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How Managers Can Spot Burnout in Their Employees

Health / Stress / Burn-Out

25 December, 2020

Rohit Raghunathan
Rohit Raghunathan

Engineering Manager at DoorDash

Rohit Raghunathan, Engineering Manager at Doordash, explains how managers can timely spot burnout in their employees and what they can do to prevent it.


Managers should take their share of responsibility for spotting warning signs of burnout and make a significant effort to prevent it. While employees would gradually adapt to the elevated level of stress and frustration, managers should be trained to spot changes in their behavior and motivation early on and prevent highly detrimental consequences. Identifying the root causes is crucial because both managers and employees could take symptoms for causes.

I identified three leading causes of burnout in employees:

  • Not making an impact;
  • Disrupted work-life balance;
  • Lack of focus.

Actions taken

I have a different approach for each of these three root causes.

Not making an impact
For many people, it is not about the number of hours they work as long as they make an impact and can find a purpose in their actions. When they see an impact, their work is making and if that impact is commensurate with their effort, most people would be happy. On the other hand, if their work never sees the light of the day or they are constantly blocked, working less won’t remove their frustration.

As a manager, I believe that regular check-ins and career-focused one-on-ones (vs. status updates one-on-ones) should help me better understand how my reports are feeling about their work. Burnout in its final phase of “I don’t want to get out of my bed and go to work” is a result of the accumulated and unaddressed problems and dissatisfaction at work. If your employee is putting in hours and feels like spinning the wheels without any tangible progress, you should analyze the whole working process with them and ensure that their contribution will be acknowledged.

Disrupted work-life balance
People have things in their personal lives that they care deeply about. It can be a family, hobby, friends, or something else. As long as their work schedule allows them to continue working on those activities, they will be happy. But when their work schedule starts to affect their life outside of work and when they feel that they are unable to dedicate themselves to those things they care deeply about, they would become frustrated and stressed out.

I always try to understand what are the things my employees care about. For example, I like to work out in the morning, and if someone schedules an early morning meeting my personal schedule will be disrupted. I would rather be asked when I would be available, but if that wouldn’t be possible I would appreciate it if I would be told why this was important and why I had to skip my gym. Sometimes, the work is just too demanding and it severely interferes with our free time. But knowing why we are needed and how we could help can ease the discomfort.


Lack of focus

Working on multiple projects at the same time is more a rule than an exception in our industry. Though humans are wired to multitask, there is a limit to that. Constantly switching context, using different tools and metrics is not only demanding in terms of time that we need to adjust over and over again, but it affects our productivity and ability to streamline our focus on a task at hand. Lack of focus will slow us down and can generate much dissatisfaction.

I try to ensure that people on my team are focused on one thing at a time and are not spread thin working on multiple projects. I would also use every opportunity to ask them if there was something that is diverting their focus or slowing them down, or if they have some blockers that I can help remove.

Lessons learned

  • Stress and frustration often happen when you do not get enough return on the time you are putting in the investment. Understanding why is that, helps remove causes that could lead to burnout.
  • All aspects of life are important. If you cannot carve time for your personal life and things that make you happy, you hardly will feel fulfilled with the work alone.
  • Work and life are strongly interrelated and it is not a zero-sum game. On the contrary, if you are happy about your life, you will be happy about your work, and vice versa.
  • People who are more engaged and able to bring their full selves to work are more likely to make an impact.
  • Having too many things on one’s plate is a proven recipe for stress and frustration. Removing just a few things would result in immediate relief and would help you streamline your focus.

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