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How to Manage Employee Burnout and Stress: 5 Research-Backed Steps to Improve Productivity

How to Manage Employee Burnout and Stress: 5 Research-Backed Steps to Improve Productivity

By Steve Pogue

Table of Contents:

  1. Watch: How to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout at its Roots
  2. Read the article: 5 Research-Backed Steps to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout
  3. What is employee burnout?
  4. How Workzone’s workload report and task dependencies can prevent project overwhelm

Watch: Stressed out Team? How to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout at its Roots

Can Workzone help manage your employee’s workload?

Attendee reactions to the How to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout at its Roots webinar

“As a manager, this webinar provided me with reassurance and tools to re-engage my team.”


“Great presentation! Being able to recognize burnout from a leadership position is extremely important to a productive team.”


Key timestamps

  • 5:06 – How different types of stress contribute to employee burnout
  • 12:25 – 4 Ways to encourage flex time for your employees
  • 21:15 – How to help employees feel more secure in their work environment
  • 29:06 – 4 Tactics to prevent project and workload overwhelm
  • 40:50 – 52% of employees do not use all of their vacation time

Jump to webinar transcript

About: Stressed out Team? How to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout at its Roots

Managers are stuck in an unavoidable struggle. They need to meet the expectations of other departments and senior leaders all while protecting their teams from becoming overwhelmed.

At Workzone project management, we believe that a work-life balance needs to be promoted and integrated throughout workplace cultures.

But how do you make that happen when your massive task list seems to be on steroids?

This recorded webinar contains:

  • The top reasons why employees get burnt out on the job
  • How you can identify stressors before they can cause damage
  • The psychology behind our reactions to feeling burnt out
  • Simple tactics to prevent employee burnout while managing a growing workload

How to Manage Employee Burnout: 5 Research-Backed Steps to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout

Your employees likely started their jobs wanting to do good work. And every day, they continue to want to fit in, make a difference, and want their work to matter. But, something over time may have gotten in the way of that — That something is stress.

Stress is a widespread and increasingly costly workplace issue for both employees and employers.

We will go through five contributing circumstances that cause employees to feel additional stress. Then we’ll discuss ways you can help alleviate that stress and help your employees boost productivity, performance, and wellbeing.   

What is employee burnout?

How to manage employee burnout? Let’s define it first. According to the World Health Organization, employee burnout is an occupational phenomenon:

“conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

While not considered a “disease” by WHO standards, employee burnout is enough of a problem to comment on. This is enough for businesses to take notice of and ensure their employees have a healthy work/life balance.

Step 1: Reward productivity

An essential contributor to employee burnout and stress is that employees are rewarded for time spent at their desks rather than for productivity.

Employees are spending much of their life at work, but that time is not necessarily being spent on productive behaviors.

A 2016 study polled nearly 2,000 workers and found that workers are only productive for about 3 hours a day. Another study backed that up finding that only about 39% of our workday is spent on actual work. 

Rewarding productivity instead of hours clocked lets employees focus on being more efficient in less time. This improvement allows for a better work-life balance, reducing stress and employee burnout.

What can we do to increase productivity?

Many employers, including Workzone, have adopted flexible work schedules. Flexible work policies seem to be a big hit with two significant groups: millennials and older workers. 

A 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey of 8,000 employees found flexible work policies retain employees. Average retainment went from under two years to over five, a 3-year improvement. Further, a report funded by the National Institute on Aging found “60% of retirees would be willing to return to work with a flexible schedule.”

Yet, 53% of employees say there’s no official flexible work policy in place. 

One of the biggest concerns managers often have about flexible work schedules is that employees will abuse this perk. Research says the exact opposite is happening. Most employees would love to use this time, however, 40% of employees believe using this time will hurt their career.

