact an individual’s performance.

It could, however, be a sign of burnout.

When disaffection and flagging productivity happen across a team, it could be burnout at a broader level, indicating the need for more systemic change. Burnout can be caused by prolonged stress, not enough variety in tasks, unbalanced workloads or employees being tasked with work that doesn’t suit their strengths or interests.

Burnout can be repaired, even if it’s not always avoidable.

Before you reprimand or punish, consider the whole employee.

Employees that have had good work ethic in the past, but whose efficiencies are suffering, probably haven’t come down with a sudden case of “the lazies.” An increase in negative attitude is also a sign of potential burnout: employees who feel trapped in a slog without variation or promise of change will begin to suffer at some point.

Workers with a strong performance history should have your respect, so consider past performance and capability carefully before you hand out a reprimand. Talk to employees who seem to be struggling in a new way.

When team members disconnect, it can be a sign of overwork, disinterest or other pressure, which could lead to burnout. An employee, or even a whole team, who typically asks lots of questions and collaborates on solutions, who suddenly clams up, is a concern to be taken seriously.

Again, the key here is communication: make sure you understand the situation from your team’s perspective.

To relieve or avoid burnout on your teams, first identify which specific pressure is the likely culprit, and then take steps to relieve pressure, redistribute responsibilities, or even hire new people.

If your employees are struggling with feeling like every day is the same, it’s time to give them some variation in their tasks. If you have a worker who’s particularly good with problem clients or solving complex problems, be careful to not dump all the angriest, most complicated clients on them. Bonus: use this employee as a resource to cross-train other employees with promise in that area of expertise.

If your team is struggling because everyone is overworked, do some hard thinking about whether there are enough people to actually do the job and stay healthy. Consider each task too: perhaps there are ways to improve efficiency in the process while taking some pressure from your teams’ shoulders. It is partially your responsibility to make sure your employees can maintain a healthy work-life balance, so act accordingly.

Business can be inherently stressful, yes. But prolonged exposure to stress, especially without variation or without tapping into what employees really enjoy doing, can lead to burnout. Once an employee is burned out, if they keep working without relief, symptoms can compound, and dramatically increase the length of recovery.

Recognize achievements, and make sure you’re providing opportunities for them to occur.

Listen to your employees, take their needs, interests, and health into account, and pay attention to the total workload each person and team is tasked with.

And for heaven’s sake, show your appreciation for hard work well done. Show appreciation early and often! After all, your business is only as good as your employees make it.

Smartt Principles

Nicole Smartt Serres is an author as well as president of Star Staffing, based in Petaluma. She also writes the Business Journal column Smartt Principles (

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