How to recognize the signs of employee burnout (and what to do about it)

You likely know of employees, colleagues, or even friends who have experienced burnout at work. Maybe you’ve experienced it in the past too?

It’s a phenomenon that can affect everyone at any stage in their work lives, from ambitious strivers to conscientious leaders and even fresh-faced recruits.

Burnout is not a sign of weakness, nor does it necessarily reflect badly on employers. However, if you care about the well-being of your employees and want to foster a happy and productive workforce, it’s important to be able to recognize signs of burnout in your staff. And take action to nip it in the bud.

In this article, I’ll teach you how to recognize the signs of employee burnout, and give you some powerful ideas for tackling this growing problem.

What is workplace burnout?

Since the pandemic, some workplaces have experienced “The Great Resignation”. Unhappy employees worldwide are quitting their jobs in droves. And one of the biggest drivers of this quitting outbreak? You guessed it: workplace burnout.

Tech giant, Microsoft, studied 30,000 employees in 2021 and found that 41% were considering resigning. Amazingly, 89% of those people were motivated to quit by burnout.

But what exactly is burnout?

Workplace burnout has three main characteristics:

  1. Exhaustion or lack of energy
  2. Negative, cynical thinking
  3. Ineffectiveness (perceived or real)

Is burnout a medical condition?

The term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s, by a German-American psychologist called Herbert Freudenberger; but for decades it wasn’t given official status until the World Health Organization added it to its International Classification of Diseases in 2019.

The WHO defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress, rather than a medical condition. It’s not a clinical condition like depression and anxiety, but it can be just as destructive to mental well-being; and can potentially lead to mental health issues. So it’s best to address it early on.

The WHO identifies three dimensions of workplace burnout:

  1. Feelings of exhaustion or “energy depletion”
  2. Increased “mental distance” or feelings of negativity or cynicism towards one’s job
  3. Feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of achievement at work

Recognizing workplace burnout before it happens

If your staff are experiencing tiredness or exhaustion they just can’t shift; are increasingly irritable and conflict-prone at work; seem detached from their work or are showing an overly negative attitude, it’s a potential sign that they might be experiencing workplace burnout.

Here are some signs to help you spot burnout in your workplace:

1. Your staff are overwhelmed

We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by tasks, especially if we feel like we have to be “always-on” and can’t switch off from work.

The business world has faced many challenges in recent years, and it’s all too easy for your workplace to feel like a constant “fire-fighting operation,” where all you can do is react to events.

This can mean that employees feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day to meet their goals.

Of course, some degree of stress at work is inevitable, but a constant state of stress will lead employees to feel overwhelmed, ultimately leading to burnout.

2. Productivity is decreasing

Employees with burnout often experience falling productivity. If an employee gets less work done, this can be a sign of burnout; especially if they are otherwise committed and proactive.

There’s a link between employees feeling overwhelmed and productivity decreasing. If an employee is in constant ‘fire-fighting’ mode and not achieving their goals, they might feel like all their hard work is coming to nothing. In the face of this, they may become apathetic, thinking, “what’s the point?”

Have you ever tried to be productive when everything seems pointless? Hard, isn’t it? It’s inevitable that employee burnout will lead to a decrease in productivity. Keep an eye out for this telltale sign.

3. You have a demanding work culture

Take an honest look at your work culture, especially if you work in a demanding industry or have high expectations of staff performance. The proliferation of digital devices, ever-growing stacks of work communication technology, and flexible working conditions like remote and hybrid working can all blur the line between work and leisure; between “on-time” and “off-time”.

Are your staff members:

● Always taking lunch at their desks?
● Keeping late hours and working weekends?
● Responding to emails and messages late at night or super early in the morning?
● Getting increasingly irritable or conflict-prone?

If any of the above are regular occurrences in your workplace it could lead to staff burnout.

4. You’re having communication problems

Workplace burnout can be as simple as poor communication in your workplace. It can lead to employees feeling like they aren’t understood, can’t speak out or, worse still, won’t be listened to. They may not feel they can approach their managers, or talk to colleagues about issues with handling their workloads.

