Bob Lilly Jr. has worked in the promotional products industry for nearly three decades, and he’s never seen anything like it.

“The last three years have been incredibly stressful and frenetic for almost everyone in promo,” says the president/CEO of Dallas-headquartered distributorship Bob Lilly Promotions (asi/254138), a member of Counselor’s Best Places to Work. “People have been working harder than at any time during the 27 years I have been part of the industry. I predict burnout will be one of the biggest issues in promo in 2023.”

woman in office taking a break

There’s a chance that if you’re reading this and work in the branded merchandise market, you can relate to Lilly’s perspective.

About two-thirds of industry professionals responding to a recent ASI Media poll on Twitter said they have higher stress levels now than before the COVID-19 era. Similarly, half of promo respondents to an ASI Media poll on LinkedIn said they’re more stressed now than before the pandemic.

Reasons for the increase in angst aren’t hard to pinpoint: Let’s start with the health and financial concerns of the pandemic. Or the catastrophic drop in promo business at the outset of COVID, followed by the manic pivot to selling personal protective equipment and the massive bounce-back in demand for traditional merch. Then there are the blood pressure-raising supply chain disruptions and related ills like inventory shortages and labor shortfalls. And according to some industry pros, a deterioration in the relationship between distributors and suppliers has exacerbated the aggravation of it all, as each side has gripes against the other. Distributors in particular are consistently needing to rework and babysit orders, adding both time and hassle to the process.

“Honestly, we are concerned about the mental state of our employees,” shares Memo Kahan, president of Top 40 distributor PromoShop (asi/300046) and a member of Counselor’s Power 50 list of promo’s most influential people. “There is a sense of exhaustion and fragility that continues to weigh on everyone in the workforce.”

But PromoShop isn’t simply accepting the status quo. Kahan and his team are taking proactive steps to help workers, providing advantages like schedule flexibility, the ability to work in-office and/or from home, and a camaraderie-building engagement program that’s offered virtual classes on everything from cooking and fitness to time management and holiday wreath-making.

of employees have experienced burnout during the pandemic era, indicating heightened stress levels across industries, not just promo.


“We support our population with interactive opportunities and resources,” Kahan says. “We continue to seek out examples of new ways to engage with our population and find others who”ve tapped into brilliant strategies in the post-pandemic environment.”

Adds Lilly, “It will be important to recognize people for the heroic effort they’ve been putting in. I think focusing on culture will be paramount to keeping and attracting talented teammates in the new year.”

of workers report feeling burned out on a daily or weekly basis.


Good advice. But what other strategies can promo executives and managers use to help reduce stress levels and prevent burnout among employees? For a fresh perspective, ASI Media turned to business executives and experts in human resources and mental health from a variety of industries to get their best tips.

12 Practical Strategies to Help Employees Beat Burnout

1. Establish and respect boundaries. To co-create a healthy working environment, leaders and employees should agree upon boundaries between work time and personal time.

“So often, burnout comes from employees unable to switch off from work once they arrive home, a phenomenon which is exaggerated when people work from home,” says Elisa Tidswell, a business coach and therapist. “Implementing an agreement such as, ‘No one is to send emails past 5:30 p.m.’ means that employees can be present in their personal life after this point.”

Matt Erhard expands on the point. “Getting time to relax and step away from work is absolutely necessary to prevent burnout,” says the managing partner of Summit Search Group, a recruitment firm. “When employees get emails, notifications, and other communication from bosses and colleagues during their time off, it prevents them from fully shifting out of work mode.”

Establish a policy, Erhard continues, of not sending workplace communications during off-hours unless it’s a true time-sensitive emergency. “Most email programs let you schedule messages, so managers can still type it up and send it off when it’s on their mind but have it not hit the employee’s inbox until they’re on the clock,” he says. “Small steps like this make it easier for employees to set work-life boundaries, which in turn help them to stave off burnout.”

Gabrielle Juliano Villiani“Employees don’t feel valued if it seems like their supervisor or boss doesn’t care about what they have to say about their working environment. Listen to what they need and then act on that.”Gabrielle Juliano-Villani, burnout-prevention specialist

2. Train leaders to identify burnout. Increased irritability, decreased productivity, mounting mistakes, reduced initiative, a quiet and withdrawn attitude, frequent absences – all these are signs of burnout in an employee. Kelly Berte, director of human resources research and advisory services at McLean & Company, says managers and other leaders should be taught to recognize these key indicators – and to address them. “Provide people leaders with the support to help struggling employees and to lead with empathy and curiosity,” Berte advises. “People leaders are in a unique position to both implement organizational solutions as well as escalate appropriate concerns to HR when solutions are missing the mark.”

