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Dealing With Employee Burnout

When you have a staff member who has a negative attitude and doesn't really seem to care about the work, the first thing that comes to mind is "burnout." However, it is important to distinguish whether the attitude and behavior is a result of vicarious trauma -- the changes in a person's inner experience that come about because of handling an overload of other people's traumatic experiences -- or burnout, which is dissatisfaction with the job itself. In either case, it is important to assess both the health of the organization and the coping skills of the employee.

To assess organizational health, consider the following:

  • Are there clear expectations for employees?
  • Is the general work atmosphere upbeat and positive?
  • Does the organization address the difficult nature of the work, and provide education and support around trauma issues for helpers?
  • Is turnover greater than would be expected?
  • Do staff members have a say in policy development and workplace practices?
  • Is clear and direct communication the norm?

To assess individual coping skills, help employees to determine their levels of awareness, balance, and connection in their professional and personal lives:

  • Do they balance work with pleasurable activities in their personal lives?
  • Do they take good care of basic needs such as eating and sleeping?
  • Do they take breaks?
  • Do they have fun?
  • Can they speak up if something is bothering them?

Good managerial and supervisory coaching is a tool for preventing burnout and vicarious traumatization. These are important conversations to have with those you supervise:

  • How are you feeling generally about how your work is going?
  • Are there any cases that are particularly stressing you out?
  • Can you identify what makes working with those clients particularly stressful?
  • What are your professional goals for this year?
  • What can I or we do to help you attain those professional goals?
  • What support do you need at work so that you can enjoy it more?

Sometimes an employee seems burned out and does not seem to be willing to follow up on any suggestions you may have made to address the issue. In that case, it is time for a "crucial conversation" (see the book of the same title). You may wish to say some or all of the following:

  • You don't seem to be enjoying your work and approaching clients with the same zest you had in the past.
  • We have talked about some possible solutions, but it seems that you are having difficulty following up with them. Perhaps they are missing the mark.
  • What do you think would increase your enjoyment in the job?
  • I think you know that this is the kind of job that requires a passionate commitment. What do you think it is like for clients in crisis when they are working with an advocate who is very tired of what they are doing?
  • If you could do any job in the world that you wanted, what would it be?
  • Is there a different position within the agency that would meet your needs better?
  • Is there a job outside the agency that you would like to do, but you have been holding back on for some reason?
  • Sometimes people get to a point in their lives and careers where they can do their job adequately, but it is not satisfying or fulfilling for them. Do you think there is anything that we can work on together that will restore that sense of fulfillment for you, or do you think it is time for you to consider other alternatives?
  • I value the work you do here, and I also know that most people don't do this kind of work forever. What do you see as the next step for you?
  • Is there something I can do to support you in moving on to work that is more enjoyable or satisfying for you?


  • Javich, D. How to Prevent-and Rescue-Burnt Out Employees.
  • Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial Conversations:Tools for Talking when Stakes are High. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2004). Crucial Confrontations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Reviewed: September 16th, 2015