Preventing Burnout: How to Support Your Team and Avoid Sick Leave

In this article, you will learn what signs to look for in employees who are under pressure so that you can prevent them from having to take sick leave. It also gives you concrete tools to help employees under pressure when they need your support.

November 2023
min read
07-5 steps to avoid sick leave in your team
Skrevet af
Written by
Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psykolog, specialiseret i pædagogisk psykologi og formidling.

Samuel Kirk-Haugstrup

Psychologist, specialized in educational psychology and communication.

How do I know if an employee is under pressure and needs my support? This is a question many leaders ask themselves because employees under pressure often keep their discomfort to themselves. Therefore, in order to help stressed employees, <hl>you first need to know who needs your support.<hl>

Demands and Resources

When we become stressed, it is because there is an imbalance between our demands and resources. Or to put it another way: when we feel unable to cope with the challenges we face - both at work and in our personal lives.

To help your employees balance demands and resources, you first need to know what signals to look for.

To explain the progression of stress, we can use the stress ladder.

The Stress Ladder

The stress ladder was developed by Marie Kingston and Malene Friis Andersen and is widely used in organizational psychology in Denmark.

The stress ladder consists of 5 phases:

  1. The temperate phase
  2. The heated phase
  3. The over-heated phase
  4. The meltdown phase
  5. The burned-out phase

<hl>The further your employee moves down the ladder, the more stressed your employee is<hl>. If your employee is on the top step, it means she is thriving and not showing signs of stress.

Step 1: When your employee is thriving

The temperate phase is where the employee is thriving in the workplace, among colleagues, is satisfied with their tasks, and delivers high quality.

  • The employee has an overview of their tasks and responsibilities. They can set their priorities and make their own decisions
  • The employee feels efficient but not overworked.  
  • The employee is open to new ways of doing things and will be particularly interested in feedback from you as a leader.
  • The employee usually works well with their colleagues

When employees are in the tempered phase, there is no need for leaders to worry about their well-being and stress levels.

At the same time, there are still things you can be aware of as a leader to create the best conditions for your employees to stay in this phase and not move further down the stress ladder.

How to keep employees happy

Research by the Danish National Research Institute for the Working Environment (NFA) suggests that <hl>six factors, in particular, are important for high well-being, low sickness absence, and good performance<hl>. By knowing these six factors, you can help to promote the well-being of your employees.

  1. Influence: "I can influence important decisions and issues around my work"
  1. Social support: "I have good relationships with colleagues and with my manager, where we care about each other and support each other"
  1. Meaning: "I feel that my work is meaningful and that I make an important difference"
  1. Reward: "I feel recognized, and I feel that my manager and my colleagues find my efforts valuable"
  1. Predictability: "My work contains a degree of predictability and I have the opportunity for some control"
  1. Demands: "There is a good balance between comfortable and challenging demands"  

Reflection Exercise

If you can promote each of these six factors as a leader, you can help create the best conditions for your employees to continue to thrive.

  1. As a leader, how do you try to promote the six factors in your day-to-day management?

  1. Which factors are natural for you to promote?

  1. Which factors are challenging for you to focus on?

Step 2: How to spot the heated employee

When an employee starts to show the first signs of stress, it means that they have moved into the heated phase.

Here, the employee finds that the weight of demands starts to outweigh the resources. They are often in a hurry and have to speed up to achieve their tasks. It becomes difficult for the employee to maintain an overview and they may find it difficult to assess how resources and tasks should be prioritized.

As a leader, you can spot the heated employee by:

  • The employee starts speaking more quickly, picking up the pace and generally radiating impatience
  • The employee almost always works overtime and starts working outside normal working hours
  • The employee downgrades social breaks in favor of work and starts eating lunch at their desk to accomplish tasks
  • The employee starts to lose track of time and forgets to answer emails or double-books meetings
  • The employee has a shorter fuse with managers and colleagues

How to help the heated employee

If you have an employee in the warm-up phase, <hl>one of the best things you can do is help them prioritize their tasks<hl>. This is because if you are getting stressed, it becomes harder to decide which tasks are important and urgent and which are not so urgent.

It may therefore be a good idea to ask how the employee is feeling so that you can find out whether the employee is busy, under pressure, or stressed. To help the employee get back on track, introduce them to the prioritization matrix so they have a concrete tool to help them prioritize their tasks.

The Priority Matrix was developed by Stephen Covey. It is divided into 4 fields in which you place your tasks:

1) Important and urgent,

2) Important but not urgent

3) Not important and urgent

4) Not important and not urgent

It is a good idea to complete the priority matrix with your employee the first time. Start from the employee's core task.

