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How to prevent, rescue burnt-out employees

Learn how to recognize the signs of burnout and pull unmotivated employees out of their rut.
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Highly motivated employees are true assets to any organization. They're productive, energetic, eager to take on additional responsibilities, and pleasant to be with and work with. Furthermore, they spread their enthusiasm and work ethic to others.

But every organization, no matter what the industry or what the size, also inevitably has non-performing, unmotivated, burning out — or burnt-out — employees as well. Therefore, to increase success, every business owner needs to deal with this obstacle by identifying unmotivated employees and "turning them around." But turning them around isn't as easy at it may seem, especially because as the employer you can't really "make" anyone be motivated! Remember the old adage, "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"? That, in a nutshell, is true with people as well. You can't motivate them if they don't want to be motivated. But you're the boss, so what can you do? First, you need to identify the signs of a person on the verge of burnout. Then you must create the atmosphere that encourages these non-performing employees to refresh and motivate themselves.

Identifying the signs of burnout
What are the signs of a lack of motivation or burnout? One of the key red flag symptoms is a decrease in performance or productivity. This is especially obvious when comparing an individual's past performance with current performance. Absent any serious reasons to explain away the change, de-motivation is usually the culprit. This leads us to the next red flag: an increase in the number of days missed. If you're in the midst of the flu season and a number of other employees call in sick, then ignore this absence. However, if someone who's rarely sick starts to miss work, then the likelihood is that de-motivation is the germ.

Here are more signals you need to be looking for and must begin to address:

  • Attitude changes. The employee is usually upbeat, but now appears quiet, somber, sullen, disagreeable or even moody. Or the reverse — the employee becomes far more outgoing, energized or talkative than normal, typical or acceptable.
  • Comments from co-workers that "something is wrong."
  • Stress reactions. The job isn't being completed as well as in the past; the employee is jittery, short-tempered or difficult to get along with.
  • Tardiness. The employee is arriving late in the morning and leaving early or at the exact end of the workday or shift.
  • Change in lunch and coffee breaks. The employee takes more time than usual or doesn't take them at all.
  • Decrease in positive interaction with other employees. He "just doesn't get along" as well with others anymore.
  • Increase in errors.
  • Decrease in productivity. There's an increase in time spent on projects without a subsequent increase in quality or productivity.

OK, you've now seen eight symptoms of burning out or unmotivated behavior and attitudes. Observation is the first step. So what else can you do to move the employee along and assist him or her in the process of self-motivation? The first thing you should do is gather information from previous performance reviews and from other managers or supervisors. Determine if this situation is a trend or just a blip in performance. In either case, you need to intervene as follows:

  • Meet with the individual. Begin by asking the employee his or her perception of their performance or productivity. Then based on your data and observations, share your specific views of the change in productivity and attitude.
  • Identify previous motivators (the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior). Determine which factors are no longer present and/or determine which ones no longer work as motivators.
  • Identify new motivators. Frederick Herzberg, who's writings of workplace psychology in the 1950s and 60s is still heavily relied upon today, offers the following most commonly used and effective motivators:

First, identify areas where the individual can experience a sense of achievement, such as accomplishing a task, finishing a report, meeting with colleagues or creating new ideas. Next, be certain to recognize and reward the individual for a job well done or work in progress. This form of positive feedback usually encourages increased performance and therefore the individual receives even greater recognition or comment from you, the boss.

Provide opportunities for personal or professional growth on the job. This can be accomplished through attendance at seminars or workshops or by observing other employees in other jobs. In addition, by creating a concrete career pathway (a plan for future career growth), you can motivate this person to strive toward the next job or position in your organization.

Ensure that you're providing appropriate amounts of guidance and supervision so the employee knows exactly what's expected. Also, ensure the communication between the two of you is frequent enough, appropriate and adequate to ensure the employee knows exactly what the road to success looks like. You might discover that the current job is too challenging or perhaps not challenging enough to maintain the person's interest and productivity. Try rotating or exchanging the job responsibilities between several employees. This form of cross-training injects fresh, new energy and challenges into the daily job performance. And finally, try expanding the breadth and depth of responsibilities. This too can energize the individual who is not feeling challenged.

Basically, all of these proven techniques serve to assist you and the employee in evaluating how well they fit into a current role. This is an easy and extremely effective way to increase employee motivation, job satisfaction and productivity. After all, isn't this what you want from your employees?

David G. Javitch, Ph.D., is Entrepreneur'com's "Employee Management" columnist and an organizational psychologist and president of Javitch Associates, an organizational consulting firm in Newton, Massachusetts. With more than 20 years of experience working with executives in various industries, he's an internationally recognized author, keynote speaker and consultant on key management and leadership issues.