5 tips to help employees burn bright instead of burning out

With intention and attention, we can create the conditions for ourselves and our employees to thrive, even in these difficult and stressful times.

Envision a campfire. The light illuminates the darkness, heat emanates from the flames. The fire will endure and thrive when tended with care, the added fuel and available oxygen combining to recharge the flame. This metaphor speaks directly to how we can sustain ourselves and our employees during these particularly trying times — creating the conditions for us to burn bright instead of burning out.

Across the globe, individuals, organizations and communities are experiencing increasingly stressful and unpredictable environments. These conditions are draining individuals at an accelerating rate. The challenges of 2020 were heaped on top of an already pressing burnout problem. In 2019, pre-COVID-19, the World Health Organization defined burnout as a global syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. Fast forward to August 2020 and a study reporting that 75 percent of workers have experienced burnout, with 40 percent of those polled saying it was a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. Burnout is diverse and all-inclusive — it can happen to anyone in any season of life and at any leadership level.

Burnout can also be expensive for employers, adding up to $190 billion per year in burnout-related health care costs alongside productivity and staff turnover challenges. In addition, workplace stress is estimated to cost the overall U.S. economy more than $500 billion per year, with lost productivity amounting to about 550 million workdays, according to Harvard Business Review.

Against this backdrop, a savvy leader must bring real intention and attention to not only their own well-being at work and at home, but also to the energy and resilience of their team. For sure, individual employee responsibility for care of self is vital, but we also need to think more broadly about how we can create and cultivate the conditions for our teams and organizations to flourish. The current environment of turbulence and uncertainty requires us to focus our attention not only on how we work, but, importantly, how we meaningfully recharge in small, short, sustainable ways.

To support and sustain a work climate that promotes and enhances a recharge mindset and toolset, here are some researched and reasonable tactics and tips. These tips support the individual employee and bolster messages of support from the organization to help employees burn bright.

1. Seek employee input.

To enroll and enlist people in an anti-burnout effort, ask employees what they need and what would be most helpful for their energy and engagement. Listen to and, when possible, incorporate their feedback and ideas. Dedicate time in one-on-one meetings to sincerely check in on the well-being of teammates — and when they say they’re doing “fine,” gently challenge with follow-up questions. Notice changes over time.

2. Appreciate that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Navigating high-activity or high-intensity times by managing personal energy and balancing them with short and regular periods of recovery helps to foster a resilient workforce. Different people will craft their tactics and strategies in different ways. Allow for and learn from personally crafted and curated approaches to recharging.

3. Understand that a small amount of time can provide a meaningful recharge opportunity.

It’s easy to fall into a narrative that we don’t have time to take a break. However, we all have scraps of time sprinkled throughout our days: six minutes here, 10 minutes there. And what if, with added intention, we used just a few pieces of that “time confetti” to do something enjoyable and energizing, such as simply taking a few deep breaths or a quick walk outside?

4. Show gratitude.

The benefits of gratitude are wide-ranging and well-researched. Gratitude has a powerful double impact, impacting the positivity and energy of those expressing gratitude and those receiving it. Authentically thanking employees for contributions large and small to keep the organization going during this stressful time is impactful. Put time on the calendar for gratitude — it takes just a few minutes to reach out with a personalized message or quick call. The Center for Creative Leadership offers more information about how to encourage gratitude in the workplace.

5. Walk your talk.

Organizational leaders may say they are committed to employee well-being, but unintentional messages and behaviors can signal otherwise, leading employees at all levels to default to their draining routines. How we leverage time and calendars can powerfully reinforce messaging around resilience and recharge as priorities. Some ideas to get started are:

  • Create a daily out of office — for example, during lunchtime — to set boundaries and manage expectations.
  • Send no email after 7 p.m. local time or opt to use “delay send.”
  • Walk as part of your meetings. If possible, skip the video in exchange for an old-school phone call and walk while talking. Build movement into your meetings, pausing every 60 minutes or so for everyone to take a brief stroll or stretch.
  • Consider no-meeting Fridays. If that’s too bold, start with no-meeting Friday afternoons.
  • Schedule shorter meetings (25-50 minutes) to allow for a rejuvenating “commute” between video calls and meetings.
  • Surprise and delight: Give a Friday off, an extra PTO day or another reward that makes sense for your organization.

Sustained, peak performance is achievable when individuals and organizations prioritize intentional recharging. Burnout is not an inevitable phase of our work life, nor a badge of honor to wear. With intention and attention, we can create the conditions for ourselves and our employees to burn bright.