How to Re-Energize a Team That Shows Signs of Burnout

By Paul Falcone, SHRM,January 2023

Emma is an HR director overseeing a team of four specialists in a 400-person organization, and she suspects that her team may be suffering from quiet quitting. She suspects that the rest of the organization is, as well, and wants to build a road map for addressing the issue openly and transparently.

Once she works with her team to identify their performance issues, Emma intends to hold a training session for the company's senior leaders to address how they might proceed if they're experiencing a similar level of burnout and exhaustion within their own departments. As she outlines her roadmap to address the matter constructively with her team, she builds a blueprint that she believes will work well for her organization's people managers.

First, a definition: Quiet quitting is a term born during the pandemic to describe how some employees respond to high levels of burnout. In most cases, workers who quiet quit cut back on their work efforts to focus on personal issues and their mental health.

"Quiet quitting is a response that many workers have to the onslaught of challenges they faced throughout the pandemic," said Kathie Nirschl, vice president of human resources at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. "Some people have drawn a mental line in the sand as to what they will or won't do for their employer, often by determining what is the minimum they can contribute and limiting their time, energy and dedicated focus to their jobs."

Why is this happening now? "COVID fatigue is real, especially for workers who had to forego vacations, work excessive overtime on multiple occasions and pick up the slack when replacement workers couldn't be found. It's a commitment to self-preservation in some workers' minds that employers would be wise to address openly and transparently," Nirschl said.

A pep talk about how employees can find balance and re-energize themselves in their own unique way is a smart approach to addressing teams that show signs of withdrawal and lack of commitment to their performance. Here are some ways to develop a script for the talk.

Refocus on Individual Goals and Aspirations

Encourage top members of your team to partner with and support you in turning around the rest of the team. Hold a group meeting to discuss motivation, then invite each team member to meet with you individually to set expectations.

Here's what the opening statement for your team meeting might sound like:

"Everyone, I called this meeting to discuss something that I'm sensing: We might be feeling less than energized or otherwise losing our sense of excitement about what we're doing here every day for our organization. I may be off in my assumption, but truth be told, I'm feeling it a bit, too. We work too hard to feel like we're simply going through the motions, and I want us to move in a new and more creative direction to spike interest and engagement levels. Here's what I'm thinking:

"First, I'm handing out a one sheet that I want you to think about. I'll walk you through it. After this, I want you to schedule a one-on-one meeting with me to discuss what's most important to you from this sheet.

"If you have a quick look at it, you'll see there are six categories of motivators that I've outlined:

1. Work/life/family integration, control, and flexibility.

2. Career progression and opportunities for promotion and advancement.

3. Lateral opportunities and projects for broadened responsibilities and skill building, including exposure to other areas of our department and organization.

4. Acquisition of new technical skills and exposure to new systems, including cross-training and new certifications and licenses.

5. Development of stronger leadership, management and administrative skills (i.e., moving from being a teacher to a principal or a stockbroker to a branch manager).

6. Money and other forms of compensation and rewards that are meaningful to you.

"Of course, there can be other areas of interest that I haven't mentioned, so feel free to add anything that I may have missed. Likewise, I can't guarantee anything, and we need to be realistic and patient about this process as a whole. But I can make a commitment to each of you individually to help you pursue your career goals and professional interests further. So please add this to your to-do list and schedule a 30-minute meeting with me over the next two weeks to review and share your findings. I'd like to complete all one-on-one meetings by [DATE], so please be sure to book time on my calendar as your schedule allows.

"Of course, opening up the team to too many possibilities that may not be in your control might be risky," said Rachelle Snook, global talent director for WD-40 Co. in San Diego. "Temper your approach and set realistic expectations. That being said, it's better to lead with proactive inquiries to learn what's top of mind for your team members rather than finding out about it during an exit interview. In certain cases, you may be able to create win-win outcomes, such as flexible schedules and learning opportunities that retain talent. Uncovering their priorities proactively and candidly while setting realistic expectations will likely increase engagement and gratitude."

Develop Corporate Futurists

"Re-engaging employees in a new learning curve can go a long way in regenerating interest in the organization as well as their careers, despite the exhaustion that many are feeling at this stage of pandemic reintegration," Nirschl said. "Coach your team members to re-engage themselves by researching free data that's available to curious minds for the asking."

Your team conversation might continue like this:

"Besides discussing your career focus, I want to do a deep dive into our company. It's time that we put on our research hats and create a competition—final prize to be decided—surrounding our organization and who can bring news to the table that's most interesting. Here's how it works:

"My goal is to turn you all into 'corporate futurists.' Scour the Internet for current trends and patterns in our industry, especially those that can impact our organization for better or worse. Conduct multiple searches on Google, Glassdoor and YouTube to learn more about our organization and our competitors. What are people saying about us? How do our Glassdoor ratings from former employees and anonymous co-workers reflect the reality you see around here every day? And what, if anything, can we do to influence what's being said about us? Likewise, who are our closest competitors, both slightly larger and slightly smaller than us? What niche do they focus on that's different than ours? With a greater understanding of our niche and reputation as a company, we can develop new and creative ideas about how our department contributes to our organization's bottom line and come up with new ideas for reinventing what we're doing."

Refocus on Career and Professional Development

"Next, I want you all to conduct research on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook at www.bls.gov/ooh. Which industries will have the greatest demand for what we do, and where will the growth be for people in our profession? Does it make sense to make tweaks or pivots in your specialty area that will result in greater job opportunities in the future?

"Finally, I want suggestions from you on what we could be doing differently to spice things up around here, at least for the next three months. It's time to re-engage and gain greater awareness of what we're doing and why we're doing it. A little due diligence into our industry, company and reputation can go a long way in spurring new ideas.

"But most important to me are your own career goals and motivations. Let's work together to build something that's important to you at this point in your career—again, with no promises but certainly good intentions. Hint: The first-place prize for coming up with the best research or ideas for increasing our ability to make things better will be very cool. That's all I'm saying for now, and more on that soon. I'll look forward to your calendar invitations over the next two weeks as well as research findings and suggestions!"

"Gamifying talent development by making it a competition to see who can develop the most interesting and practical research and offer prospective solutions to challenges your company or industry may be facing is a wise approach to re-energizing people and getting their creative juices flowing," Snook said. "It can identify areas of operational inefficiency or future risks and corresponding avoidance strategies and generate revenue-creating or cost-reduction results. Yes, they may feel exhausted from pandemic fatigue and inclined to hold back, but your caring approach for their well-being will be recognized and appreciated."

The power to motivate your team lies in placing opportunities before them to learn and grow. Making them responsible for due diligence and research creates an environment where workers can motivate themselves. Emma made the prize an offsite leadership training workshop. With a refocused team ready to re-energize themselves, she reviewed the results with her CEO and tweaked the plan to fit the organization's broader needs.

Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, a certified executive coach and the author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). His other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire, and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

SHRM is the world's largest HR association, with nearly 325000 members dedicated to creating better workplaces.The Society for Human Resource Management is a professional human resources membership association headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.