As leaders, we can help solve this by being proactive, scheduling regular catch-ups with staff, and encouraging a sense of shared responsibility in your workplace; so that people know that they can approach their fellow teammates with their problems… and be heard.

5. Conflict is on the rise

None of us likes conflict in the workplace, especially when previously happy teams start to fall apart. Burnout can make your staff tired and irritable. This can be incredibly frustrating for you and your team, but knowing that burnout might be driving workplace conflict makes it easier to find solutions. So don’t dismiss irritable or uncooperative behavior from your team as a fact of life, it could be a symptom of workplace burnout.

How to prevent burnout in your workplace

So now you know how to recognize signs of burnout in your workplace, but what can you actually do about it? Let’s look at some powerful solutions for tackling burnout in your workplace.

1. Create a burnout-aware culture

The starting point is to create a work culture that is aware of the risks of burnout.

Burnout is not a dirty word, it’s not a stigma, and it’s certainly not a sign of failure. I’ve written before about how to support employees with their mental health; a big part of that is to take steps to talk to your staff about mental well-being, whether in one-on-one catch-ups or through group sessions.

The goal is to make it ok for your staff to talk about their mental well-being, to listen to them supportively, and to make reasonable changes to address any challenges. It can also be helpful to invite well-being experts into your workplace to talk to your team about burnout. I regularly help organizations introduce well-being practices to tackle burnout, and often the first step is increased mindfulness of workplace burnout.

2. Manage your busy work environment

If your organization is frequently busy, you need to keep a close eye out for signs of workplace burnout.

Frequently check in with your staff and make sure your managers are on hand to delegate work evenly amongst your team. Have realistic conversations with your employees about their workloads, targets, and deadlines. Be as flexible as you can.

Be honest about the workloads you are giving your staff and monitor how effectively they handle work stresses. It’s important to foster happiness and well-being in your workplace, even if it’s a busy one. I’ve worked with many business leaders who have busy offices but learn how to keep their staff content and motivated. If you need outside help to look at your management structures and work processes, it can be a worthwhile investment.

3. Encourage staff to take time off

Sometimes employees with burnout will take less of their allocated time off than other staff members. This may be because they are super committed to their job, or fear falling behind if they take their full allotment of vacation.

Your leaders should encourage people to take their holiday benefits and put systems in place so other members of your team can cover for them when they’re away. This way, they can properly switch off when taking a break, and won’t dread coming back to an overflowing inbox when they return.

Consider implementing “mental health” days where staff can take time off to unwind, de-stress, and get more perspective back into their lives. It’s a better alternative to staff taking sick days and fosters an open attitude to mental well-being in your workplace.

4. Talk to your staff about their challenges

It might seem obvious, but starting conversations with staff about their workloads and work culture is a great way to detect early signs of workplace burnout.

Unfortunately, leaders can sometimes find this difficult and daunting. But by being open, honest, and forward-thinking in your approach to identifying burnout early, you can prevent long-term negative benefits to your organization.

5. Support your leaders

It should go without saying that burnout can affect your leaders and managers just as much as it can other staff.

Leaders can feel a huge responsibility to both their teams and upper management. They may feel constant stress and tiredness is a necessary cost of leadership. But burnout isn’t a “badge of honor”. It’s an avoidable consequence of a lack of proper structures, communication, balance, and emotionally-aware leadership.

I’ve seen incredible transformations happen when leaders are honest and open about the risks of burnout and take proactive measures to stamp it out in their workplace.

What are your next steps?

Tackling burnout in your workplace can seem like a daunting task. But it’s achievable, especially if you have the right support.

If you think you’d benefit from a little outside help, my well-being at work programs offers a range of options to help you bring more balance into your office ecosystem. I use evidence-based psychological practices to help alleviate workplace burnout, create a supportive work environment, and keep your team’s performance healthy and sustainable.

If you’d like support in creating a productive and thriving work environment whilst avoiding employee burnout, get in touch with me today. I’d love to hear from you!


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