How to Prevent Server and Manager Burnout

Every manager has seen server burnout: an employee starts dragging and making more mistakes, showing up late, calling in sick, and not responding to requests that they get their act together.  Inevitably, they quit (if you don't have to fire them first).

Deal with enough of that, and you'll start feeling burned out yourself.

Burnout is a huge contributor to the food service industry's incredible 70% annual turnover rate. Hiring and onboarding new employees is expensive, so any effort you make to reduce turnover is money saved. 

There are all sorts of "above and beyond" measures you can take, from reward programs to team bonding activities.  But if you're looking for first steps to improve morale and decrease turnover, you really need to start with the basics.

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What Is Occupational Burnout?

Occupational burnout is that dragging feeling of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that kicks in after prolonged periods of chronic stress at work.  And there's no doubt that the food and beverage service industry is one of the most chronically stressful work environments out there.

It manifests as fatigue, irritability, apathy, lack of motivation, and a marked decline in job performance. Burnout can even make you sick – as stress shuts down your immune system, you're susceptible to any bug that comes along.

Coming back from burnout is not easy, particularly in food service where "taking a few days off" (a common solution in office jobs) can mean not paying your bills.  The best way to deal with burnout, therefore, is to have a culture that prevents it. 

But what does that even look like?

Burnout Prevention Method #1: Give People Agency

It's been proven that having some control over their work lives boosts employees' morale and job satisfaction. In restaurants, input on scheduling has the biggest impact.

Shift scheduling is already hard, and obviously you can't base it entirely off the whims of your employees.  Luckily, most food service workers don't expect that level of choice, so a little consideration goes a long way. 

A few changes to consider:

  • Give Them First Crack. Allowing employees proactive input into the calendar (both regular shift schedules and when they need days off) can make them feel valued as people, not cogs.  This can also ease inter-staff tension from constantly doing "favors" in the form of swaps.
  • Keep Things Regular.  Wherever possible, staff should be able to anticipate what their shift schedule will be in the distant future.  That decreases the amount of one-off exceptions they have to ask for and allows them to plan and anticipate events in their life further out than next week.  A work-life balance is key to preventing burnout.
  • Be Fair and Transparent.  Everyone knows they'll have to work shifts that aren't their first choice but having fair, explicit policies and procedures (then sticking to them) will help avoid resentment over decisions.  Let staff know why you can't honor a request, and update scheduling policies if you find recurring problems.

How does this prevent manager burnout? Scheduling is less of a drag on your emotional resources when staff are allowed to have input.  They'll be happier working the shifts they get, and your schedule will undergo fewer after-posting changes.

Burnout Prevention Method #2: Give People a Break

Food service and retail jobs are just about tied for the most negative culture around employee breaks. 

This is backwards. Given the acute stress your servers encounter every day, breaks are crucial to good job performance. Good breaktime makes employees sharper and better able to roll with the punches. 

Regular outlets for this acute stress keep it from building into burnout. 

It's important for you to explicitly sanction and encourage break time, so you should:

  • Plan For It. Look at when your busiest times are, and schedule employee breaks around them. Making it part of the routine will normalize breaks, but also keep people from taking them at the worst possible time.
  • Make It Positive. Employees won't benefit from a break if they feel guilty about taking one – that's just one more stressor piled on. Work hard not to show frustration or irritation (even and especially when you feel it).  In fact, this should be your policy when an employee needs a day away, as well.

How does this prevent manager burnout?  Employees who have a way to escape stress during their shift will make fewer mistakes – and fewer messes to clean up means less stress for you. 

Burnout Prevention Method #3: Give People Expectations and Acknowledgment

Everyone works better with clear expectations and positive feedback – everyone.  There are all sorts of gimmicks, apps, and mechanisms you can leverage to reward staff, but at the base of it all is a manager that defines good performance, notices it, and says it "out loud."

Let's break this down:

  • Have Performance Goals. People work better when they understand what's expected of them.  As leadership, you should have a strong sense of what good performance looks like in each position.  Be realistic and pragmatic – having goals that are too hard to achieve tanks morale.  Share your performance goals with your staff and get feedback.  Everyone should know the minimum acceptable standard, what good is, and what outstanding looks like.
  • Pay Attention. Once you have tangible performance goals, make a point to notice: A) who's exceeding a goal, B) who is meeting a goal, and C) who's making an effort to improve towards a goal. It's easy as a manager to focus entirely on A, but B and C are incredibly important to the functioning of your restaurant and the maintenance of morale.
  • Point It Out.  Whether you're posting props in the back of the house or keeping it simple with direct verbal feedback, make sure you're being fair and consistent.  Set performance goals for yourself about the minimum number of compliments you give each employee per week!

How does this help prevent manager burnout?  I know it sounds like extra work, and it is.  But being mindful about the strengths, efforts, and improvements of your employees will help YOU.  Every manager has had that exhausted "all my employees are idiots" moment, and it doesn't do anyone a favor.  Forcing yourself to pay attention to the positive things your staff is doing will increase your own job satisfaction and reduce your stress.

Burnout Prevention Method #4: Give People Opportunities

Monotony is, by itself, actually stressful.  People naturally want opportunities to learn or grow.  Feeling stuck in a dead-end job or trapped in a rut can cause burnout even if otherwise your job is fine.

You should:

  • Provide Adequate Orientation.  Training a new employee can feel like a drain on resources, but it's better to spend the time now than constantly deal with the stress of preventable misunderstandings later.  Make a plan to provide all the onboarding new employees need to hit the ground running.
  • Make Training Ongoing. Hospitality businesses that offer ongoing training experience less turnover, according to TDn2K/CHART.  You don’t have to do this on your own – making online training courses available to your staff will ease the burden considerably.
  • Don't Just Train, Coach. When you train someone, you teach them what to do. When you coach them, you teach them how to think through new problems.  This makes them more self-sufficient and less stressed when they encounter situations they weren't trained on.
  • Better Yet, Develop.  You should be developing employees with potential to take on more responsibility.  One of the biggest reasons people leave a restaurant is a lack of opportunity to advance.  Look for tasks suited to an employees' skillset and strengths, then delegate.

How does this help prevent manager burnout?  When your staff is more prepared for their jobs, you spend less time putting out fires.  Plus, developing talent in your employees will take the pressure off managing every little thing yourself. 

And when you develop leadership ability in your staff, you can afford to do things like take a vacation without the place burning down in your absence (remember #2?).  An investment in training your employees now will pay dividends later for your own mental health.

Burnout Prevention Bonus: Just For You

Dealing with your own burnout is important to the well-being of your whole team. Burned-out employees make things harder for everyone, but burned-out managers can be a disaster.  When you are irritable, tired, and lacking in motivation, you can make bad decisions that impact everyone under you.  Manager burn-out is often directly responsible for spikes in turnover, a decline in the level of customer service, and a more chaotic work environment overall.  So take care of yourself!

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