Addressing an employee: No supervisor escapes employees who report sick due to burnout related complaints. It is therefore important that managers take this omission seriously and discuss this with their employees. But that is not easy for everyone. Why not? Addressing an employee because you see that he/she is suffering from too much stress and the results and health suffer from it, is often very difficult. Stress is difficult to discuss and confront with many people. It feels like failure. Yet you do the person a favour by talking to him/her about stress. Certainly when stress threatens to turn into burnout, with all its consequences.

In this article, we show how you can make stress negotiable. We focus primarily on colleagues and employees, which does not alter the fact that this information can be used by everyone.

how to address stress at work

Appealing to the benefits of an employee

Appealing to an employee causes an (extra) grey hair for many managers. To start a conversation with an employee, the benefits must be clear, otherwise, you will not start the conversation of course.

The benefits of entering into a conversation with an employee:

  • Gaining insight into what causes stress, how does an employee react to tension, what are the pitfalls.
  • Addressing an employee ensures that you can prevent outages. Very handy also for managers to switch swiftly and to quickly see which team members can use support.
  • It provides insight into the personal motives of employees. In this way, you can promote the conversation about stress
  • You know when, as a manager, you can ask for something more from an employee or whether to loosen the tension
  • Effectiveness is increased
  • You can prevent the disadvantages of stress such as fatigue, a short wick, problems with concentration

Also read: development perspective of employees in stress prevention

benefits of addressing an employee

When do you have a conversation with an employee?

When you recognize the (stress) complaints of an employee, it is of great importance that you make this negotiable as a manager. This can be difficult, it remains difficult when you hold the mirror up to someone and confront them with the symptoms. Many managers see that their employees are starting to show signs of overload, but do not know when they should talk to them and what they can say. In addition, they may also feel partly responsible for the workload. But this does not have to be an obstacle to discussing burnout-related complaints. Try to empathize with the employee in question and ask yourself when you will feel comfortable talking about the absence openly.

Work pressure and work stress are regularly on the agenda, even before it is really experienced as a problem. In this way, you remove the subject as a manager from the taboo sphere and you may be able to protect employees from a serious burnout at an earlier stage. Realistically, it is often the case that managers see that their employees are overburdened, but they do not know/want to raise the discussion. And above all: how to? Nevertheless, it is important to start the conversation and to discuss burnout-related complaints. There are some points of attention that you as a manager can take into account.

The right moment to address

For example, it is wise to schedule the conversation at a quiet moment. Just before a deadline is therefore not advantageous. It is also nice if the employee feels as comfortable as possible. Therefore do not start the conversation if other colleagues can listen to it. It can be difficult to start the conversation, so good preparation is important. Prepare for various emotions, you will seemingly hold a confronting mirror in front of the employee. Realize that all those emotions may be there, it helps if they are expressed and felt. Only then do you move on to the next step: in consultation with the employee, see what support is needed to ensure that the employee does not drop out (again). Giving employees the opportunity to take things a bit easier at an earlier stage.

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Offer to listen to an employee

Stay genuinely interested during the conversation, offer a listening ear and do not blame the employee. In this way, you create as much as possible a conversation in which the employee can talk openly about the experienced workload and possibly what is going on at home. This can greatly relieve the employee and it gives you as a manager insight into the factors that cause stress. You also learn more about how an employee responds to tension and what potential pitfalls may exist. By having an open conversation about complaints you can prevent the employee from dropping out. Great for both the employee and the organization. As a supervisor, you can quickly switch, see who needs support in which area and you can act accordingly. This makes the entire organization more effective and vital.

Also remember that the right moment to address also depends on your situation as a manager. If you are experiencing a bad day (which happens to everyone occasionally) postpone the conversation for a few days.

Make stress negotiable throughout the company

Do not only conduct this type of conversation with the individual employee but ensure that work pressure and the impact of work stress are also regularly discussed throughout the team. Everyone benefits if the subject comes out of the taboo sphere and space is experienced to discuss work pressure with each other. In this way, it becomes a shared responsibility of the organization to make all employees work as vital as possible.

