The Unexpected Source of Employee Burnout (and What You Can Do About It)

Here's what you can do to prevent valued employees from becoming burned out and leaving.
The Unexpected Source of Employee Burnout (and What You Can Do About It)
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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University
4 min read
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In order to remain innovative and competitive in today’s dynamic business environment, it’s vital to ensure your employees have the energy and motivation necessary to contribute to your venture’s growth and success. So making sure your employees avoid the symptoms of burnout (aka emotional exhaustion) should be a top priority.

What is really causing employee burnout? 

Oftentimes, when we think about employee burnout, we look for the usual suspects: lack of work-life balance, performance pressure, or insufficient socialization opportunities. But there may be another culprit responsible for your employees’ emotional exhaustion: Your own ego. In our study, published in Journal of Business Research, my colleagues and I sought to understand whether certain leader behaviors might be depleting employees’ work energy, and how such effects can be mitigated. We found that the self-absorbed, attention-seeking behaviors typical of narcissistic leaders left employees feeling emotionally-drained and too exhausted to contribute their ideas for improving the business.

Related: 7 Ways to Get From Burnout to Balance

Although our study focused specifically on leaders with narcissistic tendencies, the implications of our findings extend to all leaders seeking to curtail employee burnout and its subsequent effects on employee productivity. Here are three takeaways:

1. Remember your employees’ emotional needs.

As a leader, you’re responsible for providing your employees with the resources they need to be successful and perform at high levels. But this doesn’t just mean providing tangible resources needed for the task at hand. Research shows that leaders also play a crucial role in providing the cognitive and emotional resources employees need to feel energized and enthusiastic at work. This can be achieved simply by offering a friendly ear, providing emotional support when needed, or engaging in other behaviors that demonstrate your interest in the emotional needs of your employees. But as the results of our study suggest, if you’re too focused on your own needs, you may be neglecting this vital role at the expense of your employees’ energy and productivity.

Related: 3 Important Signs of Entrepreneurial Burnout and How to Overcome It

2. Be mindful of your expectations and behavior.

Not only might you be neglecting your role as a source of energy for your employees, but you may be engaging in behaviors that actually drain your employees’ energy. The increasingly stressful and fast-paced nature of today’s work environment means that employees are at greater risk than ever of becoming de-energized and emotionally drained at work. But as our results suggest, if in addition to their daily job demands your employees feel expected to cater to your own emotional needs – whether it be tending to your fragile ego, providing you constant praise and attention, or serving as a constant source of emotional support – their work energy is likely to suffer even greater deficits.  

3. Hold yourself accountable.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that one of the most important responsibilities you have as a leader is to ensure the well-being of your team. In this respect, it’s important to hold yourself accountable. If you feel a sense of accountability to those you lead, you may become more mindful of how your behavior is affecting your employees and actively work to avoid these pitfalls. In fact, in our study, we found that when leaders were accountable to their team, the effect of their self-absorbed, attention-seeking behaviors on their employees’ work energy was completely offset.

Related: How to Recognize and Beat Burnout

Although you may be the source of your employees’ burnout, you can also be the remedy for it. The key is to understand and attend to your employees’ needs, be mindful of your expectations and hold yourself accountable for your employees’ well-being.
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