4 ways to encourage flex time

How to manage employee burnout - 4 ways to offer flex time
  1. Flextime can be offered in multiple ways. It can include work from home days, summer Fridays off, or even a four-day workweek. Think about what makes sense for your team and talk about it openly. 
  2. Make time for flextime. Start with having a conversation with your team about when it’s appropriate to take advantage of flex time. A clear conversation about a hybrid work setup will go a long way to increase productivity.
  3. Show employees they can use it. Because employees are so afraid to take time off, show that others, including yourself, are utilizing flex time. Something simple you can do is leave loudly — make your exit known. When employees see you leaving early, they feel that they can too. 
  4. Reward performance instead of presence. When you praise employees for staying late or working overtime, you’re rewarding behavior that may not be productive. To implement this process, you’ll need to reward performance instead of time in the office. 

Takeaway: While flex time is one of the hottest benefits offered these days, it’s not getting used enough. Employees are afraid they will be seen as uncommitted. Make sure to build space into your schedule to allow employees to take advantage of its benefits. In the end, the policy will help prevent employee burnout and retain them on your team. 

Step 2: Help eliminate unknowns

The second key contributor to employee stress is forcing them to try to read our minds.

Employees are constantly looking for signs of how they, the team, and the company is performing. Whether it’s a facial expression or side comment, they are paying attention to everything their managers say and do. 


They are looking for signals from you to assess whether their job is safe and secure, whether they are accepted and liked, and whether there is any other reason they should feel worried about their future. 

Research has found that your brain acts as a prediction engine. It’s so essential for your survival that your brain rewards you for making an accurate prediction. You even get a boost of dopamine when your prediction is right, (even a negative outcome too!).

Since our brains are craving predictability, simple changes, even positive ones can hurt productivity. 

These issues typically arise the most when any of the following happens

  1. A manager’s behavior changes
  2. Employees feel left out 
  3. When employees aren’t given any (or enough) information 
  4. Employees feel like they are being treated unfairly 

4 ways to help employees feel more secure

How to manage employee burnout -  4 ways to help employees feel more secure
  1. Be predictable. Adhering to predictable routines creates stability, reduces chaos, and allows employees to acclimate to well-established schedules and expectations. If your schedule or demeanor suddenly changes, let your employees know why, so they don’t wonder. Communicate with them.
  2. Increase transparency. Being candid and clear with internal communications such as progress reports and quarterly financials makes employees feel trusted, valued, and part of the larger business organization and goals. 
  3. Fill the gossip mill instead of fueling it. Controlling the narrative on internal conversations is key to dispelling rumors and gossip that can undermine employee morale and productivity. This may seem counter-intuitive. But the reality is that gossip is going to happen no matter what. Wouldn’t you rather them be sharing correct information? 
  4. Treat employees similarly. Team members will inevitably compare themselves, so it’s your job to help everyone feel that they are a crucial part of your team. Creating a culture of fairness is critical to winning the goodwill of employees. 

Takeaway: Our brains work as prediction engines. And employees are looking at us for signals to see if anything is new or changing. To help keep them focused on work instead of worrying, be as predictable as possible as well as transparent. 

Step 3: Make workloads more manageable

Another huge source of employee stress comes from attempting to juggle too much at once. Most employees aren’t asking for deadline extensions, even when they desperately need them.

For years we’ve heard the stories of the “corporate warrior.” The perfect candidate will be someone who gets in early, stays late, is an overachiever on every project; oh yes, and they should still be able to maintain their health and fitness goals and have an active social life. 

We’ve also heard the horror stories of real-life “corporate warriors.” Including a recent story about workers in Japan who are haunted by the nightmare of karoshi, or death from overwork. Or one headline here in the US that suggests we are the most “Overworked Developed Nation in the World.” 

Why do we do we work ourselves so much? 

Well, one study suggests that it may not be because our managers or companies expect it — especially when it comes to asking for extensions on project deadlines. 

A Harvard survey of 10,000 employees and managers found that asking for extensions was perceived positively by managers, and 95% of the time, extensions were given. Yet only 10% of employees said they’d ask for an extension if they felt time pressure.  

Why are employees afraid to ask for time off?