Employee’s own responsibility

In addition, employees naturally also have a responsibility to take. Burnout or stress complaints can never be fully attributed to a work situation. Burnout is also determined by someone’s personality and the way in which stressful situations are dealt with. The work situation can be the driver. Involvement as a manager is essential here when it comes to speeding up recovery and preventing relapse.

Also read: make employees work more effectively

when and why to address and employee

Why is it difficult to start a conversation with an employee?

Stress and work pressure are a difficult case, many managers prefer not to put it on the agenda. This while quite a few employees suffer from stress-related complaints. This makes them less effective, the quality of work deteriorates and it does not help in the work environment. Perhaps they call it different, such as “vitality” or “enthusiasm.” This is generally accepted because everyone wants to be vital and managers want to pay attention to this. The terms work pressure and burnout often remain somewhat of a  taboo. There is a negative stamp around it. As a result, employees often experience a barrier to discuss the experienced workload and stress with their manager.

They feel that they are hiring, other colleagues who do the same work and don’t seem to be bothered by anything? They can also be afraid of a poor assessment, which can cause the desired salary increase to be missed. In some cases, employees are even afraid of losing their job. Managers can have completely different reasons not to discuss burnout complaints.

Why do many find it difficult to raise the issue of burnout? Is there still too little knowledge about burnout and work stress? Or are there other bottlenecks for managers to discuss burnout-related absenteeism? We will examine six common bottlenecks:

1: The prevailing taboo on work pressure

Even though burnout is seen as a serious problem, many managers find stress and work pressure a difficult issue. In general, managers prefer not to have it on the agenda. Maybe under a different name, such as ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘vitality’. The term “workload” is a taboo in many companies. Because of the prevailing taboo, employees often do not dare to state that the work is too much for them. They feel that they are hiring or are afraid that they will get a lower rating or even lose their job. While naming is the first step towards a successful approach to work pressure.

Could you break this taboo within your company? Do you have an idea of how employees feel after a working day? You could ask questions such as: Do you have the energy to do other things after a working day? Are you generally fit when you get up in the morning? By asking such questions, you indicate that you are interested in your employees and you can prevent a lot of suffering.

2: Not wanting to interfere with private matters/breach of privacy

Managers like to talk about their work with their employees. In terms of content, everything is discussed, or they ask about expectations and work goals. However, they do not quickly ask about what is going on privately with an employee. With a burnout, however, there is often more to it than just the experienced workload or stress. In many cases it is a combination of private circumstances, working atmosphere and working conditions. The balance is gone, an employee can no longer charge anywhere and everything eats away at their energy. Not surprising if an employee breaks down as a result of burnout.

By asking about any private problems you come very close to the privacy of an employee, not every employee appreciates this. However, by naming it you create space for an employee to be able to express his heart. This fact alone can offer employee support. He feels taken seriously and less alone. Support for stress-related complaints is extremely important.

3: Afraid of emotion

Emotion in the workplace is not yet equally accepted everywhere. Managers are used to talking to employees about the results to be achieved but are less used to talking about emotions with their employees. For example, they are afraid that an employee will suddenly burst into tears as soon as he is confronted with behaviour that may indicate stress and burnout. Or that an employee becomes very angry and the conversation gets out of hand as a result. Not every supervisor has sufficient knowledge or conversation techniques enough to handle this in a good way. That is why the subject is somewhat concealed and not mentioned.

4: Don’t want to hurt

Managers may also find it difficult to address an employee because they are afraid that the employee will take the message as a criticism. The message is given from care, but can easily be interpreted as criticism. Managers can then think that they are only exacerbating the situation.

5: No use

Some managers do not start a discussion about stress-related complaints because they feel that it is not useful. They think that work and private life should be separated, that problems should remain at home.

6: Flex contracts

Finally, the problem may be related to the flexibilisation of the labour market. Many managers use long-term flexible contacts as a means to select employees. Important assessment criteria for selection are high productivity and stress resistance. Since these are assessment criteria, both the manager and the employee will not make burnout complaints so easily discussed in this process. In such a situation, consider that a conversation can lead to solutions that can prevent a lot of absenteeism in the long term.

difficulties addressing employees

How do you conduct a conversation with an employee?

