Expert Interview: Signs of Employee Burnout and How to Address It
August 22, 2023
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Employee burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by chronic workplace stress. It’s not simply a case of feeling tired after a long day of work but rather a long-term condition resulting from overwork, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of support.
Forty-one percent of U.S. workers felt burned out at the end of last year, only slightly less than the 42 percent global burnout rate. If left unchecked, workplace burnout can have an adverse effect on your organization’s bottom line.
What causes employee burnout?
According to Gallup, overwork is one of the leading causes of job burnout, and people who exceed 50 hours a week or more substantially increase their risk. However, they found that how people experience their workload has a stronger influence on burnout than hours worked.
Engaged employees with job flexibility tend to work longer hours while reporting higher well-being. Gallup explains, “When people feel inspired, motivated, and supported in their work, they do more work—and that work is significantly less stressful on their overall health and well-being.”
Read more: 7 Ways to Motivate and Retain Top Talent
Ultimately, if demands, deadlines, long hours, and stress outweigh rewards, recognition, and relaxation, burnout sets in.
COVID-19 aggravated burnout across industries and professions. From doctors and teachers to tech and marketing professionals, few were spared. Between factors like added stress, social unrest, caregiving, working from home, uncertainty, lack of social interaction, and extra work hours, the perfect storm occurred. Many haven’t recovered from that.
How does burnout affect employees?
Psychological scientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that burnout damages the brain, causing people to suffer memory, attentional, and emotional difficulties.
In my conversation with Sasha Shillcutt, a doctor who experienced severe burnout, we talked about what’s happening during burnout from a medical point of view. She shared, “Your brain is trying to protect your body, so sometimes even eye contact or a smile is too much. You don’t withdraw in solitude but rather emotionally, and then you get labeled as uncaring, lazy, or disengaged. Men tend to get angry; women tend to feel emotionally depleted. You feel exhausted. You are tired all the time. You stop exercising; you stop taking care of yourself. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse may show up. You are just trying to numb the emotional exhaustion.”
How does employee burnout impact organizations?
Burnout often leads to increased absenteeism as employees may need time off to recover from physical or mental health challenges. Additionally, those experiencing burnout may still show up at work, but their productivity and focus are compromised, leading to presenteeism, which negatively affects overall team performance.
Note: Presenteeism refers to the lost productivity that occurs when employees are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury, or other condition. Even though the employee may be physically at work, they may not be able to perform their duties fully and are more likely to make mistakes on the job.
Burned out employees are less capable of thinking creatively and innovatively, leading to a decline in overall organizational efficiency. A culture of burnout stifles the generation of new ideas and hinders the company’s ability to adapt to change.
And organizations that are known for having a burnout culture may struggle to attract and retain top talent. A negative employer brand can deter potential candidates from applying, resulting in a limited talent pool for the company.
What are some employee burnout warning signs?
Warning signs can vary from person to person, and individuals may exhibit a combination of signs differently.
Common employee burnout signs include:
- A sudden decline in performance
- Reduced employee engagement
- Increased errors
This is because burnout can impact an individual’s cognitive abilities, making it harder for them to concentrate, make decisions, or remember important information.
Burnout can manifest as emotional exhaustion, with employees displaying signs of irritability, cynicism, or frequent mood swings. Or, instead of expressing emotions like irritability or sadness, some individuals may become emotionally numb and detached, appearing apathetic or unresponsive. A person experiencing burnout may also exhibit abrupt changes in communication, becoming less expressive or avoiding communication altogether.
Burnout may manifest in physical symptoms like frequent headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue and or even lead to neglect of self-care, resulting in a deteriorating personal appearance.
There are some lesser-known employee burnout signs that may not be as immediately obvious but are still important to watch out for. These include perfectionism and overworking as employees distract themselves from personal issues and avoid confronting burnout. Some managers may even praise employees for working long hours or consistently taking on additional tasks without considering the toll it might take on their well-being.
It’s important to remember that everyone may experience burnout differently, and not all individuals will display the same signs. Managers and colleagues should be observant and use their emotional intelligence to pick up on any unusual changes in behavior, performance, or attitudes that may indicate burnout.
What can managers do if they recognize signs of burnout in their team members?
To effectively address workplace burnout, it is essential for managers to foster open communication and create a supportive environment.
Remember that everyone may exhibit different signs of burnout; some employees may be more open about their struggles than others. Building trust and rapport with employees is essential for creating an environment where they feel comfortable discussing their well-being and seeking support when needed.
When you notice potential signs of employee burnout, initiate a private conversation with the team member to express concern and allow them to share their feelings and experiences. Allow the employee to speak openly about their challenges and concerns. Listening empathetically can help the employee feel heard and supported.
Provide information on available resources such as your employee assistance program, wellness initiatives, or access to counseling services. Work with the employee to adjust their workload or prioritize tasks to reduce stress and promote a healthier balance if feasible.
Encourage employees to take time off for self-care and rejuvenation, even if it’s just a short break. In an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too,” the authors found that “engaging in self-care activities (such as a 10-minute meditation session, cooking a nice meal, or even taking a nap) correlated strongly with reduced levels of reported burnout the following day. These findings support the notion that self-care is not self-indulgent; on the contrary, taking a break and focusing on yourself is one of the best ways to combat exhaustion and burnout.”
Keep a close eye on the employee’s well-being and performance after the initial conversation to assess if additional support would be helpful.
What are some ways to prevent and resolve job burnout?
To prevent and resolve burnout, leaders must take a serious look at their workplace culture and do whatever it takes to eliminate Hustle Culture and make space for Non-Hustle Culture.
Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns and struggles. Encourage regular check-ins to discuss workload, stressors, and overall well-being. Show empathy and understanding towards employees’ challenges and struggles.
Work with employees to establish achievable goals and expectations. Avoid overwhelming team members with unrealistic workloads and regularly assess responsibilities and goals to ensure they’re manageable.
By taking a proactive and caring approach to employee well-being, managers can create a positive work environment that supports employees’ mental and physical health, fostering higher job satisfaction and increased productivity. Promoting a culture that values work-life balance and prioritizes employee well-being can also contribute to better retention rates and a more engaged and resilient workforce.
Preventing professional burnout is easier than addressing it
Employee burnout is a serious issue that can significantly impact your individual team members and your organization. Undoing its effects can require substantial resources, time, and effort—especially if it’s been allowed to fester.
Your best bet is to prevent burnout from taking hold by creating a healthy, sustainable work environment where your team members feel supported and valued. By prioritizing prevention and proactively addressing burnout triggers, you can build a happy, productive team that’s equipped to help you reach your organizational goals.
About our expert: Milena Regos is the Founder of Unhustle®. Unhustle® offers employee well-being training for the workplace in partnership with Gallup Well-being at Work. Unhustle’s proprietary ecosystem includes training, coaching, consulting, speaking, community and learning. Reach out for more information: www.unhustle.com or email@example.com
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Jen Dewar is a marketing consultant in HR technology, focusing on developing educational content for HR professionals and recruiters. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion, lifelong learning and development, and treating people like people throughout candidate and employee experiences. Outside of work, you can find Jen snowboarding in Tahoe, enjoying a glass of wine in Sonoma, or hanging out at home with her family.
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