Burnout and Boundaries:
Critical Answers to Address
a Workplace Reality

Burnout and Boundaries

In an unpredictable world full of constant change and challenges, people are tasked with the enormous pressure of prioritizing the needs and demands of the workplace. As a result, many people neglect their personal needs, leading to burnout, anxiety, and overwhelm—even among an organization’s top leadership ranks. 

For HR professionals, it can be challenging to recognize burnout and when it becomes an issue, which is why at the last HR and Payroll eSymposium (access the recordings here), I covered this topic from a leadership perspective. And as a follow-up to that session, I received several insightful questions from attendees that I thought were worth getting in-depth answers to.

Fortunately, I knew exactly who I should talk to. My colleague Teresa Smith is not only a seasoned HR and payroll leader, she’s also a long-time mental health advocate with a wealth of knowledge in that space. So I asked her what people have been asking me. Knowing how to establish healthy boundaries and monitor risks can help you take the right measures to proactively mitigate burnout in the workplace, and I hope you take away some new insights from my discussion with Teresa.

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Jayson Saba: So to get started, Teresa, can you remind everyone what burnout is in general?

Teresa Smith: I think we are all familiar with the term burnout, but what is it and what impact it has on the workforce can be a bit more nuanced. The term burnout was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and is defined as a growing sense of physical and emotional depletion or exhaustion, negative feelings or cynicism about the job, and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout is essentially caused by prolonged levels of work-related stress that has been unmanaged and can occur in any job, to anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

JS: Why is this critical to manage in the workforce, and where do you usually see burnout manifesting among employees?

TS: Work-related stress and burnout can be a serious problem for the business and for the people who work at your organization. If left unmanaged, it can leave your people feeling physically and emotionally depleted, leading to a lack of motivation, job dissatisfaction, cynicism, detachment, and personal unhappiness. 

There are many factors that contribute to burnout in employees, such as heavy workloads, working long hours, lack of work-life balance, little or no recognition, unclear job expectations, toxic workplace culture, lack of support, poor communication, and not feeling valued.

When employees feel overwhelmed or experience stress related to work, it can impact their level of engagement, hinder creativity, and innovation, decrease their desire to learn and grow, and weaken their level of commitment to the organization. This can lead to increased employee absence, lower productivity, and higher turnover, all which affect the company’s bottom line.

JS: That was an excellent overview, and sets the stage for the first question I got in response to my session: How can we improve burnout and mental health for our remote employees or employees in smaller offices, such as sites that leadership teams visit once every six months or so? 

TS: We can’t forget about our remote workers or those who work in remote locations. While working remotely can be positive for a lot of employees, many struggle with feelings of isolation and being disconnected from their peers and the organization.   

It’s important that HR takes measures to ensure these workers feel like they belong and are connected to the organization. Here are some possibilities:

  • Provide equitable opportunities. While they may not be able to attend events, social gatherings, or other organizational functions, they still need to feel like they are a part of the organization. There are many ways to bring remote workers together. Do your research and find out how other organizations are creating moments of engagement for their remote teams.
  • Provide tools, technology, and resources. It is important that remote workers have the same tools, technology, and resources needed to perform their jobs effectively. Their experience should be the same no matter their physical location. 
  • Provide consistent communication. Remote work requires continuous connection and communication with managers, leaders, and co-workers. Scheduling regular, ongoing meetings for teamwork and collaboration on projects can help them feel more connected.  Weekly touch base meetings to get a pulse on how your employees are doing can help managers identify barriers standing in their way of success and how they can better support them. 
  • Monitor workload. Track and monitor workloads to ensure work is distributed equitably and can be achieved realistically.

JS: These ideas illustrate how we need to right-size our responses to burnout to different roles within our organizations. For example, burnout doesn’t just affect individual contributors but leaders as well. What is the best way to approach leaders who you are showing signs of burnout? How can you support up and down lines of an organization? 

TS: Managers and leaders are not immune to work-related stress and burnout. They are under an enormous amount of pressure every day to keep the business moving in a positive direction, ensure their people have what they need to succeed, and make timely and effective decisions that impact the organization’s bottom line. 

