Five red flags to identify burnout and solutions to help

Editor’s note: Merilee Kern is a brand strategist, analyst and founder of The Luxe List.

Employee burnout is one of the greatest challenges facing national economies. Studies show that, in some, a near majority of workers suffer from work-related stress, with over half of worker absences directly related to that stress. Not only is this a significant drain on resources that drives avoidable opportunity loss, it’s also a major contributor to both mental and physical health problems. While any number of interventions can address and resolve employee burnout, one solution is within earshot...literally: active listening. 

Today’s modern management must take a top-down approach to support its staff and not just hear what is being said but rather actively listen to it. A Harvard Business Review study found that active listening is a key factor in improving leadership effectiveness which, in turn, improves employee productivity, engagement and retention.1 Conversely, failing to do so presents a critical missed opportunity to address, and resolve, root causes of workforce stress and burnout. With employee burnout so widespread, aptly addressing the issue can seem daunting for managers. However, the overwhelm of the issue can apparently be mitigated with a clarified understanding of common challenges that cause and exacerbate employee burnout. According to Adi Segal, CEO of Hapi, there are five red flags that can readily be identified and resolved through active listening.  

1. Social isolation

When employees feel isolated, their emotional state is compromised and they are more likely to experience anxiety, stress and burnout – factors that can erode and impair a company’s growth. The work from home culture has only exacerbated the issue. In fact, Airbnb’s CEO warned that the most dangerous part of remote work isn’t lost productivity – it is loneliness.2 Active listening can help leaders identify employees who are struggling with this issue and take concerted steps to help them feel more connected to a manager and the team at large. Knowing that you belong, feeling that you are an important part of something and understanding that your contributions are valued can produce a powerful and positive mindset. 

2. Relationship issues

Whether with friends, colleagues, family or a significant other, relationship problems can cause significant pain, trauma and strain that promotes burnout. By actively listening to employees, leaders can identify these kinds of issues and take proactive measures to address them before they become major problems – for the worker, the department and the company overall.

3. Lack of mentorship 

Mentoring is an essential part of career development, but it can be challenging to navigate for both mentors and mentees. Many companies today are stretched thin and workdays are overwhelmed with tasks and to-do’s that make “free time” elusive if not seemingly impossible. Even so, it’s imperative for leaders to engage in active listening moments to help identify these guidance gaps and provide the necessary support, direction, assessment and praise to keep staffers on the right track.

4. Socioeconomic and financial strife

Often, an employee pool represents a variety of socioeconomic factors and income levels. No matter ones real or self-perceived stature or actual salary, everyone is at risk of struggling culturally and economically. Active listening can be a profound form of activism, with one report underscoring the extent to which active listening can offer much needed support to help people deal with intense and distressing emotions in relation to these particular issues that fundamentally impact nearly every aspect of our work, home and social lives.3

5. Sub-par problem-solving

It would be an understatement to say that problem-solving is a critical capability to uphold in the workplace. In fact, problem solving skills were cited as the most important soft skill of 2022 with 86% of employers seeking this attribute on student resumes, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2022 survey.4 Given this vital skill is hampered by communication breakdowns, active listening can help leaders identify these shortfalls and bridge those gaps by providing the necessary understanding, explanation, support and guidance to ensure everyone is on the same page. 

Immediate solutions for employee burnout

Addressing employee burnout and related productivity pitfalls need not be rocket science, according to Segal, there are numerous tactical strategies to start addressing the issue right now.  

Practice active listening

As with any skill, listening ability is correlated with frequency of use. Like working a muscle, it will get stronger over time. Similarly, leaders should regularly schedule and conduct sessions with their employees to practice “the art of listening” rather than just “hearing what someone said” to fully comprehend the content, meaning and implications of that discourse. People must embrace the notion that listening is not just a concept but rather something that requires intention and action.  

Enforce team training

There are numerous emotional intelligence and active listening courses leaders can provide individuals or their entire team. Just as the state mandates harassment training, business executives should make listening certification an important part of their own, and their team’s, professional development. Go a step further and make it a prerequisite or requirement for the job. When needed, expert trainers can be engaged to run active listening exercises, either in person or virtually. These professional resources can help expedite the key learning needed to put this skill into meaningful practice and start positively impacting people and the bottom line.

Provide resources

Analysis by NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago reveals organizations that support mental health see a return of $4 for every dollar invested.5 They’ve built a Mental Health Cost Calculator that can demonstrate and quantify the financial impact on your own company. Also notable is research making abundantly clear that talking to strangers can supercharge happiness.6 With the advent of Certified Listening as a Service, managers can promote mental health apps and resources that increase access to care and human connectivity with 24/7 availability offering a safe space for team members (from the C-suite to front-line employees) to vent, relieve stress, get advice, bounce ideas or just have company when feeling lonely or isolated.

Organizationally, leaders need to establish and build on a culture of engagement, collaboration and trust. The kind that can only be compelled through true active listening so that employees feel heard, valued and supported in a way that impedes burnout. In turn, business and industries will realize an array of benefits from increased productivity and higher staff retention rates to lower absenteeism and presenteeism exemplified by the “quiet quitting” trend.

Employee angst, stress and burnout is a significant business problem and one highly viable – and relatively immediate – solution lies in the simple yet impactful act of active listening. By committing to this learned and nuanced skill, leaders can readily address the root causes of these issues and ultimately facilitate a potent culture of caring. Executives will quickly see the ripple effects as these improvements drive employee satisfaction and revenue growth.