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Where should employers concerned about employee burnout look? At themselves.

"Executives need to lead by example," says Ellie Maggio, managing director of Emend Management Consultants in Toronto. A manager who works around the clock, for example, sets the tone for employees, she says.

Employee burnout is a concern for Canadian businesses, says Sandra Reder, president of human resources consulting firm Vertical Bridge Corporate Consulting in Vancouver. It is estimated to cost $300-billion in lost productivity in the U.S., causing financial damage through high turnover, reduced productivity and absenteeism, as well hurting employee engagement and morale .

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"The number one issue for executives is that they have to have more trust in the people they work with," says Ms. Maggio, explaining that less micro-managing gives the executive more time, but also gives employees a greater sense of ownership over their work, which increases engagement and combats burnout.

A good job fit is key in preventing burnout, says Ms. Reder, who recommends considering factors that contribute to burnout during the job selection phase.

"If you put the wrong person in the wrong job, you create a platform for burnout," says Ms. Reder. "There are assessment tools and interview techniques that can zero in on your expectations. If you work in a deadline driven environment, you shouldn't hire someone who is stressed by deadlines. It's not just about hiring for the right skills but also the right characteristics."

Personality can contribute to burnout, as can lifestyle, notes Ms. Maggio. "A lot of people focus on employee burnout as being what happens at work, but there are other factors you have to look at as well."

For instance, an employee's diet and sleeping habits can contribute to burnout, as can a tendency to get easily stressed. These factors can be difficult for an employer to influence, but there are many factors employees can control, with communication topping the list.

"Transparent communication is essential," says Ms. Maggio. "If management is open with staff about what future plans for the organization and employees, that leaves them feeling settled and secure in their job," says Ms. Maggio. "It's important but a lot of employers overlook it."

Ms. Reder suggests managers hold regular informal sessions with staff to keep communication flowing. "Be open and candid and if it's coming from a place of authenticity, staff will respond to that."

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She emphasizes that communication shouldn't flow in only one direction and encourages managers to ask employees how projects are going and where they may need help.

Also in the communication department, lack of clarity about job expectations can drive employees to burn out, says Ms. Maggio. "In some companies with lack of organization, a person's role can change daily. This creates a lot of stress and anxiety for the individual."

This often goes back to job design, which some companies don't look at carefully enough, says Ms. Maggio. "Companies need to ensure that an employee's skills are really being used in the most optimal way," she says. Insufficient clarity on individual staff member's roles, and how they collectively fit together, can result in employee frustration.

If there simply isn't enough staff to manage the volume of work, stress is almost always a guaranteed outcome, says Ms. Reder. "Stress is the underlying reason you have burnout," she says. "So you need to start by asking if you actually have enough employees to do the work."

Providing support, both in the way of sufficient staff and also on a more personal level to employees who may be going through a difficult personal time, is essential to avoiding burnout, says Ms. Maggio.

She also cites lack of rewards, whether in recognition or finances, and lack of control over work as factors that can contribute to burnout.

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Both Ms. Maggio and Ms. Reder agree that if an employer sees signs of burnout, they are best to investigate right away rather than let things fester.

"We need to recognize signs of burnout," says Ms. Maggio. "It's important for employers to find viable solutions for employees who are prone to burnout and it's better to do it sooner than later," she says, adding that signs of burnout include irritability, frequent absenteeism and decline in productivity.

Ms. Reder points to high turnover as a sign there could be a problem with job burnout. She suggests conducting exit interviews to find out if in fact that's the case. "Use that as an opportunity to find out why the employee thinks this happened," she says. "Employers quite honestly often just don't know what they're doing wrong."

To avoid burnout in the first place, Ms. Maggio stands by a strategic approach. "Burnout is the antithesis of employee engagement," she says. "An there's plenty of evidence that suggests that strategic human resources management and high-performance work systems are foundational in driving employee engagement. If an organization is strategic about human resources, they're going to have higher engagement and less burnout."


Employee burnout is top of mind for Canadian employers. According to research by talent and career-management firm Right Management, which surveyed more than 3,000, executives across Canada, 54 per cent of executives cited employee morale and burnout as their biggest business concern.

Here are executives' responses to the survey:

  • Employee morale and burnout: 54 per cent
  • Risk of losing top talent: 51 per cent
  • Not having the skills required: 31 per cent
  • Lack of high potential leaders in the organization: 31 per cent
  • Redeploying key talent: 25 per cent
  • Ability to attract new talent: 25 per cent
  • Loss of intellectual capital due to recent downsizing:10 per cent

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