- Burnout is when employees are in a state of extreme emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.
- The three main components of burnout are physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.
- To support employees, managers must take mental health seriously, show staff members they are valued, and create a supportive workplace culture.
- This article is for managers or small business owners who want to understand employee burnout, identify it in their staff, and support their team.
As a business owner or manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure a healthy work environment for your employees. When your staff members are experiencing extreme stress, it affects these individuals’ well-being and the company as a whole, resulting in reduced productivity and higher employee turnover.
As such, it’s important to recognize the telltale signs of overworked employees so you can prevent and combat workplace burnout.
What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout is when workers experience extreme emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, usually due to excessive and prolonged stress. These employees also typically feel a reduced sense of accomplishment, a loss of personal or professional identity, and less task ownership. Burnout can even present with physical symptoms, such as stress headaches or stomach aches.
Burnout is not an official disease, but the World Health Organization has classified it as an “occupational phenomenon.” Burnout can also be linked to or exacerbated by other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Burnout and workplace stress are closely related; the difference is a matter of severity.
How to identify employee burnout
Here are some of the signs of employee burnout:
- Exhaustion or energy depletion
- Detachment from one’s job or workplace
- Reduced productivity
Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Chronic fatigue. In the early stages of burnout, the person may feel tired and unenergetic. As burnout progresses, they may feel emotionally exhausted and drained or have a sense of dread about the coming days.
- Insomnia. Early-stage insomnia presents one or two nights a week. In later burnout stages, insomnia happens nightly. As exhausted as the person is, they will not be able to sleep.
- Lack of concentration. Burnout can create a lack of focus, mild forgetfulness or even an inability to get work done.
- Physical symptoms. These include chest pain, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, heart palpitations and headaches.
- Frequent illness. Stress can weaken the immune system, so the person may be more vulnerable to colds, infections or other illnesses.
- Loss of appetite. In the early stages of burnout, the person might skip a few meals because they’re not hungry. In later stages, they may lose their appetite altogether and lose weight.
- Anxiety. Burnout can cause tension, worry and edginess, which can progress to the point of interfering with the person’s productivity and personal life.
- Anger. Tension and irritability can progress to angry outbursts and arguments in the person’s professional and personal life.
- Depression. Depression in the early stages of burnout can present as occasional feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Later-stage depression can make the person feel trapped and worthless; at this point, they should seek professional help.
Cynicism and detachment
- Loss of enjoyment. This can begin as simply not wanting to go to work and progress to an overall lack of enthusiasm in all areas of life.
- Pessimism. The person may start to view the world and themselves in a negative light.
- Isolation. Isolation can begin as a reduced desire to socialize but can progress to actively avoiding and speaking to others.
- Detachment. Detachment is a growing feeling of disconnection. Employees might avoid unwanted situations by calling in sick, regularly coming in late, or avoiding calls and emails.
Ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment
- Apathy or hopelessness. Apathy and hopelessness can manifest as a feeling that nothing matters or goes right, to the point where the person feels there is no point in doing anything.
- Irritability. Irritability comes from the frustration of feeling ineffective, undervalued or like they can’t do anything right. Left unchecked, it can seriously affect your relationships.
- Low productivity. All of these symptoms can lead to a serious drop in productivity, which adds to the burnout by creating a pile of work the person feels they can never escape.
Causes of employee burnout
Burnout has many contributing factors, including the following:
- Unfair treatment. If employees feel they’re being treated unfairly, it can lead to a sense of hopelessness. Examples of unfair treatment include bias, favoritism, and unfair compensation or corporate policies. Employees may also receive an unfair employee performance review that affects them deeply.
- Unmanageable workload. A massive workload can overwhelm employees, causing poor performance and a lack of confidence. Overwhelmed employees will look to their managers to advocate for them, but ineffective managers will only compound the issue and make their team more likely to burn out.
- Unclear roles. When managers don’t set clear expectations for employees, they may become confused and feel that nothing they do is right. They’ll become exhausted and overwhelmed from constantly trying to figure out what the company wants from them.
- Poor communication. Communication is crucial for employee engagement, so if managers aren’t communicating effectively, employees may feel isolated and disengaged.
