Burnout has become a universal workplace concern spanning sectors, industries, and career levels. As a result of its prominence in the workplace, addressing burnout has become a prime driver of employee wellness programs. But really – what is burnout? In its most brief definition, it is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. It is most often caused by prolonged exposure to stressful situations, which manifest in the workplace as high workloads, long hours, and unrealistic expectations. Isolation – especially since 2020 – has become a particularly concerning driver of burnout, as employees feel disconnected from colleagues and find it difficult to differentiate work from home.
Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Employee Burnout
As organizations work to understand the drivers of burnout, they’ll be well served to focus on two key areas. Start by looking at individual teams. Teams that experience high turnover, low engagement scores, or low productivity deserve a closer look. Consider the leadership of these teams – are they setting appropriate expectations? Do they foster environments that thrive of collaboration instead of competition? Are they communicating effectively with those teams? Team dynamics and team leadership are considerable drivers of burnout, and analyzing whether the team environment is productive and not problematic is an important factor to understand.
Second, consider the remote employee base – and for some companies, this may be everyone! Remote employees are often the most isolated, especially if supporting remote teams is new to an organization. When working outside an office – especially when others are working IN an office – it is easy to feel both lonely and unheard. If proper communication channels are not in place, information may get to remote employees slowly – if at all – and this creates significant effort by the employee to stay “in the know.” Focus on understanding the concerns of remote employees when considering burnout to gain a well-rounded perspective on the issues employees are facing.
Identifying the Signs of Burnout in Your Team Members
As leaders, it’s critically important to understand the signs of burnout to quickly address the issues before they get too big. Identifying burnout can be challenging, as it can manifest in a variety of ways, so consider the signs below for a head start.
- Decreased Productivity: One of the easier-to-spot signs in a burned-out employee is a decrease in their typical level of productivity. Has the employee been missing deadlines that were otherwise always met? Have they had errors in their work? Perhaps their work just hasn’t met their usual standard of excellence. This could be a sign of a lot of different things – but rather than assume it’s not work-related, dig into this, and offer support.
- Sensitivity to Feedback: If you’ve noticed an employee has become particularly sensitive to feedback, often responding emotionally when it’s given, consider whether this could be a sign of burnout. The employee could be overwhelmed with work, and any criticism in this frame of mind can feel particularly exhausting. Notice these trends and use them as an opportunity to check in.
- Disengagement: Disengagement can feel particularly vague and hard to recognize for leaders. Disengagement typically presents as a change in behavior. An employee who used to actively participate in meetings but is suddenly no longer speaking up may be showing early signs of disengagement. A team member who used to seize opportunities to contribute to the team and suddenly stops being available to help may be another sign. Keep in mind that in some cases, these could be temporary issues, but repeated behaviors could signify disengagement.
- Isolation. Isolation can take many forms. It may present itself in remote employees as a lack of participation in team meetings, or a lack of connection with other colleagues. For others, it could present itself as an increased number of days off, often without notice. Once again, take notice of these patterns and behaviors and use this as an opportunity to check-in.
Strategies for Preventing Burnout, Including Workload Management and Stress Reduction
If you suspect that one of your employees is experiencing burnout, it is important to take action to support their wellbeing. Here are some steps you can take:
- Create a supportive work environment that promotes mental health and wellbeing.
- Foster a culture of trust and respect. “Promoting autonomy, establishing boundaries, and creating norms around communications, responsiveness, and urgency can go a long way toward building a mentally healthy culture.” (HBR)
- Allow time for breaks. Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the day to rest and recharge. This could include taking a walk outside, meditating, or simply taking a few deep breaths. Better yet – model this behavior as a leader so it feels safe and commonplace for employees!
- Embrace work-life harmony. Inherently, the concept of work-life balance suggests that at any given moment, you’re never giving your full self to either work or home. New thinking around this topic has suggested the concept of work-life harmony, which “involves incorporating work into the rest of life in a way that promotes happiness both at home and in the office. While work-life balance is an older concept, many of today’s business leaders are now embracing the idea of work-life harmony” (Maryville University). Understand your employees, their families, and their passions. Allow employees to prioritize as they need to, creating a supportive environment for integrating work and life, versus simply balancing it.
- Prioritize Communication. Seizing opportunities to communicate with employees should become regular practice for all leaders. This will not only ensure that information is adequately disseminated, reinforcing purpose and engagement within an organization, but it also allows leaders to connect with employees and get ahead of potential issues. If leaders are not meeting with employees regularly, they won’t have the opportunity to notice changes in behavior. And in those meetings, creating opportunities to both give and receive feedback is important. Let an employee know when something went particularly well – showing you noticed is encouraging and reinforces positive behaviors. Similarly, when something has gone wrong, address it, offer support, and share how this could be done differently next time.
Preventing burnout is an important factor in promoting a healthy, productive workplace. By taking steps to identify and support employees who are experiencing burnout, you can help create a workplace culture that values and prioritizes employee wellbeing.