In golf course maintenance, the term “burn out” conjures up images of crispy greens and fairways scorched by the summer heat – the kind of haunting thoughts that make golf course superintendents wake up covered in sweat.

But the danger of burnout isn’t limited to turfgrass. Your staff can burn out as well – worn down by the physical challenges of the job, the repetitiveness that’s inherent in day-to-day course maintenance, a lack of positive feedback, limited opportunity for input or ownership, and even the same brutal summer heat that zaps the grass. And when workers burn out, the impact on the operation of a golf course can be every bit as real as when the turf gets fried. Fortunately, there are strategies for fighting fatigue.

It’s a long season

“Everybody’s full of energy at the beginning of the season. When you get into late June, in my experience, that’s when people can get into a slump,” says David Barber, golf course superintendent at Cranberry Highlands Golf Course in Cranberry Township, Pa. It’s that point in the season where working Saturdays and staying late during the week starts to take its toll, he explains.

“So, what we try to do is work a ‘split shift’ – that has worked great for us. Everyone loves it,” Barber says. Under this system, the roughly 18-member staff is split in half on the weekends, ensuring that each worker has alternating weekends off. Those working weekends then get two days off (consecutively, if possible) during the week.

This rotation gives employees a chance to spend every other weekend with friends and families, and the set schedule lets them know well in advance when their days off will be, which helps them plan.

“That helps a lot,” Barber says. “When I started working on a golf course, I remember what is was like. You could forget about your nightlife and your weekends. We try not to do that.”

At Aurora Country Club in Aurora, Ill., certified golf course superintendent John Gurke has found a similar approach that works for him and his staff.

“We don’t really experience burnout here,” he says. “I think part of that is because we are seasonal here, and the winter provides a break. But I think it’s also because we have restructured our work schedule.” Done mainly as a way to save money during the economic downturn, the practice of eliminating all overtime by hiring more crew members, each working fewer hours, has also spread the burden out, Gurke explains.

Mitch Bowers, superintendent at Harmony Club Golf Course in Timnath, Colo., says that worker burnout isn’t only a late-season phenomenon. Given the local climate, there’s a lot of spring cleanup and prep work to finish to prepare for golfers at Harmony, and this can be the most difficult time of the year, Bowers observes.

“We have to do a lot of overseeding and little projects all over the place. You can get burned out pretty fast, before the season even starts,” he notes. “It’s the repetition of the job and not being able to see a finished product. They’re working hard, but there’s nothing really to show for it yet.”

Keep it fun

Bryan Stromme, Midwest regional director of agronomy with Billy Casper Golf, says the company finds inspiration in Southwest Airlines, which has developed a reputation as the preferred employer in its industry by creating a fun on-the-job atmosphere. “People need to get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work,” Stromme explains.

That’s also the goal at Harmony. Bowers is a firm believer that coming up with fun activities is essential to keeping morale up and worker fatigue down.

“In our maintenance shop, I have Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, darts, horseshoes, basketball, just about everything. And when we’re fed up with all that, we golf,” he says with a laugh.

In the middle of summer, when the threat of burnout can be at its worst, Bowers picks the hottest day to hold a bowl-a-thon.

“We’ll work a half-day in the morning and go to the bowling alley and have a good time,” he says. “That does wonders … I’ve worked for guys who never want to do anything extra and don’t want to build morale, but expect everyone to just come in with a happy face every day. I told myself that when I became a manager I would never do that to my employees.”

All the employees at Harmony Club know there’s a job to be done. And Bowers says, “I expect it to be done right and my expectations are high.” But it’s not an either-or situation: You can have high expectations and still create a fun, positive work environment, he emphasizes.

Expert Insights on Burnout

“Everybody, at some point or another, goes through some level of burnout,” says George Boué, a member of the Society for Human Resources Management’s panel on human resources disciplines. Oftentimes, he says, it’s a combination of work and personal issues that leads to this condition. Similarly, worries about job security can be another factor that leads employees to burnout, Boué notes.

He says every manager has a responsibility to look for clues that a worker may be experiencing burnout. He offers a few common clues to look for, including changes in personality or behavior, crankiness, and errors in the work that’s being done.

“In those cases, I think it’s the manager’s responsibility to ask if everything is OK,” Boué says.

This can be an uncomfortable conversation for some managers, especially if personal issues are contributing to burnout on the job, acknowledges Boué. “But, ultimately, it’s the manager’s responsibility for managing not only the productivity, but [also] the overall engagement of the employee,” he states. “And I think every boss has a responsibility to oversee the well-being of the employee.”

Fortunately, detecting burnout is sometimes more difficult than actually addressing it, Boué says, noting that a caring conversation with an employee can go a long way, as can being sensitive to that employee’s workload. “We all like to have people who are super dedicated, and people love to have workaholics working for them, but you have to be sensitive that they may be stressing themselves out, and that’s not healthy,” Boué explains. “It’s not sustainable for any human being to go 100 miles an hour all the time.”

An overworked employee may not want to admit that he needs a break, especially when he is part of a team and doesn’t want to let his co-workers down, but shifting job responsibilities may be necessary, Boué says.

“You need to be sensitive to that and look for ways to reduce some of the workload that employee has,” he explains. “Sensitivity is a critical skill that every manager needs to have.”

Know your staff

Ron Dahlin, the certified golf course superintendent at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., says that since his employees are typically college students, he tries to be attentive to their sometimes stressful schedules.

