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

ITA Group
ITA Group

Employee suffering from burnout

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

This is far from the truth.

A recent Gallup survey found the top five reasons for burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

As HBR notes, the list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted—if leadership would simply begin their prevention strategies earlier. With top talent being more critical to business success than ever, leaders need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout. Plus additional pressures with changing work environments, health concerns and economic challenges are making employee stress levels even more tumultuous.

What Does Employee Burnout Look Like (From a Business Standpoint)?

Nearly a quarter (23%) of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

The effects of employee burnout can be disastrous to your business and to your employees too. According to Gallup, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability)—and burned out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

It can also lower your team’s 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.

Awareness: Spotting Symptoms of Employee Burnout

If your typically dependable and engaged employee suddenly turns unreliable and lax, or you’re constantly hearing negativity from an employee who was once a source of encouragement for others, you may be witnessing burnout. The decrease in productivity may be based on being overworked—or simply not enjoying work anymore.

“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 include:

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

It’s important to understand the difference between stress and burnout as well. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough: feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation—beyond caring.

If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up.

Employees likely understand and are familiar with the feeling of being under a lot of stress—with burnout, even they might not notice when it happens. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations.

Prevention: Prioritize People Over Productivity

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. And in a new work world, without usual coping mechanisms (going to the gym, getting together with friends, etc.), many are struggling to find balance. Why not set them up for success?

  • Provide clear, realistic expectations and make sure those expectations are understood
  • Ensure employees have the resources they need
  • Offer ongoing training
  • Show employees their value and contributions to the organization's goals
  • Enforce reasonable work hours, including encouraging breaks
  • Help assess workloads for those who may feel pressured to work beyond normal business hours
  • Encourage social support and respect among team members through video chats

Be an example of an employee who creates time for work, time for rest and time for play. Employees, especially those working from home for the first time, may not have a role model for this new experience. Get them to honor all three and to understand by doing so they’ll be far more productive and happy in all facets of life.

Related: Looking for more information about engaging with remote employees? We break down five proven ways for building mobile workforce engagement.

Apps That Aid

Depression and burnout affect as many as one-third of workers, according to a study by charity Depression Alliance. Try these nifty mindfulness apps to help keep your team 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. Sanvello
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 Bud
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 to 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.

Recovery: Regaining a Sense of Control Is Essential

Although there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to recover from burnout, there are methods that have been proven to help people 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 early release or other little pick-me-ups to highlight an otherwise dull day
  • Encourage breaks. Share links to desk stretches, puzzles or music for those who “can’t just do nothing”
  • Limit overtime—working excessive hours is less than desirable
  • Encourage participation in employee programs. Being part of a culture can help address concerns of burnout while also providing a support system
  • 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

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.

Support Can Lead to Success

When employers misinterpret an employee suffering from burnout as an uncooperative low performer, the employee is unlikely to get the support they desperately need. By recognizing burnout, the right type of support may help the employee return to their prior levels of productivity and engagement.

Be sure to check out our ebook, Improve Retention and Engagement by Enhancing the Employee Experience, for best practices to elevate company culture and inspire your people.

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