The closer a task is to the core task, the more important the task is. <hl>Important tasks are, for example, the tasks on which the employee is evaluated, which can be described as primary tasks.<hl>

When you and your employee place the tasks, start in field 1 for important and urgent tasks. Next, fill in box 2 for tasks that are important but not urgent, and finish by filling in boxes 3 and 4. As a general rule, you should only place 5-10 tasks in the "important and urgent" field, so that your employee can keep track of them.

By using the matrix and placing the tasks in the different fields according to importance, it will be easier for the heated or slightly stressed employee to prioritize his or her time.

Once the tasks in box 1 have been completed, take the tasks from box 2 and move them to box 1.

Step 3: How to spot the overheated employee

If the initial stress symptoms from the heated phase are allowed to develop, the employee enters the overheated phase.

This phase is characterized by <hl>a lack of overview, working overtime at odd hours and the employee often appearing absent<hl>, avoiding eye contact, and generally being evasive towards you as a manager and towards colleagues.

As a manager, pay particular attention to if:

  • The employee works late in the evening and may send emails at night
  • Employee gives too little attention to important tasks and too much attention to less important tasks
  • Employee may appear to be shaking or trembling, e.g., shaking hands or constantly tilting leg
  • The employee may mention sleep problems, or you may notice that the employee seems more exhausted than usual
  • The employee is worrying more than usual, and the worry may seem out of proportion

How to help the overheated employee

If you are concerned that one of your employees is in the overheated phase, you must help them set a framework and direction. <hl>The overheated employee often finds it difficult to plan their time and resources<hl>, so you as a manager may need to be clear and take some control.

You can do this in three ways:

  1. Make clear choices about work tasks with the employee: For example, you can use the priority matrix you read about earlier
  2. Be very clear about working hours and effort: communicate when you expect the employee to be at work. Communicate when you expect the employee to be available and check their email. Be clear that you do not expect anything from the employee outside these times.
  1. Arrange regular follow-up meetings: show your employee that it is important for you to follow up on priorities and working hours by arranging follow-up meetings where you regularly check expectations with each other.

By being clearer as a manager, you can help the employee not to fall further down the stress ladder.

The overheated phase is the center of the stress ladder and therefore <hl>represents a kind of tipping point<hl>. From here, the employee can either tilt towards recovery, through personal stress management and help from work and family, or the stress symptoms can escalate, and the employee can move further down the stairs to the meltdown or burnout stage.

Steps 4 and 5: How to spot the meltdown or burnout

The bottom two steps of the stress ladder are called the meltdown and burnout phases.

They are called this because, at this level of stress, <hl>the employee may be on the verge of taking sick leave<hl>.

The stress signals and symptoms from the earlier stages have escalated to such an extent that it is important to consider what external treatment services you, in the organization, can make use of. This could be health insurance, psychological help, or considering whether sick leave is the best option for the employee.

When an employee is in the meltdown or burnout phase, there will be some obvious signs that you as a manager can notice. These include increased sickness absence, increased levels of errors, tasks being handed in at long intervals, and deadlines being missed

The meltdown or burnout can also be recognized by the fact that the physical, psychological, and behavioral stressors from the earlier phases have escalated to the point where they make it difficult for employees to engage as part of the workplace at all.

As a manager, you can see this by:

  • The employee's cognitive abilities have become so impaired that he may experience decision inertia, meaning that the employee seems completely unable to prioritize or make decisions.


  • The employee becomes socially isolated


  • The employee's physical symptoms, such as chest tightness, headaches, or visual disturbance, may have reached a level where the employee needs to take sick leave.

Far from all employees are even aware that they are in the meltdown or burnout phase. <hl>Their system is running in 'survival mode' and they are trying, with the few resources they have, to maintain their ability to work and some normal behavior.<hl>


If you as a leader have an employee who is in the meltdown or burnout phase, it is therefore particularly important that you insist that it is your responsibility to intervene - even if the employee does not want help at first.

There are several ways you can intervene with the burnt-out employee. It depends both on the general practice of stress management in your organization and on your relationship with the individual employee.

If you are comfortable talking to the employee yourself, the first thing to do is to talk to the employee. You should talk about what you see and the concerns you have about the employee's well-being and stress level. If you don't know how to approach your employee, it's a good idea to consult the HR department in your organization. They can help you facilitate this difficult conversation constructively.

We experience stress differently

What stresses us varies, and no two employees react in the same way when they are under pressure. At the same time, there are often some typical signs that indicate that an employee or colleague is becoming stressed, and you can use the stress ladder for this purpose. When you know the typical signs, you know what to look out for, so you can intervene when needed.

  • Andersen, M. F. & Kingston, M. (2016). Stop stress – Håndbog for ledere. Klim.  
  • Flensborg, L. (2019). Kort og godt om svære samtaler. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag A/S.
  • Martini, M., Krarup, M., Tøttrup, C. A.(2017). Lederens stresshåndbog – styrk dinelederkompetencer, når det gælder stress. Dansk Psykologisk ForlagA/S.  

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