The study found that employees — especially female employees — feared that asking for an extension would lead to their managers thinking that they were not as committed to their work, were incompetent, and were unmotivated.

As a manager, the question becomes, “how can you make sure you’re employees are not overwhelmed by their workload if they aren’t willing to speak up and tell you?” 

4 solutions for making workloads more manageable

How to manage employee burnout - 4 ways to prevent workload overwhelm
  1. Track workloads. We tend to overestimate how much time we have in a week. Have you ever heard of the “planning fallacy?” We expect things in the future to go well, and we underestimate how much time we actually need. Tracking your team’s workload allows you to make sure you aren’t assigning your team more than they can handle in a week. 
  2. Show them it’s okay to ask for extensions. For your team to know they can come to you when they are feeling overwhelmed and need more time, you need to demonstrate that it’s okay. Sharing that other employees needed more time is one way to get that message across. Another way is to ask for extensions when you need them and share that with your team. 
  3. Clarify whether a deadline is flexible. Sure, not every deadline is flexible. Sometimes you do need that copy by 2 pm sharp. Make sure that you communicate this when you assign projects. 
  4. Set priorities and use task dependencies. When you’re outlining your team’s projects and tasks, you’ll want to make sure you set priorities, deadlines, and create task dependencies. When you have multiple employees working together on one project, and there is a clear step-by-step process that needs to be followed, these dependencies can help you manage workloads more effectively. 

Bonus Tip #5: Use Workzone’s workload report feature to keep your team from becoming overwhelmed.

Takeaway: Research shows that although managers are willing to give extensions, employees aren’t asking for them for fear that they will be seen as incompetent. Plus, the planning fallacy leads us to believe we will be more productive than we are. Take the time to estimate and monitor workloads.  

Step 4: Minimize the effect of toxic employees

While many organizations strive for positive workplace culture, there will almost always be miscommunication, confrontation, and even a few bad eggs in the bunch. 

In the workplace, you’ve got leaders, managers and supervisors, and team members — and many different departments working together. And as a company grows, the drama often grows as well. 

Toxic employees get ahead by only thinking about themselves, throwing coworkers under the bus, gossiping, not taking on their fair share of the workload… the list of issues goes on and on. 

We can all spot someone toxic to the environment in our workplace.

Common toxic workplace personality types:

  1. Slacker: A master at procrastination, passing responsibilities to someone else.
  2. Bully: Overly aggressive with coworkers and uses position to achieve desired results. 
  3. Gossip: Relishes creating drama through rumor-spreading.
  4. Lone Wolf: “That’s not my job.” “I can do this myself.” The antithesis of a team player. 
  5. Emotional Mess: Use their work environment as a therapist’s office.
  6. Closed-Minded Know-It-All: Lacking a growth mindset. 

While toxic employees are a problem for any workforce, they’re not the only group of people you need to manage to reduce negativity and stress in the workplace. 

Another key group is toxic handlers. 

A toxic handler is an employee who voluntarily shoulders the sadness, frustration, bitterness, and anger that are endemic to organizational life. 

Toxic handlers often take on this role at a great cost to their well-being. We all wish toxic handlers were unnecessary, but far too often, a toxic handler is doing the work that needs to be done to manage organizational pain.

Sometimes toxic handlers can be misconstrued as toxic employees, so it’s important to ask questions and listen carefully before making judgments. 

It’s easy to relate one to the other, especially since a toxic handler will often know what’s going on. This could easily be interpreted as gossip. And this may make this situation even more difficult to navigate as a manager. But sweeping any of this behavior under the rug can lead to more and more toxicity and stress. 

So how can you help alleviate the stress a toxic handler is under? 

