Burning Bright

Leadership Strategies for Addressing Employee Burnout


By, Heather Honaker, LPC, NCC

The impacts of the behavioral healthcare workforce shortage are being felt far and wide. From increased wait times for services, job boards overflowing with open positions, and negative impacts on the organizational bottom line from unrealized revenue, it is likely that leaders like you are feeling the burn of “so many to serve, so few resources.” With each new vacancy, additional job responsibilities stack higher and higher onto the plates of your existing employees, because fewer workers mean less people must do more. But even our best and brightest employees have limits on the volume of work they can sustain before sacrifices become apparent through quality of care, employee wellbeing, and job performance. Over time, the physical and emotional exhaustion of managing increasingly heavy workloads leads to burnout. You notice that some of your employees have become detached and disorganized. They come across irritable, anxious, or depressed. Deadlines are dismissed and the number of call-offs you receive is breaking company records. Before you know it, the employees that you may have considered “lifers” within your organization are handing in their resignation letters, resulting in a devastating blow to an already fragile workforce infrastructure.

While recruitment and hiring efforts are undeniably top priorities for addressing your organization’s workforce shortage, finding ways to support, encourage, and retain current employees should be an equally crucial initiative. In the 2021 Public Health Workforce Interest and Needs Survey, 41% of public health employees who reported that they were considering leaving their current jobs identified burnout as the reason for leaving. As managers and supervisors, you have an opportunity to make meaningful and lasting changes within your organization that impact organizational culture and systemic issues that contribute to employee burnout.

Here are four strategies that you can engage to help your employees burn bright and not burn out:

Get to Know Your Employees

Maybe it feels too embarrassing to embark upon a getting-to-know-you journey with your staff. But in reality, it’s better late than never. Pushing through the, “so you come here often?” or “is that your family in that picture?” banter can lead to more meaningful conversations. You may see them every day, and you likely already meet with them regularly for supervision, but how well do you actually know your employees? As a leader, you are more likely to engage with empathy when you invest in getting to know your employees for who they are and not just the jobs they perform. Additionally, when you know who you are working with, you can begin to understand how your employees like to be shown appreciation, what motivates them, and what their strengths are.

To get to know your employees, set aside time for regular check-ins that are focused on building connections rather than reviewing work tasks or performance. Communicate that you are invested in professionally connecting with your employee by engaging active and reflective listening skills. Consider asking thoughtful, open-ended questions, such as the ones listed below, to guide your conversation: 

  • How do you like to be shown appreciation? We misstep as leaders when we assume that all our employees like to be shown appreciation in the same way. For some, a few minutes of your time might send a stronger message of gratitude than a company mug or public praise, and you might learn that their preferences are different than yours. 
  • What are your passions or interests outside of work? What we do for work makes up just one part of who we are as individuals. Get to know the other aspects that make your employees who they are, including learning about what your employees enjoy doing for fun and who the important people are in their lives. 
  • What is your approach to work-life balance? Like displays of appreciation, your employees have individual preferences on how they like to spend and balance their time. Assuming they each share the same approach to work-life balance as you do communicates that you don’t understand or value each employee’s individual needs and may lead to frustration and resentment.

Review and Adjust Workloads

Whether a temporary adjustment, or permanent process change, assessing the distribution of tasks is an essential step when faced with vacant positions. As managers or supervisors, you risk losing sight of just how heavy your employees’ workloads are if you do not check in and review tasks that have been assigned to them. To put this into practice, seek employee feedback on ways to build efficiencies in their day-to-day existence that will improve workflow and ease the stress of their current workload. It can be helpful to list out each of your employee’s current duties and rank them in order of importance. Then, collaboratively assess which duties must be done, which can be effectively delegated to another team member, and which are not necessary to engage at this time. The key to this process is to look beyond the job description, as your employee is likely spending a significant amount of time engaging in additional work on top of what is listed in this description.

Cultivate Psychologically Safe Environments

Psychological safety in the workplace is the belief that employees can voice their opinions, contribute ideas, take risks, and admit mistakes without negative consequences. When employees feel like the environment is psychologically safe, they are much more likely to engage in their work, share ideas, collaborate with you and their teammates, and ask for help.

As a manager or supervisor, you get to set the tone of your organization’s culture and lead by example. To actively cultivate a psychologically safe work environment, engage these strategies:

  • Request and implement feedback from your employees. When employees see their ideas put into practice, you communicate to them that they are valued members of the team and that their contributions matter. 
  • Create space for employees to take risks and reframe mistakes as opportunities for learning. Employees who are given the freedom to “mess up” without being shamed are more likely to engage in creative problem solving and share innovative ideas. 
  • Encourage collaborative learning amongst teammates. Play on each member’s unique strengths to facilitate connection and cohesion amongst the team.

Promote Work-Life Alignment by Living It

Effectively promoting work-life alignment means taking an introspective approach to discover how your behavior as a manager or supervisor might be projecting unhelpful work expectations onto your employees. Do you send non-urgent work communication to your employees after-hours? Do you regularly work long hours and additional days to get work done? Do you put off using vacation time and regularly skip lunch because there is “too much” work to do?

Whether you intend to or not, engaging in these behaviors can communicate to your employees that this behavior is the expectation, rather than a managerial exception. Consider scheduling communication to be sent during normal business hours, or clearly communicate with your employees that a response is not expected outside of their work hours. Encourage your employees to take time off, and when possible, offer your employees choice and flexibility in their schedules so that they can align their work with the other priorities in their lives. Seek to understand what your employees need to facilitate alignment between their work and personal lives to promote employee wellbeing.


Baker, J. (2023, January 17).The Behavioral Health Workforce Crisis and its impact on families.Behavioral Health News. https://behavioralhealthnews.org/the-behavioral-health-workforce-crisis-and-its-impact-on-families/.

Gallo, A. (2023, February 15).What is psychological safety? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/02/what-is-psychological-safety.

Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey. (2021). Demographics – de Beaumont Foundation. https://debeaumont.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/2021KeyFindings.pdf.

Understanding and preventing burnout among public health workers. (2023, March 8). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/learning/publichealthburnoutprevention/default.html.