- Unreasonable time pressures. Employees who are constantly in a time crunch will feel undervalued and frustrated. When managers don’t respect the time it takes to produce a quality offering, employees become discouraged and frustrated.
Why employee burnout is bad for business
Employee burnout is bad for employees and businesses because it affects every aspect of an organization. Here are some of the negative consequences of employee burnout:
- Lost productivity. Burnout can reduce a company’s overall output and the quality of its offerings. Some of the lost productivity comes from absenteeism. The CDC says absenteeism due to illness costs employers $225.8 billion in lost productivity annually.
- High turnover. Burnout can drain valuable talent and force a company to pay to replace these employees. Hiring and training a new employee costs around $4,000, on average.
- Healthcare costs. Workplace stress costs U.S. businesses anywhere from $125 billion to $190 billion per year in healthcare expenses, according to Harvard Business School.
Especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have been reporting significant work-related stress. Consider the following findings from the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-Being Survey:
- 79% of employees experienced work-related stress in the month leading up to the survey.
- Nearly three in five employees reported adverse psychological and physical effects from workplace stress.
- 36% reported cognitive weariness.
- 32% reported emotional exhaustion.
- 44% reported physical fatigue.
Burnout can contribute to poor health outcomes, including heart disease, gastrointestinal issues and poor mental health. According to a Stanford Graduate School of Business study, work-related stress contributes to over 120,000 American deaths yearly.
“Employees are the business’s most valuable resource,” Marie Buharin, founder of Modernesse, told Business News Daily. “When employee burnout occurs, the highest-performing employee can suddenly become an individual that stifles progress towards achieving strategic goals.”
Of employees who left a new job in 2021, 40% cited burnout as their main reason for leaving, according to a survey from Limeade, a company dedicated to corporate well-being. Other reasons employees quit include a lack of flexibility, feelings of being undervalued and insufficient benefits, all of which can contribute to employee burnout.
How to support overworked employees and mitigate future burnout
As a company leader, you must recognize the signs of burnout and support employees who are experiencing burnout. Here’s what you can do to help:
Take mental health seriously.
There has been increased awareness and discussion of employees’ mental health and its effects on the workplace. This means many employees feel more comfortable discussing these issues at work. Take the following actions to prioritize mental health in your workplace:
- Through frequent anonymous employee surveys, ask your staff members to rate their mental health as it relates to work.
- Educate yourself and your employees on mental health issues and how to spot them.
- Keep any conversations about an employee’s mental health private and confidential.
- Offer employees mental health days as a job perk.
Show your employees you value them.
When employees feel undervalued, they are susceptible to burnout. Consider going the extra mile to demonstrate employee appreciation. Offer small perks, like gift cards or free lunch, to mark the end of a challenging project. You can also award extra time off or break time, or recognize an employee’s hard work in front of others in the company.
Avoid knee-jerk discipline.
Many employees who experience workplace burnout struggle to come to terms with it themselves, so they’re even less likely to tell their manager about it. This becomes an issue when all a manager sees is a previously high-performing employee suddenly being unproductive and negative.
Without context, the manager might take disciplinary measures, such as putting the employee on a performance improvement plan. Or, they might lecture the employee, exacerbating the burnout.
Before you resort to disciplinary action, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this typical behavior for this employee?
- Have their expectations or workload changed?
Offer support if you believe the employee is suffering from burnout.
Consider employees’ personal obligations.
It can be easy to forget that your employees have lives outside work. Sometimes, their personal obligations overshadow their work duties. As a manager, do your best to know what’s going on in your employees’ home lives so you can adjust their workload if needed. That way, you’ll be able to tell if a personal issue is affecting their work and adjust accordingly.
Foster a positive workplace culture.
Part of a manager’s job is to cultivate a positive, supportive company culture in which employees treat one another with respect. Workplace culture can play a considerable role in employee burnout, so be aware of conflicts, workload changes and general morale.
“Foster a culture where employees are able to support one another by shifting responsibilities around,” Buharin said. “Delegate appropriately so that the amount of work is balanced.”
The work environment you create and maintain affects your employees significantly. To improve your office’s work environment and minimize stress, assemble and retain a good team, make the office as comfortable as possible, and improve communication.
Jocelyn Pollock contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.