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Employee Burnout and How to Identify It

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski

If you can't identify and address employee burnout, it can have serious negative implications for your staff and business.

  • Burnout is when employees are in a state of extreme emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.
  • The three main areas of burnout are physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment.
  • To support burnt-out employees, managers must take mental health seriously, show staff they are valued, and stay up to date on workplace culture.
  • This article is for managers or small business owners who want to understand employee burnout and how to identify it in their own staff.

There likely will come a time when some of your employees become burnt out. In these instances, it is critical to not let it fester, as it can have serious effects on your employees and business alike. Companies whose employees are burnt out see a drop in productivity and higher rates of turnover.

Clearly, employers need to support employees experiencing burnout. In order to properly address it, though, managers and small business owners need a clear understanding of what employee burnout is and its telltale signs.

What is employee burnout?

Burnout is when employees experience extreme emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, usually due to excessive and prolonged stress. With burnout, employees also typically experience a reduced sense of accomplishment, loss of personal or professional identity, and less task ownership. Burnout can even present with physical symptoms such as stress headaches or stomachaches.

Burnout is not an official medical diagnosis, but it can be linked to or exacerbated by other mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety. These are the typical components of burnout:

  • Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
  • Feeling distant from or negative about one's job or workplace
  • Reduced productivity

Key takeaway: Employee burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion resulting from excessive, prolonged stress.

Why employee burnout is bad for business

Employee burnout is bad for both the employee and the business, because it can affect every aspect of your organization. According to When I Work, burnout results in lost productivity, high turnover and $125 to $190 billion per year in healthcare costs, all of which can have serious negative effects on your business's bottom line. 

For employees, burnout can mean heart disease, gastrointestinal issues and poor mental health – all of which can ultimately lead to death. According to a Harvard Business School study, work-related stress contributes to over 120,000 American deaths per year. [Read related article: Workplace Burnout Now a Syndrome, According to WHO]

"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."

Key takeaway: For employers, employee burnout means decreased productivity, high turnover and increased healthcare costs. For the affected employee, burnout can cause numerous health issues, including heart disease and gastrointestinal problems as well as poor mental health.

What causes employee burnout?

Though there are many contributing factors, a Gallup study identified the five main causes of employee burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment: Employees who report being treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience burnout. Bias, favoritism, and unfair compensation or corporate policies all constitute unfair treatment.
  2. Unmanageable workload: Too large a workload can overwhelm employees, causing poor performance and lack of confidence in work. Overwhelmed employees will look to their managers to be their advocate, but a poor manager will only compound the issue and make their team more likely to burn out.
  3. Lack of role clarity: Gallup's State of the American Workplace report found that only 60% of workers clearly understand what is expected of them in their role. Employees who are not clear on managers' expectations can become exhausted and overwhelmed from constantly trying to figure out what the company wants from them.
  4. Lack of communication and manager support: Consistent communication and support from a manager can provide a psychological buffer, because the employees know their manager will support them if they run into an issue or something goes wrong. Employees who feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout, according to the Gallup study.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure: Employees who report always feeling that they have enough time to complete their work are 70% less likely to experience burnout. A major issue arises when time constraints are imposed by those who do not understand how long it takes to produce a quality deliverable, which leaves employees feeling undervalued and frustrated.

Key takeaway: The main causes of employee burnout are unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, lack of role clarity, lack of manager support and unreasonable time pressure.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

There are three main areas of burnout: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment. Each of these areas are characterized by various signs and symptoms, which may overlap. Because burnout and stress are closely related and the difference between the two is just a matter of severity, it's important for managers and employees alike to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout.

