Burnout is a serious issue that affects more than performance at work. Know the signs and how to help your agents get through it.
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Before Paula Davis founded the Stress & Resilience Institute in Milwaukee and wrote the book Beating Burnout at Work, she spent several years as a commercial real estate practitioner. The inkling that she was experiencing burnout sparked when she realized she was procrastinating on certain tasks.

“I’m rarely a procrastinator. I began going to work later. As a lawyer, I didn’t have a start time. I started [showing up] 20 minutes later, then 30 minutes. I pushed the boundary,” she says.

She began waking up every day not wanting to go to work, and she found that she became sick more frequently.

“That’s the way stress impacts us physically. I would get a stomachache and then headaches; then it began happening every time I would close a deal,” she adds.

She felt that every curve ball in every deal was a major crisis. At home, when a family member would ask a question or need something, she found that she’d unnecessarily become upset or lack the capacity to help with what were normally easy tasks. Her eye-opener moment came when she got upset with her mom, who had asked her to pick up something from the store.

“I wasn’t having any fun, not at parties or with anything,” Davis says. “There should be some sort of happiness, joy and positive emotions sprinkled into what you do on some days. That used to be present, but it was eroding for me.”

Job burnout is more than having a bad week or feeling exhausted at the end of each day.

“Burnout is a sense of chronic cynicism or frustration,” Davis says, and it can lead to poor quality of life, poor performance, and depression.

What Burnout Is and How It Manifests

Nearly five years ago, the World Health Organization recognized work burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Symptoms are characterized by three components:

  • Constant feelings of exhaustion
  • Intensified mental distance from your job or feelings of cynicism or negativity toward one’s occupation
  • Reduced effectiveness at one’s work

To a real estate professional, burnout can present itself as a constant annoyance with clients and their needs, for instance. Agents might even start questioning whether its really necessary or not to answer another client question or show yet another home. Agents aren’t doing so because they don’t want to provide the best level of service, but rather because their mental and emotional resources are depleted.

Another example of how burnout manifests is ambivalence, Davis says. For instance, an agent facing burnout might feel victimized by the market and resort to the thought that they can’t change anything—there’s no point in trying. Rather than a feeling of acceptance, which is healthy, Davis says, in cases of burnout, disconnection from the work is what surfaces.

Why Be Concerned About Workplace Burnout

For a broker, it’s important to know the signs of burnout and the tools available to agents. An agent in burnout is an agent in need, and if the issue is left unaddressed, consequences could stack up for the agent and the brokerage.

Health care provider the Mayo Clinic asserts that ignored or unaddressed job burnout can cause some major health problems including fatigue, alcohol or substance abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and vulnerability to other illnesses. Sufferers also feel drained, have fewer coping skills and possible anger or irritation.

“As the market is changing with inventory so tight and higher interest rates, industry practitioners find themselves taking on more than they would before,” says Rebecca Thomson, regional vice president for Coldwell Banker Realty in Chicago. She supervises more than 2,000 agents in 19 offices across Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.

Thomson says real estate professionals burn themselves out because they have so much to deal with, adding that it’s especially true for women.

“They are delegating personal and business responsibilities. The pandemic put more on them, such as when kids had to be homeschooled or taking care of elderly family members,” she adds.

She says agents must take care of themselves but, much of the time, they don’t realize they’re overworked or in burnout until it’s caused major issues. Brokers are in a unique position to help agents navigate burnout and even prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Five Ways to Help Agents Avoid Burnout—And Work Through It

Schedule time between agents and managers. “Our management team are trained coaches,” Thomson explains. “Our offices are focused on culture collaboration instead of cutthroat culture.” Having leaders checking in with agents on a regular basis can give them the community and care they might need. With new agents, Thomson gives them a journal to write down all the things happening, what they are learning, and what they are feeling. Davis says that leaders need to ask how people are. “We need to ask what is stressing them out. How are they really?”

Offer recognition regularly. One of the main reasons workplace burnout happens is because an employee or agent doesn’t feel appreciated for their contributions to the business, Davis says. “Even a cursory thank you can help. But encourage and push leaders to move beyond that. Identify the specific behavior that made the good outcome,” she adds. It’s easy to recognize top performers, but it’s also important to make sure to recognize each agent for their strengths and what they bring to the brokerage.

Present resources to ease the workload. Make sure agents have enough training and knowledge to use all the systems and processes available so they can save time, Thomson says. Understand what you as a leader can help them automate to reclaim their time. Find other ways to free them up so they can spend more time with family, friends and on hobbies.

Teach them to say no. Thomson realized that her Type A personality was pushing her toward burnout. “I began to realize that I couldn’t say yes to everything. I then began to understand that we can’t expect ourselves [to perform at] 100% all the time. Sometimes, 80 to 90% is OK.” Helping agents realize this is important to their mental health. An email doesn’t have to be worded perfectly, for example. It just needs to be professional, kind and timely.

Get educated about burnout. “There’s a ton of education missing at the leader level about burnout,” Davis says, and one of the best ways you can help your agents is by understanding what burnout is and what resources are available. She also feels that leaders need to understand what makes people light up when it comes to their work. “When you are excited about what you are doing, the time is flying by.”

A study from the Mayo Clinic discovered a few years ago that physicians who spend 20% of their time doing “work they find most meaningful are at dramatically lower risk for burnout.” For real estate agents, that translates to figuring out what makes them light up in their careers and doing more of it. A couple of tweaks might be all that’s needed.