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How to nip burnout before it becomes a problem

How to nip burnout before it becomes a problem

There’s a great story about two lumberjacks who worked every day in a Scandinavian forest.

Every morning at 9:00, they both started chopping wood. And every afternoon at 5:00, they stopped chopping wood.

Every day around lunchtime, one of the lumberjacks would disappear for about two hours. Yet without fail, the lumberjack that disappeared for a couple of hours would chop more wood than the other. 

This goes on for months and months, and eventually, the lumberjack who works all day without a break gets fed up. He throws his axe on the floor, pipes up and says, “I don’t get it. Every day we start at the same time. Every day we stop at the same time. And you disappear for a couple of hours every day in the middle of the day. But yet you chop more wood. Where do you go?!”

The other lumberjack looks up and says, “Oh. I go home and sharpen my axe”.


More and more of your workforce is succumbing to what’s known as ‘burnout’, and because work-life boundaries are blurred and almost completely gone if employees work remotely, it’s essential you stay on top of this and help your employees avoid burnout. 


Why burnout happens

Burnout is a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It’s often associated with employees feeling useless, powerless and empty.

As we learnt with the lumberjacks, the fallacy is that employees do not have to be rooted at their desks to get more done. Because it’s not about how much your employees can get done each day but how much they can get done by the end of the week.

So, if an employee approaches you and seems burnt out, here are some strategies to help them recharge.



Starting with the old school and obvious—encourage them to take a holiday! 


Because when people are away, whether interstate or overseas, they turn off and disconnect from the office. In other words, they go and sharpen their axe. 

Reconnecting with family, friends, and passions is essential. It’s not just a break from work, it’s a recharge for the soul and these moments of joy and relaxation renew employees' energy and creativity and often make people more productive when they return to the office.


Flexi-time policy 

If the employee doesn’t have leave or doesn’t want to take time off, the next best thing is to implement a process in your organisation where employees can take the afternoon off or start/end work an hour or so early. 

Because as human resource managers, we all know when an employee calls up and pulls a “sicky”. 


So consider allowing employees to start/end work on their terms instead of lying and pretending they have a stomach bug. And if they really don’t feel like they can face the day, it should be okay for an employee to take a duvet day. Because when employees have more time for themselves, they sharpen their axe. 


Going upstream

So beyond those fail-safe strategies you can rely on to temporarily help an employee experiencing burnout, what if you went upstream to the source of the problem and tackled it head-on before it became a crisis?


Upstream problem-solving is a proactive approach to addressing problems before they arise. It involves identifying potential sources of problems and addressing them before they can manifest themselves downstream. 

So, if you went upstream to solve the burnout problem, burnout wouldn’t just be managed, but avoided altogether. It sounds like a dream, right? It’s entirely possible if you implement strategies that focus on ideas to prevent burnout rather than just react to it and suggest a holiday.

And this starts with understanding the root causes of burnout and addressing them proactively. It means fostering a culture of well-being where regular breaks, manageable workloads, and open communication are the norms, not the exceptions. So, let’s dive into the strategies that help you go upstream and give employees a breather before it becomes a problem. 


Upstream strategies

The first is trust. You have to trust employees. They need to feel like you have their back. Because more and more employees are working remotely, the boundaries of when someone can stop and start working are blurred.


Another great way to get upstream is to ensure employees have someone to go to and be honest about their day. Whether an employee is struggling and having a bad day, or fed up with someone, they need to be able to talk about it —and that could be you! It’s healthy to vent and employees don’t get to vent much if they work remotely. 


The next thing you can do is encourage employees to take more ‘me time’ and block it out in their calendars. Managers often throw meetings into calendars without checking beforehand. If there’s a culture where it’s encouraged to block out ‘me time’, employees will be encouraged to politely say ‘no’ to a manager who put in a last-minute meeting on a Friday. Assuming the work is not urgent of course.



It’s essential to address burnout before it becomes a problem. Because if you have to encourage holidays and flexible hours, you haven't gone upstream to solve the problem. 

If you can foster a culture of well-being, manageable workloads, and open communication, you can do your best to prevent burnout altogether.

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