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  • Writer's pictureAina Ilunga

Employees Are Facing Burnout

5 Evidence-Based Emotional Intelligence Strategies for Leaders to Rekindle the Fire

When I experienced burnout for the first time, what surprised me most is how little I cared: About my work, my coworkers, and basically anything related to my job. I missed deadlines. I checked out emotionally. I felt detached and cynical about everything. I just did. not. care. – even though I normally pride myself on how much I care. I can only imagine what my bosses – who had come to expect high productivity and a positive outlook from me – were thinking and feeling.

For any leader, it’s a difficult situation – a delicate balance that requires emotional intelligence to navigate. What are best practices for rekindling the fire of an employee experiencing burnout? Let’s define burnout and its causes, and then look at how to use emotional intelligence to best support an employee experiencing burnout.

What Exactly Is Burnout? Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. I didn’t know it at the time, but the detached cynicism I felt is a trademark sign of burnout. In fact, it’s one of the 3 defining symptoms of burnout, as defined by the World Health Organization. Burnout is defined by…

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion

  • Depersonalization / detachment / cynicism

  • Decline in sense of personal accomplishment

Burnout is the feeling of being utterly depleted, unmotivated and detached from one’s work. It’s a form of learned helplessness.

What Causes Burnout? What are the key causes of burnout? Research has identified the following factors that play a major role:

  • a perceived lack of control or autonomy

  • insufficient reward or recognition

  • a perceived lack of social support / community

  • a perceived lack of meaning / purpose

As you can see in this list, burnout’s causes are deeply linked to basic emotional needs like belonging, purpose, recognition and autonomy. When those needs aren’t met, you experience stress. And when that stress goes unmanaged for a long period of time, burnout can occur. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and while research suggests a predominant role of company culture in burnout, individual circumstances most definitely play a role. In my case, for example, major stressors outside of work played the biggest role.

So what can you do as a leader to respond compassionately and effectively to an employee experiencing burnout? Here are 5 powerful, evidence-based strategies.


Is burnout from overwork? Research says no – it’s connected with emotional needs, which is why managers must have emotional intelligence to help employees through.


How to Respond to Employee Burnout with Emotional Intelligence: 5 Powerful Strategies

Myth: Burnout is from overwork. Fact: Burnout comes from basic human needs being unmet over time. Since these core needs are centered in emotion, for managers to help, it’s time to leverage emotional intelligence (the skills to be smarter with feelings). To make it more challenging, managers can’t fix the problem directly – it’s the employee’s perceptions and emotions that drive burnout… yet the company culture and managerial skills play a major role: the solution is to set a context in which employees can meet those basic needs more often. That is easier said than done, and requires a lot of emotional intelligence. Here’s a step-by-step guide for leaders to reverse the dangers of burnout:

1. Ask how they’re doing… in the right way.

The first step is to check in. It’s often hard to tell what somebody is thinking and feeling, and the only way to find out is to ask and listen. An attitude of curiosity, openness and non-judgment is essential. A few practical tips for this conversation…

Set cultural norms to talk about feelings. This work begins long before a specific instance of burnout or any challenging conversation. Make “normal” to ask about feelings. As a leader, model that you can share your own feelings in a way that’s both vulnerable/authentic and workplace appropriate. Practice asking about and sharing when they’re not-so-intense so you have readiness when things get tough.

Create proper time and space. This isn’t a passing by in the hallway conversation. Make sure you are in a private space, and carve out enough time to have a real conversation. A general rule of thumb is that the more complex and challenging a topic, the more time and space will be needed for a real answer. Burnout is a complex and challenging topic, and will require some time and space to explore. For general tips on connecting and going deeper, read this article from Joshua Freedman about the 3 S’s of communication.

Listen deeply. Listening is deeply connected to several basic human needs, like recognition, belonging, and purpose. Here are some practical tips to practice active listening, which is probably the single most important thing you can do.

Resist the urge to fix. When someone opens up about a struggle, many people feel an irresistible urge to offer solutions. But there probably aren’t quick, easy solutions to a long-term issue like burnout, and offering a solution may not be the best response at all. As Brené Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” That speaks to the real goal of this conversation, to meet that person’s basic needs – in this case, belonging, recognition and validation. For more on the tendency to fix things and why it often isn’t ideal, read this article.


Managers can’t “fix” employee burnout – it’s the employee’s perceptions and emotions that drive burnout… but they can set a context in which employees can meet those basic needs more often.


2. Seek out ways to empower them and put them in the driver’s seat.

One of the chief causes of burnout is a perceived lack of control. There are many contributing factors to this feeling, but some of the most common are an unsustainable workload, an inflexible schedule, micromanagement, no time for creative exploration, too many meetings, etc. Since many of us are busier than ever, these things can feel inevitable – even though in reality, they are a result of our choices. Have a conversation with the employee in which you make a plan together to set a context in which they feel more in control. There are many avenues to make that happen, and the right answer ultimately depends on the specific circumstances. Here are a few examples:

Respond without fixing. When the manager steps in to drive solutions, even when done out of positive intention, it sends a message that, “you can’t solve the problem but I can.” Instead, use tentative language (asking vs telling) and a coach-approach (Download our free Coaching with Emotional Intelligence eBook for more on a coach-approach).

Offer support and explore possibilities. Ask them for options; they might have a hard time if they’re on the edge of burnout, but don’t give into the temptation to TELL. This has to be driven by the employee. Together look at options that others have used – move into a dialogue about exploring possibilities. Offer a range of options and help the employee know that you are available to find solutions. You don’t need to commit to any specific action plan, and often that will require approval or collaboration from other groups (such as HR). At this stage, your goal is to send a clear message: You have options, and I will support you in seeking options.

Encourage them to do emotional check-ins throughout the day. This is a great way to understand their stressful triggers, which can help them feel more in control. Here’s a simple emotional intelligence check in to try.


“The more you give people the freedom and flexibility to shape their own path,” says @petesena, the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the marketing and design firm @digitalsurgeons, “the more committed they are to the goals of the enterprise.”