Addressing management issues

June 1, 2011

Edited by C. Anne Pontius, MBA, CMPE, MT(ASCP)

Avoid burnout in the lab


We are constantly short-staffed and often work overtime. Some employees rarely take days off in order to help with the workload, which has me a little concerned. How can I help employees avoid burnout?


Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest, but the more common definition of exhaustion or just being worn out is just as true. Burnout occurs when a person has been involved in a frustrating, stressful, or demanding situation for a long time without relief.

As a department manager, it is wise to take employee burnout seriously. You are only as good as the team you lead. When employees suffer, the department’s productivity suffers. Avoiding employee burnout in the first place is ideal, but knowing the signs of burnout and ways to fix the problem once it is recognized is important.

Causes of employee burnout include

  • increased responsibilities;
  • tight schedules;
  • overwhelming job pressure;
  • stressful work environment;
  • unclear job expectations;
  • feelings of having little or no control;
  • inability to maintain balance between home and work life;
  • job monotony;
  • job boredom;
  • differences in values or ethics;
  • hostility in the workplace; and
  • being under- or over-qualified for the position and its responsibilities.

Burnout is often the result of work-related stress, which can come from

  • poor leadership;
  • impractical assignments — not having the proper tools or adequate time to complete the task;
  • poor communication;
  • extreme or continued pressure (e.g., no clear end or an unreasonable deadlines);
  • powerlessness;
  • staffing or policy changes;
  • conflict with coworkers;
  • lack of incentive — personal or monetary;
  • unclear or changing job description, unclear expectations;
  • lack of recognition; and
  • insufficient compensation.

Common signs of burnout include

  • change in attitude;
  • missing work, arriving late, leaving early;
  • working through meals and breaks;
  • decreased productivity;
  • missing deadlines;
  • being overly critical;
  • increased sensitivity to feedback;
  • being irritable or angry;
  • emotional outbursts;
  • poor attitude;
  • impatience;
  • uncharacteristic mistakes;
  • reduced attention to details;
  • frequent physical illnesses (e.g., headaches, upset stomach, and body aches and pains); and
  • alcohol or drug use.

When employees suffer from the effects of burnout, productivity decreases and frustrations increase. Whether or not signs of burnout surface among the staff, consider taking steps to reduce or prevent employee burnout.

Some tips include

  • keep the lines of communication open;
  • maintain good communication on all levels;
  • provide a positive work environment (negativity feeds negativity);
  • make employees aware of expectations, especially as it relates to their job performance;
  • recognize accomplishments and contributions with rewards and recognition;
  • encourage employees to interact and socialize together;
  • make sure employees take routine breaks; and
  • be open and honest with employees.

When job demands are high and financial compensation is low, employees begin to think, “They do not pay me enough to deal with this!” While all employees cannot necessary be offered more pay, recognition, praise, and other tokens of appreciation go a long way toward keeping morale high, which reduces the risk of burnout.

—Christine Dobb, MT(ASCP), retired

Columbus, OH


More people are working longer hours than ever before. Staffing issues can be one of the greatest stressors for lab personnel and managers, and can lead to employee burnout. Too much overtime is going to eventually lead to burnout. Employees who were once enthusiastic, productive workers can become disengaged. When suffering from burnout, employees feel frustrated, overwhelmed, overworked, and trapped.

Ask these questions to identify burnout risks.

  • Do your employees perceive they are unimportant?
  • Do they believe too much is demanded from them?
  • Do employees work through lunch?
  • Do they feel overly tired? Do they talk of difficulty coming into work each day?
  • Are they overly anxious to leave at the end of the day (clock watchers)?
  • Are job expectations rising? Are they unpredictable?
  • Have some staff members been given the job responsibilities of several others, especially after layoffs?
  • Is there a constant threat of job loss?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, employee burnout is certain to follow. The following suggestions can help avoid burnout.

  • Give staff direction and feedback.
  • Make sure employees know the purpose — the big picture — of their jobs, not just the daily routine.
  • Offer employees more control of their jobs. Discuss with each one how much control he is comfortable with before making changes.
  • Make sure employees are properly trained for their positions and have the appropriate tools to do the job. Ask each employee if he needs more training or better tools.
  • Give employees freedom to solve problems and to improve their workplace. Ask them to find solutions to inefficiencies, waste, and safety issues.
  • Encourage balance between work and home life.
  • Recognize their efforts. When employees do not receive recognition for their efforts, they feel devalued. A simple “thank you” from a manager can go a long way.
  • Communicate with employees often.

It is important to take action immediately to solve the problem of employee burnout. When employees suffer from burnout, teamwork disintegrates, conflicts arise, and the entire organization will see quality and productivity suffer.

— Nancy Lewis, Supervisor

Staffing Solutions

San Antonio, TX


Employee burnout is bad news, but, if caught early, it can be resolved with a little effort on management’s part.

Offer help.
Encourage staff to use the employee assistance program (EAP). It usually includes counseling and psychological services.

Allow employees to deal with stress.
Allow them to discuss their problems with you without fear of consequences. A manager I met walks each day during lunch and invites staff to walk and talk with her one-on-one so they can freely vent their frustrations. Another encourages her staff to attend yoga classes after work and has even arranged for a discounted fee.

Communicate with staff.
Talk about the overtime and stressful situation you are all facing. Share your plans for scheduling changes. Ask for their input — they may offer a novel solution.

Employees should vacation regularly.
They need time away from the lab; when they return, they will feel more refreshed.

Encourage a good work-life balance.
Make sure employees are not working excessively. If an employee mentions an event she wants to attend (e.g., child’s school play), discuss how you might be able to adjust her schedule.

Ask staff to support one another.
They work together every day, so co-workers are likely to notice when others are in need of additional support.

Offer recognition/rewards.
Recognize and reward employees for their accomplishments and contributions. At the very least, say “thank you.” Use incentives to express your appreciation when you can.

Become a better team.
Encourage employees to get to know one another. Host a potluck luncheon, an after work softball game, or early morning outing to the park or beach.

Readjust workloads.
Find out if some people have a workload they cannot handle and others have too little to do.

Cross train.
A job-rotation strategy is key to having a staff that can “cover all the bases” when a employee is absent, and it also helps alleviate boredom.

Set limits.
Put a limit on long hours. Thank employees for their dedication, and suggest they use their free time to relax and have fun.

— James Madison

Human Resources Manager

Lee and Associates

Seattle, WA

Bottom line.
Most likely everyone has experienced burnout to some degree at some point in their jobs. Reflect back to that time personally and how you or your boss handled the situation. If you were helped, then repeat what worked; and if you were not helped, do not repeat history. It is always best to avoid burnout, but when that is not possible, make sure to recognize it promptly and implement measures to reduce the length of time and magnitude of the burnout. Our experts have given multiple signs of burnout and opportunities to manage it. Find the signs and management actions that will work best in your scenarios.

C. Anne Pontius is a senior medical practice consultant with State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Co. in Brentwood, TN, and president of CLMA. Send questions to Ms. Pontius at [email protected].