Preventing Employee Burnout

Burnout is entirely avoidable, if the right company structures and habits are in place

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The opposite of burnout is full psychological engagement with one's working life, which comes from feeling like you're making meaningful progress towards valued goals.

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I want to understand the psychology
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How to prevent burnout

In order to create a work culture with high engagement, the key is to make it possible for all employees to feel like they're progressing towards the right goals; to make them feel like the game is a winnable one. This isn't achieved with one-off interventions like training sessions or away days: in order to consistently prevent burnout, instead, it's the small and ingrained habits that matter.

The good news is that small and ingrained habits aren't expensive. The bad news is that they require individual commitment (from both managers and employees) and a bigger organisational mindset shift.

Looking back to the Six burnout causes that we identified in the previous section — genuinely unreachable demands, too much randomness, not enough emotional payoff, a rigged game, mixed messages, and misaligned goals — it's a case of finding practical habits, processes and actions that stop these psychological barriers from happening in your organisation.

Burnout prevention plan

Here are some ways that Spill recommends companies can shift towards a culture that minimises the chances of employee burnout, by flipping the six common psychological causes of burnout into six pillars of strong employee engagement.

For each of the shifts, click to scroll through the cards for a range of different practical ideas on how to put them into place in your organisation, and then use them as a springboard to brainstorm more ideas with your team.

Unreachable demands → demands within reach

🚩 Make it okay to flag when overstretched

Get senior management to lead by example
Include what people won't do in team standups
Encourage 'rubber-ducking' between employees

👌 Encourage people to be clearer about their boundaries

'Say yes to the person, but no to the task'
Praise under-promising and over-delivering
Build employee holiday time into all execution plans

📅 Protect your team's execution time by defending their diaries

Block out large chunks of time if necessary
Encourage people to turn off email/Slack notifications
Try 'Deep Work Wednesdays' or similar

Too much randomness → clear goalposts and levers

👫 Make sure everyone is on the same page

Weekly company PPPs (progress, plans, problems)
Regularly revisit broader company mission
Individual and company OKRs in one doc

🚢 Make people feel involved in steering the ship

Monthly 'biggest company problems' meeting
Anonymous, rolling 'ideas' Google doc with upvoting
Have regular team- or company-wide retrospectives

🔁 Make feedback loops shorter

Have a public #wins Slack channel
Encourage Slack RFCs (request for comment)
Let people send 'flares' when worried about progress

Not enough emotional payoff → clear emotional payoff

🎯 Involve employees in OKR-setting

Each quarter, people pitch what they want to work on
Managers and employees then co-create OKRs
Individual ownership of key results

🤔 Help people reframe tasks as choices

Remind people of what they're choosing not to do"
I'm working on X this week, not Y" structure
Justify the reasoning behind projects

🎓 Let people learn from one another

Encourage pairing on difficult tasks
Set up an internal or external mentor scheme
Allow job shadowing and job swapping in quiet times

Rigged game → transparent and supportive culture

🤝 Encourage cross-team connection

Put a buddy system in place
Have 'personal/career mentors'
Reverse mentoring system

💛 Make vulnerability and openness the norm

Have emotional, non-performance 121s
Try making individual 'user manuals'
Encourage senior managers to open up

🌴 Make sure people take time off before they reach breaking point

Have a proper 'mental health day' policy
Make sure 95% of holiday days are taken
Consider minimum holiday per quarter


👌 Reduce perfectionism

Have a celebratory #fails Slack channel
Awards each quarter for biggest mistakes
Encourage senior leadership to share mistakes



Mixed messages → unified narrative

❓ Create spaces to air questions and get clarifications

Monthly AMA (ask me anything) meetings
Hold structured debates on big decisions
Anonymous online space to share worries


📝 Ensure all managers are on the same page

Manager training sessions
Weekly manager challenges
Moderated one-to-ones (with a professional)


🔉 Record key conversations and meetings (with consent)

Record big meetings with stakeholders
Record all key user research calls
Post on a Slack channel so anyone can listen



🗣 Encourage communication up and down the hierarchy

Drop-in coffees with senior management
Senior management to post regular Loom videos
Reverse mentoring as well as regular



Misaligned goals → help employees understand goals and find roles

💪 Do personality and strength tests for the whole company

Take the Big 5 personality test (free)
Take the Personal Strengths Inventory (free)
Try Future Authoring ($15 per person)



💻 Include 'personality trait fit' on job descriptions

Useful for new hires
Also useful for 121s and reviews
Some things can change, some shouldn't


🎯 Help them find a role that has a closer fit with their goals

Encourage horizontal moves within the company
Let people trial a new role temporarily
Suggest exercises on the website 80,000 hours



🗣 Encourage communication up and down the hierarchy

Drop-in coffees with senior management
Senior management to post regular Loom videos
Reverse mentoring as well as regular



We hope this guide has been — in some way — helpful to you, and has left you with a better understanding of burnout and some ideas for how to reduce the chances of it happening in your company. Going through burnout and watching someone go through burnout are both incredibly painful, and our mission at Spill is to reduce the world's unnecessary emotional pain by helping employers become more considerate and human. Any questions, clarifications, problems or ideas? Just email will@spill.chat, who's always happy to discuss anything related to mental wellbeing and emotional intelligence.

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If you're keen to keep reading around this topic... there are a few great books that we can recommend:

Lost Connections by Johann Hari: for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the sources of low mood and existential pain

The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton: for musing on the role that work does, and should, play in our lives

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings by Randolph Nesse: for diving deeper into the evolutionary theory behind negative emotions

Radical Candor by Kim Scott: for managers looking to be clearer and more compassionate with their employees

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