As we discussed above: Addressing an employee requires the right time, the right environment and the right attitude/intonation. The moment will probably never come. But it is good to remember that someone who is approached for work-related stress can react violently.

It is therefore good to take someone aside for that and prepare yourself well for such a conversation.


  • Prepare well
  • Safe environment
  • In private
  • Be specific
  • Keep it short
  • Give room for response

Also read: Keeping employees healthy

employee conflicts

A step-by-step plan for addressing an employee

Step 1: from the first person tense

When addressing an employee, speak in I, Us, We. It is a common tip, but again: remember that an employee is probably already ‘on’ and does not want to hear any reproaches. As a manager, do you want to prevent violent emotional reactions? Take this tip to heart.

Be honest, empathic, but also very concrete in your opening. Then add a sensory perception: I see, I hear, I often hear, etc.

For instance:

  • I see that you have been struggling to meet your targets lately.
  • I have noticed that you are less relaxed than normal.
  • Last Friday I noticed that you were very irritated, Are you ok now?

You ventilate your findings and then you give your employee the space to respond. Deal with this answer, especially after you have asked. You are not his/her psychologist of course. If an employee is unable or does not see what his problem is, then it is not (yet) the time to address this. However, keep your finger on the pulse and possibly plan a second interview.

Teach an employee to declare his limitations

Step 2: don’t waste time

We are all busy, but addressing a colleague requires adequate action. When you address a colleague about the behaviour that he has shown six months ago, you, as a supervisor, are naturally quickly finished. Nobody is going to take you seriously.

Do you see something happen that you think requires action? Then jump in, schedule a meeting within a week.

Step 3: identify the behaviour

Naming the behaviour you’ve seen is very difficult for many. This is therefore also the reason that thorough preparation is necessary. Think in advance what you actually noticed with a colleague. Then be very specific in what you want to talk to your employee about. Then keep it also at 1, a maximum of 2 points. Many conversations you have with employees about work stress have a major impact. Allow your employee time to think about this and act accordingly.

Also, remember that changing behaviour quickly takes 6 months. If something serious is going on, then also plan a number of progress interviews.

Step 4: Show the effect

In this step, you take an employee to the consequences. Showing the effect of work stress on both you and the manager (human + professional side), but also the effect on colleagues and the company.

You are entitled as a supervisor, to address an employee for work-related stress. The consequences are great for both people and companies. Dare to stand for this and show that it is good for every party involved, that stress is limited to a minimum. I prefer to talk too much, then too little!

conflicts at work

Tips for addressing an employee

Below are a few practical tips to take with you when you start a conversation with an overburdened employee.

  • Do not pull someone abruptly from his workplace, but indicate that you would like to talk to him and check when it suits him.
  • Find a place where you can talk to each other undisturbed or suggest that you do this while walking
  • Write down a few facts that you personally observe in advance.
  • Name the facts from the first person tense, rather than “you do this” and “you are tired”, but “I see” or “I notice”
  • Ask the personnel department or HR department in advance about the standard procedure in these situations.
  • Also indicate what it does to you, for example, that you are worried or that you are confused because you do not know this behaviour from the person. Be honest about this. You ask someone in a vulnerable situation about a sensitive subject (the other person really feels that things are not going well). By naming what the situation does to you, you lower your bridge half
  • Then, state what you would like to know from the other person:
    • ‘do you recognize this?’
    • “Has this been playing for a long time?”
    • “Any idea why this is?” 
  • Above all, as a manager, give the feeling that you are behind your employee and that the company will help the employee to recover.


Always keep conversations of this type free of judgment. Often an employee does not look sick, but there is a good chance that he will resist and refuse to be known. Stay in conversation from an open and curious attitude, looking together at what is needed to help the person reduce the stress.

Remember no overloaded employee wants to have these complaints. After all, everyone prefers to be fit and energetic.

Conquer burnout and stress

Reducing stress and recovering from burnout can be quite the challenge. With the help of our professional coaches, we are convinced that a full recovery is within reach. Our years of experience has taught us what stepping stones will help you reach your goal more effectively and how to make sure the changes you make will be of help to you for the rest of your life. Let’s turn your burnout or stress into your best life ever.

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