People Management
8 min.

Preventing Burnout: 4 Factors to Watch Out For 

Andrée-Anne Blais-Auclair
Last updated on 22 Feb. 2024
Published on 8 Dec. 2021
Man drowning into a pile of documents

A full 49% of Quebec workers suffer from psychological distress. Yet in spite of this high percentage, 60% of SMEs still have no mechanisms in place to prevent burnout at work.

Table of contents

Burnout is a work-related illness resulting from personal and professional factors.
The symptoms of burnout vary but can be very intense. Since employers have no control over personal factors, their best bet is to focus on prevention at work.

I recently came across a very interesting concept that helps with understanding and preventing burnout—“psychosocial factors at work,” i.e., the elements that influence mental health.

When properly attended to, these factors help protect your employees’ mental health. Conversely, when neglected, they are more likely to put their health at risk.

In occupational health, it’s always more effective to act at the source in order to eliminate and control the risks at hand.

In this post, I lay out four psychosocial factors at work to watch out for to in order to fight burnout:

  • Workload;
  • Decision-making autonomy;
  • Recognition; and
  • Social support and work relationships.

Work Overload: The Main Cause of Burnout

Workload refers to the amount of work a person has to do, the time allotted for it, and the skills required to do the job.

If your employee feels overworked, the consequences can be dire—whether or not the overload is observable and obvious to you.

When I was a waitress, one of my coworkers felt constantly overwhelmed; she felt she had too many customers at the same time and more tables than she could handle.
The result was that she wasn’t at her best, and her self-esteem took a nosedive… as did her boss’s appraisal of her.

Because she was receiving pressure rather than empathy from her managers, her stress continued to balloon at work and the situation did not improve. As you’ve probably guessed, it wasn’t long before she left the job. However, after running into her at another restaurant afterwards, I can assure you she was on her A-game. She even told me that she felt comfortable in her skin and that she no longer doubted her skills as a waitress.

No two people will have the same perception of their workload, even if it happens to be equal. It’s well known that no two people perform quite the same way—everyone has a different tolerance to stress and pressure.

No employer is in a position to judge whether or not an employee’s emotion is genuine or not, or whether it’s excessive.

💡 Constantly increasing workloads and adding demands on workers’ mental, psychological and physical resources represents a considerable health risk. Excessive workloads fuel work absenteeism in addition to dampening initiative and creativity.

Concrete actions to take care of your employees

  • Regularly check in with your employees about how they view their workload;
  • Consider not just the quantity but also the complexity of the tasks that make up their workload;
  • Consider both formal and informal requests made to employees; some tasks can be “invisible”;
  • Also factor in the unexpected in your employees’ workload; and
  • Provide sufficient resources and tools for everyone to do their job, including a more experienced mentor, training, required materials, etc.

Micromanagement is the Bane of Autonomy

Autonomy at work means the freedom to decide how to do your job. It’s also directly linked to the notion of fulfillment, i.e., having the opportunity to be creative and to acquire new knowledge and skills.

A constantly micromanaging boss will greatly hinder the autonomy of their employees.

I once had an employer who controlled every aspect of the business as if he were the sole employee. We never had the opportunity to make decisions and we didn’t feel we had a real impact. Our boss carried the company’s mission on his shoulders alone. We were his “assistants.”

This type of behavior by employers undermines employee self-esteem, discourages initiative and undermines motivation at work.

Without a sense of professional purpose, employees disengage fast.

💡 Authors have pointed out that excessive workload combined with low autonomy causes even greater damage to health than either of these indicators alone. This combination is referred to as tension at work.

Concrete actions to take care of your employees

  • Allow employees to take part in certain relevant business decisions;
  • To the best of your ability, offer a flexible schedule;
  • Trust your employees to set their own work time and breaks;
  • Set big goals, but give employees the flexibility to choose the methods, tools and pace in order to get there;
  • Establish practices and training that promote new skill development.

Recognition: A Fundamentally Human Need

Recognition refers to any initiative that recognizes the achievements and efforts of employees. A manager may recognize their entire team or a specific individual.

