Employee Burnout: How to Recognize and Manage It In Your Business

Andrew Buck July 15, 2021

Burnout among your employees is a very real and important issue. If ignored, burnout can be damaging to your productivity, the health of your organization, and possibly result in the loss of talented members of your team.

Employee burnout may be seen as a new phenomenon, but in truth, it’s nothing new. Burnout is only just now getting recognition, but the causes and consequences of burnout have existed in the workplace for generations.

Burnout can manifest itself in many different ways. Identifying the warning signs of burnout, and knowing how to take action when this happens to your employees, is a fundamental part of managing a strong, happy and productive team.

Read on as we discuss all you need to know about burnout at work, and how to manage it in your business.

What is Employee Burnout?

Burnout is a state of exhaustion brought on by stress, usually to do with overwork or problems at work. It can show itself in a number of ways, including physical or mental symptoms.

It can be clear to an employee when they feel burned out, or not so clear. Many employees do experience and understand burnout. In this study, 67% of the 7500 employees surveyed reported feeling burned out at least some of the time – 23% saying they experience burnout at work very often or always.

Yet there are other workers who go through very real cases of burnout, without recognizing it as such. Employee burnout can sometimes be explained away as other things. You may recognize the symptoms – such health issues, low productivity or a lack of happiness – without realizing the underlying cause.

Employees can be hesitant to come forward and claim they feel burned out, out of fear that it may be perceived as laziness or attitude problems.

It’s vital to look for and understand burnout, as it’s a very real state that can arise from a number of causes, none of which are due to any individual flaws on the employee’s part.

What are the Signs of Burnout?

Burnout at work can show itself in a number of ways. Since employees will not always speak up to say they feel burned out – many also don’t even recognize what they’re feeling as burnout – business owners, managers and HR staff should be on the lookout for the signs of burnout from their staff.

Here are some things to look out for:

Irritability

It’s common for someone experiencing burnout to develop a short temper and become easily irritated. You may notice overreactions to small inconveniences or little things that go wrong, or even spontaneous outbursts.

Decreased productivity

Physical and mental symptoms of burnout generally contribute to a drop in productivity. Employees may have a hard time concentrating at work, or difficulty motivating themselves to get through the same workload.

It can be made even worse when the staff member is called out on their drop in productivity, resulting in even more stress and a more severe case of burnout.

Increase in sick days

Burnout is accompanied by significant levels of stress, which can have quite serious health impacts. Employees suffering burnout may develop a weaker immune system and have trouble sleeping, which will lead to a higher number of (and more severe) illnesses, leading to more sick days.

Lateness

One of the tell-tale signs of burnout is a struggle to get up and get motivated to come to work. Thus, the employee may begin showing up late on a consistent basis. 

Making uncharacteristic mistakes

Trouble concentrating, cognitive problems and low motivation are all classic symptoms of burnout. You may notice this from your staff in the form of lower attention to detail, and an increase in small mistakes that you would not expect from them.

Decreased participation in social activities

Burnout and depression symptoms are very similar. Workers suffering from burnout may feel detached, impersonal, and antisocial. This leads to not participating as much in social activities, from team outings and get togethers to simple workplace conversations.

That doesn’t mean everyone who keeps to themselves is burned out – some people are just naturally reserved. Look out for people who are becoming less social all of a sudden.

Cynicism

Cynicism can be both a cause and sign of burnout. It’s extremely common to get disillusioned or pessimistic when you’re experiencing burnout. The person may feel like what they’re doing isn’t worthwhile or doesn’t matter. They may have a negative view of things going on in the company or around them. It could also show up as a loss of confidence, constantly thinking their work is not good enough.

Personal Signs to Look Out For

Some signs of burnout are evident to outsiders – such as managers or teammates – who pay attention. Some, however, are internal, and much easier to spot when you’re the one experiencing these symptoms.

You’ll want to look out for these signs in your own life, or find out from your staff how they’re feeling by talking with them. Signs include:

Causes of Burnout

Many things can lead to burnout – big and small. Causes can range from issues with workload, environment factors, or personal issues, and they can happen in the workplace or at home.

Here are some of the most common causes of employee burnout:

Overwork

This is one of the most common reasons people feel burned out. Too much work. It’s fine to put in long days every now and then, or sprint to complete a big project, but when someone’s hours stack up like that long term, the chances of burnout occurring go way up.

Too much pressure

An overload of pressure is another common reason for burnout. This can mean standards that are too high, or periods of pressure that last too long.

We’re built to be able to withstand small bursts of pressure and stress, but when it lasts too long, the symptoms of burnout begin to appear.

Lack of achievement or recognition

Quite often employees go a long time without recognition or feeling that their contributions are worthwhile. This leads to low motivation and an increase in stress characteristic of burnout.

Lack of direction or understanding of one’s role

We can also see burnout show up due to a lack of direction or clearly defined role. If you don’t know why you’re doing a particular job or task, or are constantly unclear where you stand in the organization, it’s easy to become disillusioned and lose motivation in your work.

An unhealthy work environment

Workplace politics or poor relationships between coworkers can also lead to burnout quite quickly. There’s only so long you can put up with gossip, bullying, harassment and more toxic workplace conditions before it starts wearing on you.

It doesn’t have to be one of the people directly involved in bullying or harassment either. Just seeing this behavior happen on a daily basis can cause issues for your staff.