Physical and emotional exhaustion

  • Chronic fatigue: In the early stages of burnout, you may feel tired and unenergetic most days. As the burnout progresses, you 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 stages of burnout, insomnia will be a nightly issue. As exhausted as you are, you will not be able to sleep.
  • Lack of concentration: Burnout can result in a lack of focus or mild forgetfulness, or even an inability to get work done.
  • Physical symptoms: Physical symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues, dizziness, heart palpitations and headaches.
  • Frequent illness: Stress can weaken the immune system, so you may be more vulnerable to colds, infections or other illnesses.
  • Loss of appetite: In the early stages of burnout, you might skip a few meals when you're not feeling hungry, while later stages may see you losing your appetite altogether and losing weight.
  • Anxiety: Burnout can cause feelings of tension, worry, and edginess, which can progress to interfere with your production levels and personal life.
  • Anger: Tension and irritability can progress to angry outbursts and arguments in both your professional and personal life.
  • Depression: Depression in the early stages of burnout can present as occasional feelings of sadness or hopelessness, while later-stage depression can make you feel trapped and worthless. It is at that point you should seek professional help.

Cynicism and detachment

  • Loss of enjoyment: This can begin as simply not wanting to go to work, then progress to affect your enthusiasm in all areas of your life.
  • Pessimism: You may start to view the world and yourself in a negative light.
  • Isolation: Isolation can begin as just avoiding socializing when you don't feel like it and progress to actively avoiding speaking to others.
  • Detachment: Detachment is a growing feeling of disconnection from those around you. You might remove yourself from unwanted situations by calling in sick, regularly coming in late, or avoiding calls and emails.

Ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment

  • Apathy or hopelessness: This can manifest as a feeling that nothing matters or goes right, to the point where you feel there is no point in doing anything.
  • Irritability: Irritability comes from frustration at feeling ineffective, undervalued or like you can't do anything right. Left unchecked, it can seriously affect your relationships.
  • Lack of productivity: All of these symptoms can lead to a serious drop in productivity, which adds to the burnout by creating a pile of work you feel like you can never climb out of. [Read related article: How to Combat Burnout]

Key takeaway: Physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment are the main components of employee burnout.

How to support burnt-out employees

As a leader in your company, you must be able to recognize the signs and have a plan in place to help and support employees who may be experiencing burnout.

1. Take mental health seriously.

There has been a rise in mental health awareness and discussion of its effects on the workplace, which means many employees are feeling more comfortable talking about these issues at work. These are some ways you can make mental health a priority in your workplace:

  • Take frequent anonymous surveys, asking employees 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.

2. Show your employees you value them.

A major cause of burnout is employees feeling undervalued and unappreciated, so sometimes you need to go the extra mile to show appreciation. You can offer small things like gift cards or a free lunch as a reward at the end of a difficult project, bonus paid time off, extra break time, or acknowledgments of an employee's hard work to others in the company as a sign of your appreciation.

3. Avoid knee-jerk punishment.

Many employees experiencing workplace burnout struggle to come to terms with it themselves, let alone tell their manager. This is an issue when all a manager sees is a previously high-performing employee suddenly being unproductive and negative. Without context, the manager might then take punitive measures, like a performance improvement plan, or lecture the employee, which only exacerbates the burnout.

Before you resort to punishment, ask yourself a couple questions:

  • Is this typical behavior for this employee?
  • Have their workload or expectations changed?

4. Consider employees' personal obligations.

While this may seem obvious, it can be easy to forget your employees have lives outside of work, and sometimes personal obligations overshadow those at work. As a manager, you should do your best to know what is going on in your employees' home lives so you can adjust their workload if needed, and have a basis of understanding if something personal comes up that impacts their work.

5. Keep up on the workplace culture.

Part of your job as a manager is to stay abreast of your company culture and how your employees interact with each other. Workplace culture can play a huge role in burnout, so you should be aware of any conflicts, workload changes and the general morale. 

"Foster a culture where employees are able to support one another by shifting responsibilities around," said Buharin. "Delegate appropriately so that the amount of work is balanced."

Key takeaway: You can support burnt-out employees by taking mental health seriously, showing employees you value them and keeping tabs on your workplace culture.

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski,
Business News Daily Writer
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Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and now writes on small business, social media, and marketing. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.