When I see an employee working late or looking overwhelmed, it is my instinct to jump in with them, discuss the work causing the late nights, and help course-correct. At first, everything usually evens out, but too often, the cycle repeats months or even weeks later. If nothing changes, the employee eventually moves on, citing burnout as the cause.
Before we get too far, let's align on burnout. Burnout is when an employee feels mentally drained. They stop caring about the work and have no motivation to continue. You might think of burnout as being stuck in a dark hole. The way out feels unreachable, and the light is slowly dimming. The employee has lost all hope for change and only sees themselves falling deeper.
Not fun! In any way, shape, or form. While an unrealistic workload can be a contributing factor, I think there's more to the story.
Simply put, burnout is complex. It is not going away, especially in our increasing remote workforce, where our deskspace may be steps away from where we lay our head to rest. Combine this with care and love for our work, and it can be pretty hard to disconnect.
Looking back to the earliest days of my career, I'd think nothing of staying at the office past 6 pm. Was it because I said yes too much? Sometimes. Was that because I wanted to learn as much as I could? Always. Did I get burned out? No.
What kept me going through those exhausting moments was that I knew my contributions served the client's desired outcome. In addition, I saw these experiences were fueling my growth. I've been lucky to work with supportive leaders who supported me in finding my direction forward, personally and professionally.
When an employee cites burnout as they walk out the door, they may attribute their current emotional state solely to having too much on their plate, but deep down, it's likely they concluded that it was all for nothing.
In the book, An Everyone Culture, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey state, "research shows that the single biggest cause of work burnout is not work overload, but working too long without experiencing your own personal development."
In a company setting, everyone may be aligned and fighting for the same outcomes, but there's no hiding that each of us wants to be getting better through the process. I don't necessarily mean getting promoted or changing titles, which doesn't always reflect growth; I mean feeling challenged, overcoming hurdles, and seeing positive change in yourself. If this is not true of our experience, chances are we'll start questioning whether our current position is the right fit.
Keeping this in mind, when I notice an employee looking swamped, I do my best to fight the instinct to intervene with assumptions. Even with the best intentions, I've learned the hard way that taking work off their shoulders can have unintended consequences, like robbing them of a growth opportunity, making them feel like they couldn't succeed on their own, or taking them away from work that they love. Each of these can create an impact that sticks.
Instead, I try to lead with curiosity and unpack what might be contributing to their anxiety.
From career ambitions to time management, these conversations can yield incredible insights. If one of the challenges is the amount of work, I can help them delegate it. The beauty is that we can decide together while also helping them stay on track with their personal development.