At year-end once more my blog with the most attention during 2017, the one from September 14: In my blog published on 4 July, I explained the differences between the three (pre-)burnout phases and the symptoms that characterize them. Today, I will explore the following question: How should I act as a manager if one of my employees is displaying these symptoms? The most important step you can take is to reach out to the individual in question and talk to him about it – even if you may not find this easy.
As a boss, you have done everything in your power to show appreciation, to lead your people in a targeted manner, to create clear roles and processes, and to build a good team culture. Despite all this, one of your employees is now displaying the burnout symptoms I described in my last blog. So what is the best course of action you can take in this type of situation? There may be a tendency among some managers to avoid engaging in discussions with employees such as these as they can prove an uncomfortable experience. It is difficult to know how exactly to broach the subject. However, an open discussion can have a big impact. It should ideally consist of three phases:
- Phase 1: Start by expressing your appreciation to the employee – don’t immediately voice criticisms, even if the individual is no longer performing his work to the same standard as before. Afterwards, allow the employee to talk to you and listen carefully to what he has to say. Just be there for him. Find out what is happening in his life and how exactly he feeling. Simply having someone to talk to often provides the individual with a sense of relief.
- Phase 2: Take control of the discussion. Ask the employee exactly what is troubling him and discuss resourcing issues. Explain your impression of the situation and what you have noticed – ideally with examples to illustrate your point.
- Phase 3: Talk to the employee about the exact steps that can be taken, e.g. improvements in the structure of work or the working environment. Does he have a network of friends and family? How can the employee manage his or her own expectations? How can the individual recharge his or her batteries? What support measures does he need? Define immediate steps to relieve the situation. Based on my experience, employees often need to have weekly or – in acute phases – daily action plans, since they don’t know how to get through the next few days. The employee must explicitly confirm in writing that he agrees with the measures that have been formulated together with the line manager. At the end of the discussion, agree on another meeting to discuss his experiences.
The main objective of this first discussion is for the employee to feel that he has been noticed and is being taken seriously – and for both sides to identify the contribution they can make towards improving the situation. Employees must be willing to consider their own patterns of behavior and actions and to work on them. As a manager, you should also demonstrate that you are willing to make changes. Think about your own conduct and – if possible and appropriate – change working processes, focus on developing a new team culture, etc. – depending on the reasons and triggers of the (pre-) burnout being experienced by the employee.
Others are often the first to notice
If the affected employee recognizes the need for action to be taken, you can also arrange for him to receive specialist counselling if required. In an initial phase, coaching is advisable. In a second or third phase, a combination of coaching and psychotherapy may be the recommended course of action. If the burnout is at an advanced stage, the individual may require residential treatment at a burnout clinic.
The situation becomes more difficult if the employee in question does not see any need to take action. This is often the case in the pre-burnout phase 1 (‘Activity and aggression’), when the employee works tirelessly and tries to keep everything under control but is no longer able to find a sense of calm and inner peace. In this phase, people at work and in the individual’s private life often notice the changes before the employee sees them him. If – following the first discussion described above – there is no improvement at the next meeting or if the individual still fails to see the need to take measures, it is then time to involve your HR business partner so that it becomes clear to the employee that he needs to address the situation. If the quality of his work has declined, the employee must recognize that something needs to change.
The longer the process lasts, the greater is the need for further, tougher measures to be taken (e.g. involve your line manager or take official steps under employment law) – no matter how much you respect the individual. This is important as it will become more difficult to help the employee return to his original level of performance once he reaches pre-burnout phase 2 (“Flight and withdrawal”) or even phase 3 (“Isolation and inertia” with depressive tendencies) without the individual having to attend residential treatment – which is a protracted and painful process for both sides.
In summary: How should you address the topic of stress and burnout as a manager? The answer is: exemplify – observe – address – act.
© Claudia Kraaz