Say you’re a talented long-distance runner who’s training for a marathon. You know it’s foolish–not to say impossible–to try to run 20 miles every day. Your body will break down well before the day of the race. This is obvious, yet we don’t often apply that lesson to non-athletic feats. Top performers in workplaces are just as liable to crash and burn if they’re pushed too hard without rest or recovery. And a one- or two-day slowdown typically isn’t enough to prevent long-term burnout.
That’s where managers come in. Occupational burnout can come in different forms and sometimes look like many different things. Perhaps one of your best employees isn’t bringing new, creative solutions to the table anymore, or their attitude has soured. Maybe they’ve just become withdrawn, show less excitement, and hang back from after-hours get-togethers they used to participate in. What’s a good boss to do?
It can be difficult to know when or how to approach a top-performing employee who seems to be burning out when they haven’t asked for help.
Chances are your best team members are independent and seldom need much support when everything’s going well. So when things take a downturn, they’re even less likely to admit they’re overwhelmed, as they may be afraid of appearing incapable. But that’s all the more reason for a manager who sees the warning signs to address it right away.
The best way to talk with the employee in question is to stick to behavioral stuff. Don’t assume you know what’s causing it. You shouldn’t pry into your employee’s personal life, but neither should you discount the possibility that concerns outside of work are impacting their performance. Start by simply explaining the shift you’ve seen. Then ask for their perspective on what’s going on.
Express your genuine concern and be ready to listen. If the employee hesitates to open up, ask someone the employee is close to if they wouldn’t mind talking to them–not as your emissary, but as another colleague who cares about them. Some employees might be more willing to confide in a mentor or a friend than in their managers.
Once a top performer admits they’re feeling burnt out, it’s up to managers to help them make changes to get reenergized. Give your employee special projects. Anyone who’s burnt out is probably craving a break from whatever routine work or current project has caused their fatigue, so sometimes a change in responsibilities can reengage them.
Make them the point person of a small project that doesn’t take up a lot of their time, but gives them accountability and a new measure of creativity. Make sure it’s business-related, otherwise it might seem like a patronizing distraction–this could be a philanthropic committee, leading group meetings, or researching professional development materials for the team to brush up on.
Sometimes just taking a break from talking about work helps employees relax and decompress. It also helps to get out of the office, whether it’s taking a short walk or grabbing lunch or drinks. When I know an employee is feeling overwhelmed, I take them for coffee or breakfast. I get them out of the office to take their minds off work-related issues.
You might not be able to hire another full-time staff member, but if your team is already growing and you do have that option, try bringing someone in who might up your top performer’s game. It’s likely that your best employees thrive on competition. Bring someone in at their level to reignite their passion. Working alongside people who don’t challenge you can be draining. If you can’t increase the competitive stakes by hiring someone, try challenging your burnt-out employee with other rewards and incentives tailored to their skills and interests.
Ultimately, the best way to stop burnout from sinking your top-performing employees in the first place is to meet with them early and often. Open lines of communication don’t just help cure burnout, they can also help prevent it in the first place.
Maureen Hoersten is chief revenue officer for LaSalle Network, where she is responsible for the oversight of new business development and client development, as well as office services and customer service recruiting.