Recognition plays a key role in engagement at work, with significant impacts on occupational motivation and well-being. Giving recognition to your employees is directly linked to staff loyalty and retention.

According to several authors, recognition is a prerequisite for building an identity at work. The need to be recognized as a person in your own right and as a worker engaged at work and motivated to put in effort and develop skills ties in directly with self-esteem.

Recognition from others gives us validation and indirectly promotes our self-esteem, in addition to reflecting back our reputation in the eyes of the people close to us.

💡 When there is an imbalance between the effort an employee puts in and the reward— in this case in the form of recognition from a manager—the mental health impacts can be significant. Conversely, frequent, sincere recognition helps maintain employees’ psychological health.

Concrete actions to take care of your employees

  • Say thank you to your employees;
  • Point out their achievements to the rest of the team;
  • Offer corporate gifts or privileges as a form of thanks;
  • Be specific when praising your employees: Avoid simply saying things like “good job”;
  • Offer a satisfactory salary and working conditions that promote work-life balance;
  • Emphasize the efforts as well as the results; and
  • Organize meals or events, for example to celebrate the completion of a particularly challenging project.

Social Support… The Ultimate Protection Against Burnout

Social support is a key factor that influences mental health at work. Employees’ relationships with their boss and with coworkers have a significant impact on their experience at work.

The privileged relationship between a manager and their employees

Positive relationships with immediate managers require attentiveness, availability, and openness to employees’ ideas and opinions. A supportive manager demonstrates empathy and fairness to their team. This is how they develop emotional intelligence—one of the top assets of managers.

Did you know that the manager is the only one on the team who has the power (and quite a bit of it!) to allow others to be authentic at work?

It’s true! Adam Grant, in his book Think Again, reminds us that a leader who is able to normalize vulnerability and authenticity allows employees to be honest about their own challenges. The concept is referred to as psychological safety, and only the manager can create this safe space for the team.

💡 A lack of social support from an immediate superior directly affects well-being at work, and consequently, the organization’s performance. More often than not, this leads to high turnover.

Concrete actions to take care of your employees

  • As a manager, limit the number of meetings you attend, so you have more time with your team;
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings with your employees on a regular basis, and take the opportunity to discuss personal matters as well;
  • Acknowledge your limitations, name them openly, and encourage your team to do the same;
  • Be specific in the division of tasks and responsibilities and communicate your expectations clearly;
  • Give your employees recognition in front of your other team members;
  • Be respectful at all times and develop your emotional intelligence so that you can be as much in control of your emotions and reactions as possible; and
  • Learn how to handle conflicts as soon as they arise.

Fun at work as a way to promote psychological health

Relationships between coworkers are just as valuable as coworkers’ relationships with their immediate managers. Social support among coworkers includes group cohesion as well as team spirit. A cohesive work team is more likely to perform well, collaborate better and pull together in the face of obstacles and challenges.

I was once part of a team that prized performance to the point of fueling a competitive spirit. My coworkers talked behind one another’s backs every chance they got, and worse, they talked behind our backs to our manager. The atmosphere was toxic and it will come as no surprise that the team lacked both synergy and efficiency. It was every man for himself.

A team with high levels of social support among coworkers will give rise to generous and authentic collaboration, and employees who trust one another, both operationally and emotionally.

💡 Poor social support among coworkers leads to workplace conflict, absenteeism, lower motivation, and less dedication to the organization. Conversely, good social support at work is a key protective factor that nurtures fulfillment and greater efficiency.

Concrete actions to take care of your employees

  • Place importance on the process of welcoming and integrating new employees;
  • Organize regular team-building events outside of work;
  • Address conflicts when they arise, and don’t take sides; be a neutral mediator.

Prevention Is Your Greatest Asset

Understanding psychosocial factors in the workplace is a valuable tool in preventing burnout. The secret lies in preserving the positive factors already in place and developing those that are a risk in your organization.

Focusing on these indicators helps you prevent burnout and nurture your employees’ happiness, which in turn boosts their loyalty.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!

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