The Employee Happiness Diet: How to Successfully Detox from Work Burnout

A team embodying employee happiness

I recently started listening to an audiobook, The Joy Diet, by Martha Beck, which outlines ten ways to find joy in your life. In it, Beck calls out why this book isn’t a typical diet book. Instead, it’s a play off the word’s original meaning, long before fad diets and juice cleanses. According to Beck, “diet,” in the original definition of the word, means a way of life or a set of habits that directly impacts your life. I found myself thinking of how this take could apply to the workplace.

Let me start by sharing some of my story. I’m a burnout survivor — yes, you can survive burnout! — and like many HR professionals, I was worn down and frustrated during the pandemic. And I’ve thought to myself many times, “If an HR exec feels burn out, what’s happening to the rest of the organization? What about the employees we’re supposed to be helping?” Of course, they’re struggling, too.

It’s certainly an understatement to say that 2020 was terrible for worker happiness. But rather than improving over time, things have only gotten worse. In “Burnout and Stress are Everywhere,” the American Psychological Association found that 2021 saw an increase in burnout compared to 2020.

Additionally, in APA’s survey of 1,501 U.S. workers, “79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.”

I’m sure you get the message: Everyone is struggling! Yet, as a burnout survivor, I know there are ways that we can live to find true happiness and help our organizations find that happiness too. In the spirit of Beck’s Joy Diet, here are some ideas for an “employee happiness diet.”

The Employee Happiness Diet


1. Bring the Stress into the Light

When I started my career in HR, I was formally trained by a Fortune 500 company to deliver a New Hire Orientation that outlined all company’s policies — and took the human out of it. I actually remember saying, “Leave your problems at the door.”

I cringe at this now.

People have lives outside of work, affecting how well they focus. Those lives affect their performance and “presenteeism,” a term used in HR to refer to someone physically present but not emotionally or mentally.

So, in order to make space for employee happiness, we have to start first by seeing the problems. Bad days. Stress. Burnout. Grief.

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We must allow our employees to talk about mental health at work — to give them the space to share, get help, and find balance.

If you’re petrified of opening this door, read my friend Melissa Doman’s book, Yes, You Can Talk About Mental Health at Work, which beautifully outlines steps to take to make work a safe place to talk about mental health.

2. Recognize and Predict Triggers

Just like specific triggers can cause a slip in a nutritional diet, we all have triggers for work burnout. Each employee will have different triggers, but many will share the same patterns.

Take an inventory of team triggers as a group exercise, then encourage employees to take personal inventories of their own patterns. As you work, I encourage you to share some of your triggers with your team — such vulnerability helps guide the conversation more productively!

Let’s say an employee’s trigger is a meeting that doesn’t start on time. Recognizing this, she can work with it. She can do this by setting boundaries — which we will talk about next — and by working on responding and not reacting when a meeting inevitably starts late. This takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth it!

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3. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things we’ll do in life. Often, at work, we don’t even realize we’re modeling poor boundaries for employees.

I have clients who say that they offer flexibility and work/life balance. “We want you to exercise after work or take time to spend with your family,” they say. This is great, but are you walking the talk? If you’re sending emails after hours or calling your employees on vacation, you’re saying that you don’t care about them, their flexibility, and their balance.

Once you’ve determined triggers, set boundaries that help you manage them and, more importantly, share those boundaries. Using the same example from Rule #3, if a meeting starting on time is essential for one of your employees, she can communicate this with the team. Think: “Because we ve got a lot to cover, it’s important that we start on time — so please arrive a few minutes early. If this isn’t possible, let me know, and I can find a better time for us all to meet.”

Communicating a boundary takes only a few minutes — a few sentences in an email even — but it will make a major difference.

4. Address Conflict

This one is always hard for me (yes, even as an HR professional!). Shutting down is my go-to survival instinct, but also causes me the most stress.

When I struggled the most with burnout, a significant conflict was eating away at me. My values didn’t align with my company’s leadership’s values (or what I perceived they were). I felt they wanted me “on” all the time, and I valued the time with my children and my husband. But here’s the thing: my bigger challenge was that I was internalizing all that frustration and anxiety because I never shared this. Ultimately, I left the company and carried this with me even after leaving. This, when left unaddressed for many people, can prevent happiness in any work setting.

So, Rule #4 in our employee happiness diet: If you see conflict, find a way to address it safely. And if you feel conflicted, speak up.

5. Make Space for Doing Nothing

I often hear that leaders worry that their employees are doing something other than working, especially now that companies are staying remote. There’s such a focus on productivity that we unintentionally drive our employees into burnout.

Stay with me here: Giving yourself and your employees permission to do nothing can be a powerful tool. In fact, it’s another key to employee happiness. Unscheduled time allows employees to be creative, have conversations that spark innovation, and connect with others. And when we have connections at work, we’re more likely to stay! Why wouldn’t we want this?

So, clean up your calendars, create rules around meetings, and allow your employees a few minutes to breathe! My favorite feature in my Google calendar is that all meetings end five minutes before the hour or half hour, and meetings cannot be booked back to back. This gives me time to exhale after the meeting and return to the things I committed to during it.

Or, start the workday with 15-20 minutes of unscheduled time. In Beck’s b ok, her first tip is to do nothing for 15 minutes daily. Why not bring this method into the workplace? This one little thing can give employees the balance they crave in a world constantly on the go.