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That employee in the corner cubicle who used to be so calm and level-headed now regularly snaps at colleagues. That same worker, who used to have such strong attention to detail, is now making elementary errors in dealing with customers. What happened to that same employee who used to be happy at work and now seems depressed? It could be a case of burnout.

Though a much-discussed peril of workplace life, burnout is often confused with stress. More accurately, it's a chronic state of physical and mental exhaustion that usually results from continuous stress and may reveal itself in the behaviours of the hapless office worker described above.

"Everyone has stress in their job," says Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting Inc. in Vancouver. "Sometimes that stress is positive and sometimes it's negative. That's just a given. But when stress gets to an extreme where you end up with no motivation, being incapable of functioning or your decision-making becomes poor, that's when we're talking about burnout."

So what can employers do to prevent or alleviate burnout?

"There has to be a culture of more positive engagement between manager and employee," says Carmela Ciotti-Hooper, a human-resources consultant in Ancaster, Ont. "The manager needs to balance meeting their department's needs with responsibility for care of their staff." That requires identifying and responding to the stressors that lead to burnout.

Excessive workload is perhaps the most frequently cited stressor. Staff are stressed because they wish to get everything done, but their resources may be stretched too thin. That situation can eventually morph into burnout, where they don't care any more and lack the motivation to work hard.

To prevent the situation from reaching that point, "the boss should evaluate the workload," Ms. Ciotti-Hooper says. "Maybe redefine the deadlines. Maybe consider outsourcing projects. Sometimes, it's worth the money to outsource if it means that you're saving the individual from stress and burnout."

She also urges managers to be urge employees to schedule their vacations. "Pre-book at least 50 per cent of their allocated time," she says, "because when employees book ahead, they look forward to the time off and they know they will have a break. I think managers sometimes forget that their employees are entitled to a vacation."

Another common stressor is incompatibility with co-workers. "If you're spending eight hours a day with people you don't get along with, that is, over time, going to cause demotivation and you'll dread coming to work," Ms. Pau says. It's up to managers to deal with the interpersonal issues.

They may have to mediate, setting expectations for the parties who are at odds – what's acceptable and not acceptable behaviour. A large company may have options such as transferring the problem employee to a less toxic unit or sending them for counselling, Ms. Pau says, but "the smaller the company, the less tolerant it can be with people who are not getting along. If there are only 10 people who work in the company, there are not a lot of places internally to move."

A third major stressor can be a misalignment between the goals of the organization and the values of the employee. "If your values are at odds with what the company does," Ms. Pau says, "you can only put up with it for so long before you think, I have to get out."

This potential stressor is often easy to foresee before joining an organization – but not always. She cites the example of an accountant who accepted a job at a firm that did work for the military: he couldn't reconcile that activity with his pacifist outlook. Unlike excessive workload and interpersonal friction, "if it's a values incompatibility, that's a tough one to overcome," Ms. Pau says.

Employees most likely to suffer burnout are those who feel trapped in their current jobs and have no prospects for alternative employment, says Alexandra Panaccio, assistant professor of management at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business. They're aware that "if you lose the job, you lose all the resources that come with that job, such as salary and benefits."

An employer can help prevent or ease the employee's sense of being stuck by offering opportunities for training and skills development that will make them more marketable. "They should upgrade the employee's skills in a way that is not job specific but gives them more employment options," Ms. Panaccio says. Ironically, by equipping an employee to leave, an organization may be more likely to retain them.

Other prime candidates for burnout include workers faced with role ambiguity or role conflict, she says. Role ambiguity may result from confusing expectations, such as when an employee is told, "I want this report completed ASAP, but it has to be comprehensive and in-depth."

Role conflict is most often visible in the form of ill-defined job boundaries, where turf wars may erupt with fellow employees. "If there's a turf war, it's often due to a lack of clarity in who is responsible for what," Ms. Pau says.

Employers can alleviate these situations, Ms. Panaccio says, by updating the employee's job description (at least annually), making clear what's expected and avoiding conflicting demands on the employee. "The organization should ensure that supervisors communicate enough with each other to avoid giving conflicting instructions to the employee."

It's important that organizations identify factors that are most problematic for employees and act on those.

"But the will to do that has to start at the very top of the organization," Ms. Panaccio says. "If changes come only from the HR department, managers may not necessarily get on board."