Burnout is frequently portrayed as a sudden life event, often accompanied by an image of someone who is completely frazzled, with dark circles under their eyes, and barely able to function. But as we know, this isn't quite the case. Stress and negative wellbeing are a gateway to burnout, it’s something that’s built up over time. Burnout is a long-term stress reaction that can present as physical and/or mental collapse.
Another common myth is that burnout only impacts people in very senior roles or those with emotionally stressful jobs such as nurses or medical doctors. However, it’s a serious issue, and something affecting many employees today across a range of industries and roles. This is especially the case as we, as a society, continue to work through the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to The American Psychological Association’s 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey, “More than a third of working Americans (35%) reported experiencing chronic work stress, and less than half said their employer provides sufficient resources to help employees manage their stress.” The 2013 European opinion poll on occupational safety and health reported that 35% of people say cases of work-related stress are fairly common in their workplace. Safe Work Australia reveals that “Between 2010–11 and 2014–15, around 91% of workers’ compensation claims involving a mental health condition were linked to work-related stress or mental stress.”
And as of 2021, Indeed reports that "more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic." With the Great Resignation still looming high over many folk's heads, it's become clear that organizations need to find ways to address burnout if they hope to retain their top performers.
In this article, we explore some of the warning signs of employee burnout, how it relates to employee engagement, and how workplaces can prevent and even reverse burnout.
Recognizing the signs of employee burnout
Burnout can affect an employee’s physical, mental, and emotional state. Physically, people may experience headaches, fatigue, and shortness of breath. People may lose their appetite and change their eating habits. Are you noticing employees taking more sick days or coming into the office seeming exceptionally tired? These can be signs of burnout.
Mentally, burnout brings on constant worry and the inability to focus clearly. It also tends to affect people’s sleep patterns, and lack of sleep is common. Do the people on your team seem fatigued or distracted? Are people talking about how little time they have for work or personal life?
Emotionally, people are more irritable which can lead to poor interpersonal communication. People can also feel cynical or detached, which shows up in how they work with others. If you notice people who are generally agreeable now starting arguments or making harsh comments consistently, they made be moving from stress to burnout. People may also present as more emotionally fragile, getting upset or tearing up more than normal.
Overall, pay attention to people who just don’t seem like themselves and if their attitudes have changed. Listen out for early indicators in phrases such as:
- “I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately”
- “I just need to get through this busy season, and then I’ll slow down”
- “I’m just tired—I’m sure a vacation will take care of it.”
In all of these scenarios, having an open and honest relationship with the people on your team will help you recognize when their behavior changes from stress to burnout.
The link between employee burnout and employee engagement
The connection between engagement and burnout is not straightforward because highly-stressed individuals can present as very engaged. This is certainly evident through my own experience. I was working in London and my workload, hours, and commitments just kept creeping up. While I hadn't recognized it at the time, my work-life integration was completely off.
I remember feeling annoyed at friends when they asked me to meet them for dinner on a weeknight. I became much more serious (which is a stark contrast to my usual self). But I didn't realize anything was wrong until my hair started falling out, which was a wake-up call for me. So I worked with a health coach to get back on track, and that’s when I started getting more interested in how to recognize and reverse burnout.
During this time I would still have said I was engaged at work. High engagement and high levels of wellbeing do not always go together. Individuals can feel highly stressed while also being engaged, but they may well be on their way to burnout. This is an important distinction for employers to understand, and it’s part of why we created the wellbeing survey at Culture Amp.
Preventing and reversing employee burnout
Part of preventing employee burnout is, of course, knowing the signs so you can take action before it gets worse. In addition to the three signs we’ve mentioned above, get an understanding of people’s stress levels in your 1-on1 meetings. You can learn a lot about someone’s wellbeing with a simple opening question of: How is everything going today? Tell me about this last week?
If you know people on your team are burnt out, then it’s time to act. Often people experiencing burnout lose their perspective on work, it becomes all-consuming in their life. One of the most effective things managers can do is support employees to take the time they need to recover from burnout. Letting people unplug from work and focus on their health is the first step.
Overall, it’s important to help people set boundaries. Fast-paced, high-growth situations will often demand as much as people are willing to give, so it’s up to employees (and their managers) to establish boundaries and realistic expectations.
Something I tell people is to assume that they are always at risk of burnout. This isn’t meant to be ominous or scary, but rather to highlight the importance of investing in ongoing self-care. Have a bank of strategies that help you feel better and tap into them when you’re feeling stressed. Know what refuels you and build it into your daily routine.
Here are some daily practices you can incorporate in your life to prevent burnout:
Good sleep. Set a pre-bedtime ritual to help your body relax and get the most of your restoration
Spend time in nature (there is plenty of science supporting the restorative properties of green space)
Take a mental break. During the day take some restful time (not checking email, slack, or anything work-related). Call a friend, go outside and close your eyes for five minutes – whatever you choose, let yourself disconnect for that time.
Find the restoration practices that work for you and use them to take stock of how you’re feeling over time. For me, I have a weekly yoga practice and if I miss a week, I know something is up. This helps me monitor my wellbeing so I don’t get overly stressed. To help maintain perspective, build a well-rounded life but not a manic one. What else do you get joy from? What can you learn? What will give you a sense of progress? It might be new hobbies, volunteering, or even learning how to do handstands - experiment and build new things into your life. Our work can give us an incredible sense of meaning and purpose, but it shouldn’t be the only thing.
This article was originally published on March 3, 2019. It was updated with new information on October 21, 2021.