“I know that when final exams come around I need to be a little bit forgiving and try to give them a little extra space. I really want to try to keep them from burning out,” he says.

That’s a lesson that applies to all employees: Making an effort to find out what’s going on in their personal lives can help managers modify their approaches slightly if they know a worker is in a stressful situation. “Everyone has an off day, and you let other people pick them up a little bit,” Dahlin says.

At Cranberry Highlands, new employees take a DISC personality profile test, which Barber says helps him learn more about each member of the staff, and provides clues that might help him more effectively communicate with each employee. He also encourages employees to approach him with any problems or frustrations. “Life is just too stressful, and if something is bothering you, I can’t help you unless you tell me,” Barber tells his staff.

He says little actions can make a big difference in keeping morale up among the staff. “I make it a point to eat lunch with them, just so I can get a feel for how things are,” Barber says. “I think superintendents can get caught up in cracking the whip all the time and don’t take the time to see how their [crew members] are feeling and what might be percolating through the staff so they can address it in a positive and friendly manner.”

While organizing employee lunches and other similar activities can help, Stromme feels that the best way to fight worker fatigue is to sit down and actually talk to employees. “I think the key is really to find out what gets them engaged in their work, getting them to see why their job is important, and seeing what they want to learn to help them grow,” he explains.

When workers see that you don’t think of them just as an hourly employee for a season but want them to actually be a part of a team for the long term, “I think that goes further than any picnic does,” Stromme states. “Team building is important and fun, but I think when you invest in each person individually they perform at such a higher level. Suddenly, it’s not just a job they’re coming in to every day; it’s something they’re excited about.”

In short: Employees are more motivated when they are learning something rather than just doing something.

Helping them see golf course maintenance as a career rather than just another job helps create a different mindset, especially for employees who might not be heading back to high school or college in the fall, Stromme says.

“We find that a lot of people who come to work on a golf course maintenance crew just start out mowing, but if they take an interest in it there are a lot more opportunities,” he notes. “We see a lot of people who look at going back to school to really get into this industry, people who are working to become irrigation technicians or spray technicians and are working through those certifications.”

While Billy Casper Golf sometimes sets up such training opportunities for its employees, superintendents can research similar opportunities that might be available online or through colleges, universities and extension services in their local areas. “These kinds of programs get people excited and help them get started,” Stromme observes.

Burnout Busters

  • Have employees work a split shift, ensuring that each worker has alternating weekends off.
  • Hire more crew members to eliminate overtime, which can tire out employees.
  • Have fun. Put a Ping-Pong table in the maintenance facility. And let employees golf.
  • Have a barbecue with all the fixings.
  • Make sure employees feel like they are part of the team.
  • “Attaboy.” Let them know that they’re doing a job

Switch things up

“When we hire someone, we want them to know everything from A to Z,” Barber says. “Even if they are one-year employees, they’ll know how to cut cups and mow the greens and the tees and the fairways.”

Putting a new hire on a weed whacker for two straight months is a surefire recipe for creating burnout, he emphasizes. Moving employees around to different jobs helps break up the repetitiveness and gives them a chance to try new things, he adds.

“You do have to move people up and give them different responsibilities,” Dahlin advises. “If you have somebody doing the same thing every day, that’s pretty tough. It’s going to be hard to keep them motivated.”

At the same time, while switching up jobs can prevent boredom, Dahlin says he’s also careful not to overwhelm employees and stress them out. “You don’t want to throw everything at them at once; you want to give them new things as they can handle it,” he explains.

Play up the perks

Many people who search out work on a golf course have a personal connection to the game, so don’t underestimate the traditional perk of letting them play some golf.

“We allow employees to block off some tee times on the golf course … and we let them bring a guest when we can, and sometimes we even let them have a full foursome,” Dahlin notes. “We’re pretty busy on our course, but there’s always a spot for them, and we let them know that. We try to make them feel welcome.”

In addition to keeping them motivated, there’s an added bonus to allowing staff to play the course. “They get to see the purpose of their work firsthand, and why we do things the way we do,” he explains.

At Harmony Club, Bowers plans a barbecue for the employees once a month on a day that the course is closed, usually followed by a staff golf tournament. “It goes twice as far as I think it does,” says Bowers of the morale boost the event provides. And he seconds the notion that getting staff out to play the course gives them a better sense of the importance of the work they do from a golfer’s perspective.

Food also goes a long way in keeping a crew content. “We try to get everybody together at least once a season for a big barbecue, usually the day of some big event where we do all our prep in the morning and we can feed them and play some games in the afternoon,” Dahlin says.

Free food can provide a big morale boost, Barber notes.

“We always have leftover food from events [at the club],” he says. “We tell them in advance that they don’t need to bring lunch that day.”

Share the praise

Sharing praise with staff members helps them create a sense of pride in their work and keeps them motivated to do a good job, Barber says.

“When we get a positive comment, we make sure to post them for everyone to see. I tell them, ‘This comes to me, but it’s for all of you,'” Barber adds.

Everyone gets stressed, and the work is hard, that’s just part of the industry, Stromme says. “But,” he says, “knowing that there’s … a reason you’re doing your job, and that it’s appreciated and there are opportunities to grow, I think that helps people look past being tired and working so hard.”

Read more: It’s summer, you’re stressed.