This amount of pressure can take a toll on the mental health of managers and leaders. In fact, according to a study by the UKG Workforce Institute, nearly half of the managers surveyed said they would quit their jobs within the next 12 months because they’re experiencing too much work-related stress and one in five C-level leaders admit they feel cynical, irritable, and burned out at work. 

Approaching managers and leaders who are showing signs of burnout can be a delicate subject, especially when employees are the ones noticing. A culture of mutual support can help create an environment where everyone is willing and comfortable to help and uplift one another, and we can set some clear ground rules to help that happen: 

  • Be empathetic. Express understanding and concern for their wellbeing by recognizing the challenges they are facing. 
  • Offer support. Offering support or assistance to lighten their workload can help managers and leaders delegate tasks and projects more freely. 
  • Open the lines of communication. Letting them know that you are available to listen or discuss any issues or concerns and being receptive to feedback can take a lot of pressure off them. 
  • Recognize and praise. Just like employees, manager and leaders need to be recognized for the work they are doing. Acknowledging and recognizing them for their hard work and dedication can go a long way in boosting moral and motivation. 
  • Promote work-life Balance. Encourage managers and leaders to prioritize self-care and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Provide them with training and resources for stress management and time management.
  • Get Support. Reach out to higher levels of management or HR for additional support.

Because managers and leaders have a major influence on the wellbeing of the workforce, play an important role in establishing a company’s culture, and are key to the success of the business, it is important for organizations to invest in technology and tools to support these leaders and provide resources to protect their mental health. 

JS: Speaking for myself as a leader, I know it can be extremely difficult to advocate for yourself when you’re overwhelmed and feel responsible for supporting the team on top of that. Creating a culture that flows both ways is critical so no one hits a point of no return. Speaking of which, that brings me to another question I received at the eSymposium: Is there any research to suggest that people can reach a point of no return with burnout? If so, what does that look like? If someone is nearing this stage, what advice would you give their manager or leadership team to correct it?

TS: The impacts of burnout do not appear overnight, making it difficult for organizations to recognize when someone is approaching burnout, sometimes before it is too late. Recognizing the signs and symptoms can help HR professionals support individuals who are experiencing burnout. 

Because workplace burnout has such a negative impact on the overall wellbeing of people, the World Health Organization now recognizes burnout as an official medical diagnosis. Some of the signs and symptoms to look for include chronic fatigue, insomnia, physical symptoms, depression. stress, and anxiety.   

Furthermore, psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North developed the 12-stage model of burnout that can help HR professionals educate employees, managers, and leaders on recognizing the symptoms of burnout in the workplace. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Stage 1: Excessive ambition. Feeling like you constantly having to prove your worth.

Stage 2: Working harder. Saying yes to the point of not being able to fulfill commitments. 

Stage 3: Neglecting needs. Work is affecting sleep habits, eating patterns, and social interactions with family, friends, and hobbies. 

Stage 4:  Displacement of conflicts. You begin blaming others or your situations for all your problems, including your stress level.

Stage 5:  Revision of values. Your friends and family are no longer as important as your work.

Stage 6: Denial of emerging problems. Perception of colleagues has negatively changed and have heightened intolerance, perceiving others at work as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined.

Stage 7: Withdrawal. You pull back or avoid relationships. May rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to relieve stress.

Stage 8:  Impact on others. Others recognize changes in your behavior such as impatience, aggression, irritability, and forgetfulness.

Stage 9:  Depersonalization. You feel detached from yourself and others. Everyday feels like you are going through the motions. You have a negative view of work.

Stage 10:  Inner emptiness. You are feeling empty inside and no longer see yourself as valuable. You have lost your drive and feel worthless.

Stage 11:  Depression. Everything is a blur. You are emotionally and mentally exhausted and the future feels bleak and dark.

Stage 12:  Burnout syndrome. You have reached your breaking point. You may experience total mental and physical collapse. At this stage, medical attention is necessary.

HR Professionals must take proactive measures to monitor burnout in their organization and put practices in place to create a healthy workplace environment that is focused on improving the relationship between employees and their work. 

JS: It seems like every single one of these stages, even the earliest, have a profound impact on an employee’s wellbeing and their ability to do their job effectively at an organization, so what are some ways to mitigate burnout at various stages?

