Recently I wrote a column about quiet quitting, the phenomenon of doing the bare minimum in the workplace. At its core, it’s the behavior of a disengaged employee.

In response to that column, my colleague, Steven, asked, “can someone be too engaged?”

Steven owns a money management firm in the Saratoga, N.Y., region. If you’ve been paying attention to the stock market in 2023, you might suspect it’s been a challenging year for those who select investments. Steven’s company de-risked investment portfolios and continuously communicated with clients. Still, the number of concerned client calls and e-mails skyrocketed.

Steven’s son, Randy, was scheduled to meet me in Denver at one of our industry’s largest conferences — Schwab Impact. Impact is the “big one.” If you’re a serious player in this industry, it’s not one you willingly miss.

Steven texted me that Randy would not be showing up to the conference. Randy felt too much anxiety about leaving the office when, as he put it, “clients need me the most.”

Randy may be one of the team’s most important members, but the support system allows him to leave for a week or more. Not only were client portfolios set for the long term, but there were also 30 co-workers to help with coverage.

Also, Randy would have access to e-mail, text, phones, Wi-Fi, and computers. Randy would be armed with a virtual office. He was making an emotional, stress-induced decision that set aside his rationality.

A week later, Steven called me to say that Randy was considering quitting the industry. Dad was devasted. He built this company for his son to take over. However, Randy felt burnt out and wanted to try something new.

On the surface, Randy had been the perfect employee — working long hours, genuinely caring for his clients, and modeling unbreakable engagement with the company and its team. But below the surface, Randy was feeling the weight of the work.

Steven asked me to hold an “almost exit” interview with Randy to gain perspective. Steven told Randy, “I respect your decision, no matter what you do. It would be helpful for me to know why, not just because I care about what’s going on with you, but because it might be helpful in managing the rest of the team.”

Steven didn’t want to push his son away by being overly confrontational about what he felt was a wrong decision. But he also had concerns for his flesh and blood and wanted to check in with his mental health.

Randy isn’t the only one feeling burned out. In 2019 the World Health Organization included “burnout” in its International Classification of Diseases. The WHO explains burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” “stemming from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The symptoms are lower energy levels and mental distance from one’s job, leading to reduced professional efficacy. In May 2022, Google searches for “burnout symptoms” hit an all-time high.

The leading causes of worker burnout are an unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness, and mismatched values and skills.

The problem for Randy wasn’t necessarily a lack of awareness of the existence of these causes. Instead, the problem was that Steven tried to control burnout by prescribing what we call self-care.

In other words, the attempted fix was placed squarely on the shoulders of the employee. Some companies try to help administer that medicine. My company, Berkshire Money Management, has provided yoga and strength training, group half-days off, an on-call assistant/errand runner, parties, subsidized gym memberships, CSA subscriptions, paid-for vacations, access to the company Canyon Ranch membership, shopping sprees, Vegas trips, 3-Michelin Star restaurants, and Hot Harry’s burritos.

Steven flattered me by copying some of those ideas. But we both found those are just tools for improving well-being at the moment — they don’t get to the six root causes of burnout.

For Randy, the burnout came to a head in 2022. He was working through dinner and on the weekends. Research from Gallup shows that occupational burnout increases significantly when the workweek averages more than 50 hours — and it’s all but guaranteed at 60 hours.

The best way to prevent, or reduce burnout, is to have a manageable workload. If employees are working 50+ hours per week, you should communicate to them the company priorities and determine what projects should be put on the back burner (or even trashed).

We must normalize making it OK to talk about mental health at work. I grew up in a time when it wasn’t “alpha” to come to work when you were sick; it was expected. It’s a new age, and we’re better-informed people. Physically ill people shouldn’t come to work because they’ll get the rest of the team sick. And mentally affected workers shouldn’t feel threatened or judged for sharing with their superiors that they feel out of control or unsupported.

Prepare a communication strategy. It’s not enough to ask, “How are you doing?” One study found that an average adult will say, “I’m fine” 14 times a week, although only 19 percent of people mean it.

There is a stigma to admitting you’ve reached your limit, which makes people reluctant to have that conversation. It would help if you created the conditions for people to feel comfortable discussing it. Tackling burnout is a significant competitive advantage, but it doesn’t mean that the first steps to improved mental health need to be big.

We need to pay better attention to employees, especially those with slipping productivity (a symptom of burnout). It’s caring, not prying, to ask, “Are you really fine? It’s OK if you’re not.” You don’t have to be a mental health expert; by normalizing checking-in, you normalize discussions that detect concerns.

You can ask, “What should our priorities be, and what should we deemphasize to accomplish that?” Employees need to understand that you’re willing to take some off their plate. People want to know they are trusted to make decisions.

Having little control over a task or project makes people feel helpless and apathetic toward the job. You might inquire, “what flexibility would you like in decision-making, and how would that most benefit the outcome?”

Regarding insufficient rewards for effort, that doesn’t have to come in the form of more pay. Have you acknowledged the excellent work of your employees? Also, what have you done to bring the team together to work collaboratively to find support? Have you done what you can to eliminate favoritism? Is it time to fire your quiet quitters?

It’s OK to ask your employees if their answers to those questions align with yours. Let them know that their feedback is heard and is essential. Then act on that feedback; exercising your communication strategy differs from executing it.

Not only is that how real change is made, but it signals to your employees that you are taking their burnout seriously. Seeing that light at the end of the tunnel begins the healing and slows the spread to other employees.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 29, 2022.