Burning at Both Ends: Employee Burnout Warning Signs (and How to Avoid Them)

ITA Group
ITA Group

man in front of laptop with head in hands

Some organizations can fall into the trap of misinterpreting employee burnout as something else: tired, overworked or lazy employees. Organizations tend to see burnout as a talent management issue or (more commonly) a personal issue.

This is far from the truth.

And the effects of employee burnout can be disastrous to your business. The psychological and physical problems of employee burnout, which cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the U.S., are just the most obvious impacts. It can lower your team productivity, create interpersonal conflicts and sometimes even cause you to lose some talent. A 2017 study of 614 HR leaders states that employee burnout is responsible for up to half of their annual workforce turnover.

Spotting Employee Burnout

“When you’re burned out, your capacity to perform is compromised, and so is your belief in yourself,” writes Monique Valcour, an executive coach and writer for the Harvard Business Review. Some signs of worker burnout might include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Easily upset or angered
  • Recurring sickness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of alienation at work
  • Cynicism towards people and their job
  • Hopelessness

It’s easy to assume employees are just being lazy and need a little tough love to get going. However, the issue likely runs deeper. If your typically dependable and engaged employee suddenly turns unreliable and lax, there’s a likely chance that his or her decrease in productivity is based on being overworked—or simply not enjoying work anymore.

Complaints and negativity are also indicators. The occasional off-hand comment is expected, but when you constantly hear negativity from someone who once was a source of encouragement for the rest of the team, he or she is likely feeling the effects of burnout.

Avoid Employee Burnout

It’s important to understand that things like overloading people with work, playing favorites, mismatched values, lack of workplace community or autonomy, or not providing adequate resources will result in burnout. Recognizing when employees are starting to experience burnout is one thing; addressing the issue is a whole other beast.

Organizations have many strategies they can use to help avoid burnout, which include:

  • Providing clear expectations for all employees and making sure they’re understood
  • Making sure that employees have the resources they need
  • Providing ongoing training to maintain competency
  • Helping employees understand their value and their contributions to the organization's goals
  • Enforcing reasonable work hours
  • Helping assess workload for those who feel pressured to remain working beyond normal business hours
  • Encouraging social support and respect among team members
  • Encouraging the taking of breaks away from the work environment

Compel employees to create balance in their life: time for work, time for rest and time for play. It’s important to not only get them to honor all three but to understand that by doing so they’ll be far more productive and happy in all facets of life.

Apps That Aid

Depression and burnout affect as many as one-third of workers, according to a study by charity Depression Alliance. In our culture of information overload, it’s important that you make an active effort to manage your stress levels to help prevent burnout. Here are some nifty mindfulness apps to help your team stay focused on their personal wellbeing:

1. Breathe2Relax
Includes detailed information on the effects of stress on the body as well as instructions and exercises in diaphragmatic breathing, a documented stress-management skill.

2. Simple Habit
Designed with busy people in mind, this 5-minute mindfulness app promises to help you cope with the stresses of everyday life through a series of guided programs.

3. Pacifica
Provides guided deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, daily antianxiety experiments and tools including a mood tracker.

4. Happify
With just a few activities per week, users can understand the source of their negative emotions and overcome them at the source to create a happy (and less stressful) workplace.

5. Aloe
Helpful reminders from yourself, to yourself; it gently brings awareness to self-care activities, using encouraging push notifications, rather than guilt or shame.

6. Calm
Experience less anxiety and better sleep with guided meditations, Sleep Stories, breathing programs and relaxing music to bring more clarity, joy and peace to your daily life.

7. Personal Zen
Developed with a professor of psychology and neurosciences, a series of games based on clinical findings about methods for reducing anxiety levels.

8. My Mood Tracker
Become more aware of what you're feeling when and you can begin figuring out links between life events and mood cycles, which in turn will help you manage (and work around) your moods.

9. Acupressure: Heal Yourself
This app shows you over 90 acupressure point combinations via illustrated instructions.

10. The Mindfulness App
Choose from five guided meditations, with options for listening to calming music or nature sounds.

Employee Burnout Recovery

While it might seem dramatic, burnout can completely change how those affected feel about life and make their previous existence seem like a dream. But it’s important to remind them that it’s not a hopeless situation.

While there is no easy, all-encompassing answer when it comes to recovering from burnout, there are methods that have been proven to help regain control over feelings and begin to find joy and meaning in work again:

  • Find out what motivates your employees and hone in on their needs.
  • Show your appreciation of their work with regular recognition or occasionally providing breakfast, an afternoon snack, early release or other little pick-me-ups that can highlight an otherwise dull day.
  • Encourage the taking of breaks away from the desk—take a walk or perhaps hold a department meeting outside.
  • Limit overtime—working excessive hours is less than desirable. Get your employees in and out of the office in the number of hours that were agreed upon at their hire. 
  • Encourage participating in employee programs, which can help address concerns of burnout while also providing a support system for them.
  • Be available and listen. Sometimes the solution is readily apparent; sometimes, it’s a bit more complicated. You’ll never know, though, unless you listen.

Without meaning to, employers can misinterpret an employee suffering from burnout as an uncooperative low performer. When that’s the case, the employee is unlikely to get the support they desperately need. By recognizing that the problem may be burnout, the right type of support may help the employee overcome the burnout and return to their prior levels of productivity and engagement.

Along with the apps mentioned above, be sure to check out our Employee Wellbeing Month calendar for daily inspiration to keep happy and healthy.