TS: Evaluating the experiences employees have at your organization throughout the employment life cycle is a great first step. In doing so, you can identify where HR and managers have the best opportunities to mitigate areas that contribute to work-related stress and burnout. Enhancing the employee and employer relationship is important in creating a culture that brings out the best in your people. I’ve got a quick priority list I recommend going over:

  1. Understand what is important to your employees.
  2. Monitor burnout and fatigue.
  3. Track and monitor workloads.
  4. Facilitate collaboration.
  5. Communicate often and have regular check-ins.
  6. Evaluate work practices that give employees control and flexibility.
  7. Provide tools and resources to manage workload and stress.
  8. Create opportunities for relationship building.
  9. Encourage time off.
  10. Give employees time to unplug from work throughout the day.
  11. Provide a healthy, supportive, and inclusive workplace.
  12. Build a culture of trust and confidence.
  13. Train leaders to lead with empathy.
  14. Train managers on how to set clear expectations and goals.
  15. Remove barriers standing in the way of success.
  16. Make mental health, wellbeing, and self-care practices part of your culture.

When it comes to burnout, one of the most foundational things an organization can do is understand how to establish healthy professional practices and create a culture that supports, honors, and respects healthy boundaries.

JS: Boundaries was another area I specifically got asked about. Do you have any good resources or recommendations you could share on boundaries in the workplace?

TS: We have all been there, you have your schedule planned out for the week and then something comes up and you must drop everything to deal with the immediate demands and needs of others and the business. Over time this can lead to work-related stress and burnout, negatively impacting your overall wellbeing. This is where establishing healthy boundaries is important. 

Boundaries are healthy in the workplace for maintaining your wellbeing and for productivity, but they should not be used for controlling someone else. Instead, boundaries allow you to decide when and how you will invest your time and energy. To establish healthy boundaries here are a few suggestions:

1. Clarify your needs.

  • Understand and determine your limitations. When you can identify your limitations, you are better able to establish healthy boundaries and manage your time more effectively. 
  • Know your non-negotiables. These are the things that you are not willing to do, or you don’t find reasonable. 
  • Know your negotiables. These are the things you are willing to compromise on or are willing to be flexible around. 
  • Recognize your limit. Recognize when you have reached your bandwidth or are maxed out on tasks and projects.
  • Don’t apologize. Do not feel guilty or apologize for wanting your needs met.   

2. Say no.

Understand that saying no is not a bad thing.  Know that your time is important and saying no is a way to help you focus on the things that are important. Saying no will help you balance your workday and keep you from approaching burnout. When saying no or declining additional tasks or projects, be sure your communication is clear, and you provide alternatives or offer other suggestions.

3. Communicate respectfully.

Be clear on your concerns, thoughts, and needs when communicating with colleagues and leaders. It is important to be respectful, yet firm when communicating your priorities and limits when discussing your boundaries. If you get pushback, which you most likely will from someone because they have gotten used to getting what they want, when they want it, it will be important to be direct. 

4. Commit.

Once you have established your boundaries, it is important to be consistent and manage your time effectively. Scheduling a block of time for focus work and disconnecting from emails and messages, can help with interruptions and minimize work-related stress. For example, if you need time to catch up on work, stick to that and don’t allow someone who comes to you for favor interrupt that time. This will help reinforce the seriousness and importance of your boundaries.

5. Monitor outcomes.

It is important to monitor the positive and negative outcomes of the boundaries you set.  This will help you evaluate areas that need to be changed or adjusted and will give you insight to establish further healthy boundaries. The goal here is to ensure the boundaries you set are helping you on your wellbeing journey and gives you the space to pursue the things that matter the most. 

Remember, boundaries are not about being uncooperative or selfish, they are a benefit to your own wellbeing and when done right can eliminate a lot of stress in your day-to-day and protect you from burnout. 

JS: This has been such a valuable discussion, Teresa. Thank you so much for taking the time. Any final closing thoughts?

TS: Burnout is not an employee problem; it is a cultural problem. HR professionals, managers, and leaders have a responsibility to their workforce to foster an environment that is committed to protecting employees from burnout. Creating a culture that is invested in the wellbeing of your people and taking measures to mitigate risk associated with burnout, builds trust with your employees and creates a great-place-to-work culture

Download Now: Workplace Wellness Interventions [Free White Paper]