How to manage employee burnout -  3 ways to alleviate stress for a toxic handler
  1. Identify and eliminate the problem. If it’s clear that the problem is coming from one bad egg, take the necessary steps to address the problem. Don’t just let it fester. 
  2. Give them a safe space to discuss their concerns. If there’s not much you can do about the problem, make sure you give the toxic handler a safe space to discuss the issue. They need to know that you see the issue, that you’re on their side, and want to help them. Let them know that they don’t need to take on this role if they don’t want to. 
  3. Place them in a situation where they can be successful. If handling these issues is causing them stress and leading to employee burnout, you may need to take drastic steps. This could include finding them a new area to work or allowing them space, such as work from home days to take the time, to regroup and refocus. As a last resort, you can consider moving them to a new department. 

Takeaway: Toxic employees can cause a lot of stress. Especially when other employees try to take on the role of a toxic handler, providing support for other employees at the expense of their well-being. When you see toxic behavior, investigate where it is coming from, ask questions, listen, and do what you can to end it. And make sure your toxic handler knows that they can come to you and that they don’t need to continue to take on this role. 

Step 5: Encourage time off

The final key contributor to employee burnout and stress is that employees aren’t using their vacation time.

How many times have you heard, “I need a vacation!” Or even, “I need a vacation from my vacation.” 

In 2017, one study reported that 52% of employees didn’t use all of their vacation time.  Additionally, 61% report doing work while on vacation. 

While some employees relish the idea of getting some time off, too often, they are avoiding vacations due to the complexity of preparing for time off at work, finding other employees to help shoulder the burden, and dealing with increased stress when they return. In fact, 15% of Americans report taking no time off. 

Over the past decade, an astounding number of studies have shown that performance plummets when we work prolonged periods without a break. 

At Workzone, much like many other companies, we started testing out unlimited PTO (paid time off) with a few of our teams. But we too found that employees weren’t taking enough time off. 

The Journal of Happiness Studies found that the ideal length of a vacation is exactly eight days. Yet, too often, employees are only taking vacations for four days or less. 

So how can we encourage our employees to take the breaks they need? Here are three suggestions:

How to manage employee burnout - 3 ways to make the most of vacation time
  1. Make vacation mandatory. We have recently decided to start a mandatory vacation program for all employees. Not only will we be giving unlimited PTO, but our employees will be required to take at least two weeks of paid vacation. Consider instituting a policy that one vacation a year must be for at least a week.  
  2. Prepare for their absence. Utilize shared vacation calendars and reminders to make sure you and your team are prepared for planned absences. One company even went as far as to say that if employees responded to work while they were on vacation, they wouldn’t get paid. That seems extreme, but it sends a clear message. 
  3. Encourage employees to plan. Research has shown that holidays planned over a month in advance are restorative, whereas the stress of last-minute vacations can negate the positive impacts of time off. Plus, you want to make sure your team can prepare, so put in place policies to ensure employees are requesting time off with plenty of notice. 

Takeaway: Too many employees aren’t using their vacations. When employees don’t take the breaks they need, productivity and mental health plummet. So it’s important to encourage your team or maybe even make it mandatory to take vacations.


As you can see, setting priorities, rewarding productivity, monitoring workloads, and increasing visibility are key for eliminating workplace stress. 

Software can help implement these steps. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.  

That’s why we put together a high-touch success and support model. Every one of our customers is given unlimited training and active support — including a clear onboarding plan and schedule. 

As well as continued support with quarterly scheduled business review calls to make sure you’re getting the most out of the system and able to head off issues before they arise. 

Set up a demo with one of our team members so that you can learn more about how we help busy teams do more!

We at Workzone are proud to be the project management software market leader in customer success and onboarding due to our unmatched Success & Support teams.

Webinar transcript

Glynnis (00:00:05):
Welcome to today’s webinar, Stressed-Out Team? How to Prevent and Treat Employee Burnout at its Roots. My name is Glynnis Purcell. I’m the director of sales here at Workzone Project Management. And I’m joined today by our speaker and Workzone’s director of marketing, Diana Asbury. And we are calling in from our respective homes just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Steve Pogue is the Marketing Operations Manager at Workzone. He writes about project management tips and the buying process. When not at Workzone, you can find him playing vintage base ball or relaxing with his family at home.