Employee Burnout: The Signs to Watch for & How to Prevent It

by Sarah Niderost, 6 minutes read
HOME blog employee burnout signs to watch for

Describe the past 12 months using one word. What comes to mind? If you're like most, then you may think of terms like:

Pandemic. Lockdown. Furloughed. Remote. Homeschool. Stress. Burnout.

The last word is heavy, especially with employees and leaders dealing with more pressure than usual. In fact, reports show burnout signs increased by 33% in 2020 and nearly 83% of employees are feeling emotionally drained from work in 2021.

Let's review the causes and what you can do to help protect your team and business.

What is workplace burnout?

what is workplace burnout

Workplace burnout is when employees begin to feel overwhelmed and exhausted with their roles in an organization. In many cases, this results in deep feelings of dread.

It becomes a burden just to show up to work, let alone perform their duties. Around 81% of employees say stress impacts their work negatively. And it leads to fatigue, anxiety, physical ailments, and work absences. Around 50% admit to missing at least one day of work.

Nearly half of employees have even cried at work. Unfortunately, it's not just workers dealing with burnout. We're also seeing it among leadership. Almost 60% of leaders report feeling used up by the end of the workday.

Why is this happening?

There are multiple reasons workplace burnout occurs. And it's been going on since before the pandemic. Some of the top reasons for employee burnout today include:

  • Lack of control

  • Unclear (or even impossible) job expectations and requirements

  • Socially toxic workplace

  • Demand overload

  • Lack of workplace communication

  • Work-life imbalance (including working too long and/or no vacations)

When employees burn out, three things tend to happen: exhaustion, cynicism, and professional ineffectiveness.

Let's take a closer look at the process employees go through before burning out.

What are the six stages of employee burnout?

employee burnout

Employee burnout doesn't happen overnight. And sometimes, it's not always the fault of an overbearing leader. So if you're not careful, you could miss critical early warning signs. Here's a look at the path leading to employee burnout:

  • High enthusiasm: Ready to take on the world and overly optimistic about completing a large task (or a handful of tasks). Working overtime? Biting off more than they can chew? Not a problem (at first).

  • Push to work harder: Starting to feel the over-exertion and may now be a bit tired. But they're not ready to quit just yet. Instead, they continue to push through and take on more projects, even if it sacrifices free time for family and personal hobbies.

  • Frustrated and fatigued: Dropped all interests outside of work, and it's starting to take a toll. They may be putting on weight and showing a lack of interest in fun things outside of work. Now, they're becoming frustrated, exhausted, and forgetful. Concentration is also at an all-time low.

  • Exhaustion takes over: Feeling lack of energy, but still not tapping out (although they want to). At this point, they're past their limit and may begin to get sick (IBS, insomnia, poor digestion, intolerances, and viruses). But they're still in denial and won't stop (or cope as they should).

  • Apathetic and withdrawn: Motivation is gone and anxiety's kicked in. Now, they're apathetic and withdrawn from friends, family, and colleagues. They're too emotionally spent to show empathy or engage with others. Mood swings may also be prominent.

  • Full-on burnout: State of being completely exhausted on all levels — physically, mentally, and emotionally. They're ready to give up, quit, or check out. Any small amount of pressure applied can lead to erratic behavior (arguing, walking out, not showing up). Some may even have a nervous breakdown or develop an auto-immune condition (among others).

As a team leader, you want to ensure you're not overloading your workers with projects and tasks. Even if they're optimistic about completing them.

Next, let's look at the signs of employee burnout, so you can identify it within your teams.

How do you identify employee burnout?

how to identify employee burnout

Burnout happens when a person takes on too much. This can be inside or outside of the workplace. The goal is to identify when an employee is mentally or physically overloaded to prevent packing on extra stress.

Look for these signs to see when an employee needs a break or reduced workload:

  • Disengaged or withdrawn: Notice employees not interacting with co-workers or projects like they once did? It may be time to take a few days off.

  • Missing deadlines or not completing tasks: The workflow used to be steady, but now there's a backlog from particular team members.

  • Appearing stressed or demoralized: Visible signs of low concentration or being on edge is something to look into.

  • Missing work frequently: Calling in sick or not showing up without warning are hints of dissatisfaction with work or the employer.

  • Getting sick often: Do they always have a cold these days? Then their immune system may be taking a hit from burnout.

  • Being negative or cynical: The once happy, smiling team member is now irritable and uncooperative.

So what do you do when you begin seeing the warning signs?

How do you overcome employee burnout?

employee burnout strategies

Experiencing burnout at some point is likely to happen. But it shouldn't become a regular ordeal. Instead, you should work towards becoming a zero-tolerance company for burnout.

In fact, several businesses are employing strategies to do just that.

For example, LinkedIn decided to give its entire company a paid week off (all 15,900 employees). The CEO of Accenture asked his 27 direct reports to take 2.5 hours of virtual training to learn how to support colleagues with mental health issues.

So what can you do as a manager to ensure positive mental well-being in the workplace? Here are solutions to try:

  • Improve communication: When employees are confused about a task or goal, it shows in their work (or lack thereof). If they don't know what to do, then they'll struggle to complete the task. Thoroughly explain the expectations and responsibilities to avoid this. You can also use collaboration and communication tools to promote questions and discussions.

  • Offer flexible work schedules: Not everyone works optimally in the morning (or in an office space). In fact, 56% of employees say the best way to support them is to allow flexibility during the workday. So give workers breathing room to perform their tasks. Also, consider enabling workers to choose their days and hours (and locations).

  • Ensure your staff has enough training: Not understanding how to perform duties makes it harder to complete tasks. So make sure your workers are properly trained to avoid confusion, frustration, and burnout.

  • Give mental health days: Two weeks vacation, paid time off, sick days — why not add on mental health days? This way, workers can opt to take a day off after a particularly full-on week in your peak season. Surveys back this, with 43% of employees saying this would help burnout.

  • Encourage workers to take time off: Some employees don't know when to take a break. So they go through the year without taking a vacation or requesting paid time off. As a leader, you should encourage your teams to take time off to relax and return refreshed. Roughly 43% of workers agree. Another 28% say increasing paid time off can help prevent burnout.

  • Have in-house meditation sessions: Sometimes, you have to take workers by the hand and guide them to a mental break. You can do this by offering meditation sessions on-site. Forty-five percent of employees say this would help.

As a bonus, you should try to prevent overlap in employees' personal life. Work-life balance is critical so avoid emailing and texting after-hours and on their days off.

Build productive teams (without the burnout)

Being productive shouldn't mean working harder, faster, and longer. The hustle mentality we've grown to know and accept is burning us out and hurting our health. So it's time for a change.

Start from within your organization. Now that you have more insight into what causes burnout, you can start building a workplace that prevents it.

Think flexible work schedules can help your employees? Then download The Employer's Guide to Workplace Wellness today to learn more on how to support your team.

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