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Job burnout. It's something most of us will experience at least once in our careers. And when it happens, the natural solution is “I just have to find another job."

Job burnout is more than just disengagement. According to the Mayo Clinic, people can become cynical, chronically late, easily irritated, less productive and more disillusioned. In more severe cases, people will turn to drugs or alcohol, or experience extremely poor sleep, a change in appetite, headaches, backaches, or other unusual pain.

You don't have to be an HR specialist to understand how destructive this condition can be for the burnt out individual and everyone interacting with him or her: coworkers become annoyed by the negativity, customers receive less than satisfactory service, family members get the wrath of a disgruntled employee, and eventually, the entire business is affected.

The questions for all HR mangers to consider are: Is there a way to reignite smoldering workers before they look elsewhere for employment? And, can HR play a role in preventing the fire from going out altogether?

Smell the Smoke Before the Fire

The first step to assuaging burnout is to identify the signs early on. I believe the easiest way to do this is to hold a workshop to discuss burnout. It will help employees know if they are experiencing a classic case of burnout or just a normal phase of malaise. If you have the budget for it, there are a handful of professional speakers you can bring in to lead the workshop.

The important thing is to get people talking about it proactively. Emphasize internal career paths for those who seem interested in a new position, and offer professional counseling for those who aren't sure why they dread coming to work each day.

Where Do Managers Come In?

A workshop might reveal that a certain team or department is experiencing burnout. In this case, there's a good chance that the problem is the manager. Some managers see their roles as getting every ounce of productivity they can out of their employees—at any cost—which is a surefire way to disengage and overwork people. Educate your management team on appropriate leadership skills, and caution against the snowball effects of burnout.

You can also look to big data to identify signs of burnout. People analytics is a great way to anonymize information and take proactive action—if you simply rely on managers to identify burnout and confront employees, it's likely you'll receive denial in return. With data, you can get a comprehensive view of employees' "flight risk" and take steps known to alleviate burnout without making the employee feel personally targeted.

Keeping the Fire Stoked

Obviously, the best way to treat burnout is to help prevent it altogether. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Rebecca Knight lists several ideas that individuals can do to avoid burnout. Here are a few ways the HR department can encourage employees to follow Knight's suggestions:

  • Encourage Breaks : Studies show that workaholism is not only bad for individuals, but also for your organization's bottom line. Whether it's a week-long vacation or simply playing a short round of ping-pong in the office, find ways to encourage employees to step away from their desk.
  • Demonstrate the Value of Digital Detox: Do you have 24/7 employees who take their smartphones and laptops home and continue to worry, work or read about the job during off hours? Short of hiring a detective to spy on people, no policy can prevent this. But digital detoxes can be encouraged—mention the importance of unplugging in company newsletters, and ask managers to bring it up during team meetings.
  • Create Opportunities to Do Something Interesting: Knight suggests employees do more than simply relax during off hours to relieve job stress that leads to burnout. Local sports teams or theatre groups would love to partner with your business to offer discount tickets to their events—they get free advertising and your employees have a place to go and take their minds off of work.
  • Gift a Long Weekend: Recognition and rewards programs can be made that give away an extra day off, or a night at a local spa. In addition, a companywide "Employee Appreciation Day" or "Birthday Day Off" policy allows employees to get an extra day off once in a while.

It's impossible to prevent burnout in every employee—personal choices and attitudes are beyond HR's control. However, taking steps to recognize burnout and enacting policies to help prevent it are great ways to limit the impact of burnt out employees on your organization.

Photo: Creative Commons