Lack of support

Employees who feel they have no support, that they are on their own at work, tend to become burned out much quicker. Workers need to know they have somewhere to go if there’s a problem, or if they need additional help or support with their job.

Isolation

Isolation and loneliness are extremely dangerous for mental health. This can be a particularly significant issue for remote teams, especially those who have just gone remote recently. Working every day from your home, only interacting with people through the computer screen will sap motivation and energy much quicker than you’d expect.

Work/life imbalance

Similar to overwork, if the job is dominating someone’s life, this will gradually build to a state of burnout. It will also make small issues at work seem larger, and amplify the negative effects people feel from a lack of recognition or achievement, when work is the only thing on someone’s mind.

This is sometimes, but not always, a case of too much work on one’s plate. They may just have no outlet to take their mind off work after hours, or may be putting in too many hours by choice. This is a common problem for remote workers, as it’s easy to think about work all day when there are no clear lines between work and home life.

Personal issues outside of work

Finally, employees may also have issues outside of work that are causing stress, which will mean they become burned out a lot quicker. This can be hard to spot, and can also be a tricky subject to talk about, either for you or for them.

It’s important to be open and understanding to issues like this, and lend sincere support to your employees where you can.

How to Handle Burnout in Your Business

You may well come across cases of burnout with your employees. It’s important that you understand this is not a personal flaw, or an untreatable issue. Treating and resolving burnout is often as easy as addressing the underlying cause.

Here’s what to do when you know or suspect your staff may be burned out.

Address overwork and unrealistic expectations

Unhealthy workloads and unrealistic expectations happen, and often it’s not intentional. Often tasks quietly pile up, and then before anyone realizes, the employee has too much on their plate.

Take a step back and objectively look at the situation, and see if there is any way to reduce the load on your employee.

Talk and listen

The quickest way to diagnose the problem is simply to talk to your staff. When you start up a dialog, much of the time the employee will open up about how they’re feeling, and why they may be feeling burned out.

The key is to present yourself as open and approachable, so that the employee feels comfortable enough to be honest about how they are doing. Many people are afraid to speak out about things like this, due to fear they may be seen in a negative light because of it.

Above all else, don’t forget to listen! Don’t just go in there and give a motivational speech. Let the employee speak their mind and take what they have to say sincerely.

Discuss issues and potential solutions

If you’re able to get an idea of how your employee is feeling and why they’re burned out, you can start to explore solutions to these issues.

If it’s an overwork problem, talk about what tasks are the lowest priority and can be removed or delegated. You may also be able to help define roles, responsibilities and expectations better, which could be the cause of the problem too.

A lot of the time, by simply talking to the employee and working together with them on finding a solution, you’ll reduce the feelings of negativity and detachment that cause (and are caused by) burnout.

Encourage your employee to take a break

Most often, employee burnout is simply due to working too long without a break. The solution could be simple: a vacation. If you notice your employees are struggling, and it happens to be they haven’t taken leave in some time, you might want to encourage them to take some time off.

Related: a complete guide to leave management for remote teams

How to Prevent Burnout

As is the case with many things, prevention is the best cure. You can help avoid employee burnout in your business by maintaining an open and positive work environment, and being on the lookout for issues that could result in burnout down the line.

Some small practices in your workplace can have a hugely positive impact on the scale of burnout you see from your employees, resulting in a happier and more productive team.

Have consistent, open discussions with your staff

Communication saves so many problems. Creating an environment where it’s common to have open, frank conversations about work will help diagnose 90% of the causes of burnout before it gets to be too much.

You’ll also reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and develop a healthy, positive atmosphere just by increased levels of communication.

Establish clear roles, goals and expectations

When your employees know what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, and where they stand in the company, things are a lot simpler, and burnout happens significantly less. You can save a lot of trouble and a lot of stress for your employees by just making everything in your business clear, open and transparent.

Monitor how long your staff have gone without vacations

It’s worth stressing again how far a few small breaks throughout the year can go towards preventing burnout. Your staff will be happier and more productive, which more than makes up for the time missed.

Set up a system to follow how long it’s been since each employee has taken a vacation – if you use Flamingo to track leave in your business, this is super simple to automate.

You can then give reminders to employees who have been working too long without a break, as well as working this in when planning projects, to give employees time off in between big pushes like product launches.

Read more: learn the best ways to set up a vacation calendar in your business, to ensure smooth management of your employees’ vacation days.

Recognize wins, big and small

One major cause of burnout is a feeling of negativity, that things aren’t going right. You can turn this around in your business by regularly communicating small (or large) wins. These wins can be anything from a strong period of sales, to something simple like a new contract gained or a positive comment from a customer.

This could be a board pinned up in the office, or a channel on Slack/Microsoft Teams dedicated to sharing wins.

Display appreciation wherever you can

Following from recognizing wins, just try to display appreciation for the good things that your employees do. Too often we only point out the problems – we don’t give praise for the good work our staff does each and every day.

Thanking and appreciating your staff more consistently is a small thing to do, which will have a quite powerful effect on your team’s morale.

Identifying & Solving Employee Burnout: In Summary

Burnout happens. It’s always happened. Only recently have businesses really been waking up to this issue and understanding it.

You’re likely to come across burned out employees in your business at some point. The key to minimizing the negative impact of burnout is to identify it early, treat it seriously, and give your staff the support they need.

It’s even better if you can build a positive culture in your workplace, set up to avoid problems with burnout before they even arise. The result will be a more productive team, filled with happier and more contented team members.

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