3. Hire enough workers. Sure, it’s not always feasible financially and it can be difficult to find the right people, especially in a tight labor market. But if you have one staffer doing the job of three, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll burn that person down to their embers before long. Therefore, make every effort to staff up to appropriate levels.

“The top reason for burnout is employees being consistently overworked,” says Trevor Sookraj, CEO of marketing outsourcing firm Divisional. “There is a simple, straightforward solution to this: Hire more people so that the work can be more evenly spread out and your current employees won’t have to deal with being overworked. It’s a straightforward solution, but it’s one that most companies either choose not to implement or fail to realize in the first place.”

4. Be clear about expectations. Failing to do this “is one of the number one things that leads to burnout,” says Gabrielle Juliano-Villani, a burnout-prevention/recovery coach. It creates anxiety when workers don’t know what the standards/expectations are for various aspects of their job. And if they suffer reprimands or other repercussions for failing to meet an expectation that was never communicated, that can engender a deep sense of frustration and even contempt that leads to burnout and quitting. So be sure to lay things out clearly. “Think of the big picture and what you expect employees to respond to, and be as detailed as possible in job descriptions,” Juliano-Villani advises.

5. Set staffers up for success. Give employees the tools and resources they need to succeed. “Make sure you are providing them with ample training, clear communication and reasonable deadlines,” says Michelle Hague, human resources manager at Solar Panels Network, a solar-power installation firm. Doing so breeds a sense of capability and confidence that reduces strain even during times of heavier workloads.

Telltale Signs of Burnout

• Increased irritability
• Decreased productivity
• Mounting mistakes
• Reduced initiative
• A quiet, withdrawn attitude
• Frequent absences

6. Improve processes. Find ways to gain time savings and reduce errors through process improvement. “Nobody thinks they have time for this, but in reality no team can afford not to do this,” asserts Nitesh Gupta, co-founder of marketing firm Concurate. “Steady process improvement will help your team stay afloat despite the never-ending increase in workload over time.” The efficiencies gained help decrease pressure on employees.

7. Ask for feedback. “Employees don’t feel valued if it seems like their supervisor or boss doesn’t care about what they have to say about their working environment,” explains Juliano-Villani. So, ask them for feedback about what they need and what could be improved. Then, wherever practical, integrate what the workers are suggesting. “Listen to what they need and then act on that,” she adds. “That will make them stay.”

8. Give a breather after busy periods. Many individual businesses or industries have a natural rhythm of busy seasons and slow seasons. As such, be mindful of times when employees are putting in more hours than usual and/or taking on extra tasks and responsibilities. Then, “once things slow down, give these team members a chance to step back and breathe with an extra day off, a couple of half-days, or simply a slightly lower-stress or lighter workload for a week or two after,” suggests Erhard. “Pushing employees straight from one stressful project into another non-stop, or constantly expecting them to put in overtime, can drive an otherwise mentally healthy employee to burnout.” 

9. Encourage workday breaks and PTO. At some companies, vacations and pausing for breaks during the workday are frowned upon. This creates a toxic culture in which anxiety is rife and burnout inevitable. Instead, managers should encourage employees to use paid time off and manage schedules accordingly to ensure adequate coverage of work responsibilities so those on the job aren’t overwhelmed by picking up the slack. Relatedly, employees should be allowed time during the workday to decompress for a bit before resuming work.

Kelly Berte“Provide people leaders with the support to help struggling employees and to lead with empathy.” Kelly Berte, McClean & Company

10. Be flexible with scheduling. Admittedly, there are jobs that require certain hours to be covered in a certain location and that’s non-negotiable. Still, when possible, allow flexibility in scheduling so employees can meet their various responsibilities outside work and take care of themselves mentally/physically, HR experts say. This will make them less stressed when on the job and can contribute to enhanced performance.

11. Provide stress management training and support. This training can help improve employees’ adaptability in stressful scenarios, build distress tolerance and reduce emotional exhaustion. “However, it’s worth considering that, regardless of how resilient employees are to work-related stress after these interventions, this form of support will only do so much if their working conditions are poor,” notes Emma Loker, a mental health specialist with Healthy Minded.

12. Show compassion and empathy. This is especially true when interacting with employees. It makes them feel that you’re on their side – that you care, rather than being a warden-like taskmaster there to turn on them if they make a mistake. The compassionate approach fosters a collaborative, “we’re on the same team” environment in which employees feel less stress, execute better and are more willing and able to go the extra mile when needed, HR leaders say.


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