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How to Prevent--and Rescue--Burnt-Out Employees

Learn how to recognize the signs of burnout and pull unmotivated employees out of their rut.
December 5, 2005

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:

Okay, 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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:

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?