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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.


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.


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.


3. Say thank you.

In the craziness of modern work, it’s easy to forget to express gratitude. But what message does a lack of gratitude send to the employee? My work doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. These feelings matter: Insufficient recognition is a leading factor in burnout. The need to feel recognition is a primary human need, on par with belonging and a sense of purpose. The particular challenge in terms of burnout is that those who burn out are often high achievers. They care. They want to go above and beyond. They sacrifice for their work. And as a leader, it’s natural to start taking that production for granted, and focus our attention on employees who aren’t meeting expectations. There are many ways to express gratitude. Here are a couple ideas, because one size doesn’t fit all:

  • For some people, an award or bonus feels like recognition, and that may be the appropriate response.

  • For most people, it’s relational – a gift of time or a genuine thank you may be more valuable than a monetary reward.

The challenge is to know your people — you can even ask them. For all people, though, recognition is a known antidote to burnout.

4. Incentivize social connection.

A lack of social support is a key driver of employee burnout, and reconnecting is often the most effective way to start healing. As we enter an era of hybrid work when many employees work from home, this will be a particularly challenging topic for leaders to address, as Joshua Freedman (Six Seconds’ cofounder & ceo) covered in-depth in this article. As a leader, here are some options to consider:

  • Look at your own schedule and if possible, make time to connect with this employee. This goes back to the emotional check in from #1, but could also be less formal or work-related.

  • Create a context in which employees can socialize during work hours, like a work happy hour or mental health day.

  • Strategically assign collaborative work to the employee who’s struggling, to make sure they are interacting with coworkers.


5. Develop and cultivate a shared sense of ‘why.’

Two symptoms of burnout are cynicism and a decline in sense of personal accomplishment. This combination means the employee has internalized the belief that “My work doesn’t matter.” One of the most important jobs a leader has is to create a compelling and shared vision, about the company’s overall mission and each individual’s contributions to it. Developing a shared sense of ‘why’ may just be the best antidote to burnout. The bad news is that you can’t fake it. If you don’t find your work meaningful or important, good luck convincing your employees that it is. You have to truly believe it yourself, and communicating that may be the single most powerful strategy to help an employee experiencing burnout.

What to Do if Nothing Changes?

If an employee is already feeling burnt out, all of these actions may not have much of an effect, in spite of your best intentions. Hopefully they work, but it’s no guarantee. Like in my personal example, there can be many factors outside the company’s control. The good news is that this list can also serve as a template for creating a context in which employees thrive and instances of burnout are rare. Taking care of people’s basic emotional needs isn’t just the right thing to do, either, it’s good business.

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