- Employee burnout can be caused by excessive workloads, extreme deadlines, poor communication, and other factors
- Signs of employee burnout include exhaustion, negativity, and reduced productivity
- HR can help address employee burnout through better communication, flexible working options, enabling breaks, and facilitating reasonable workloads
According to Mckinsy and Company, almost 50% of employees report some level of feeling burned out—but as McKinsey points out, that number is likely an underrepresentation, since people affected by burnout are less likely to fill out a survey, even one about employee burnout.
What is obvious is that burnout has significant consequences for today’s workforce—and HR departments. For example, 40% of individuals who left their jobs in 2021 cited “burnout” as a main reason for doing so. For 28% of them, the situation was serious enough that they left one job without having another lined up.
This post aims to help you recognize early signs of employee burnout. We also offer proactive tips for helping employees avoid and manage burnout, to the benefit of everyone in your organization.
What Is Employee Burnout?
Whether “burnout” can or should be classified as a medical condition is the subject of debate. The World Health Organization has included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases but has stopped short of listing it as a medical diagnosis. Other medical professionals beg to differ.
No matter its medical ranking, burnout is life-changing for those affected by it, as well as their families and employers. Burnout, caused by chronic or prolonged stress, results in physical and mental exhaustion that affects all areas of life, from reduced productivity at work to listlessness and irritability at home.
Causes of employee burnout include:
- Long hours, especially work outside of regular working hours
- High expectations or time pressure
- Feeling overworked and/or under-appreciated
- Lack of communication and support from managers and colleagues
- Lack of fairness or equality at work
- Employee conflicts
- Stressors outside the workplace: caregiving pressure, financial stress, and world events (pandemic uncertainty, social unrest, economic instability)
Signs of Employee Burnout
The signs and symptoms of employee burnout generally fall into three categories. Watch for changes in employee behavior and output, including:
Employees facing burnout usually feel total exhaustion—physical, mental, and emotional. They may seem listless, down, and without the energy required to do basic tasks. They may feel like sleeping all the time but struggle to get quality sleep.
Other physical symptoms may include tension headaches, aches and pains, and gastrointestinal issues.
2. Reduced productivity
As burned-out employees disengage from their workplace and colleagues, it’s not surprising that productivity suffers. You may notice less creativity, inattention to deadlines and performance goals, or significant absenteeism.
3. Cynicism and negativity
Increasing stress and frustration can lead employees to feel cynical about their work and those they work with. They may be apathetic, distant, and disheartened. They may stop participating in meetings, leave messages unanswered, and miss deadlines. Their enthusiasm for tackling new projects—or even completing those in progress—is drained. They may complain heavily and suggest their work is pointless or without value.
Employees who are on the verge of burning out may experience a certain disconnect wiht their work and their coworkers. Burnout may cause us to experience a lack of interest, hope, and a lag in our work performance. Disengagement can be used as a warning sign, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to burnout.
Another sign of burnout is when employees avoid their coworkers or lose their friendly or socialable personality. This warning sign is one reason why burnout may easily go unnoticed, being that some employees may already be introverted and quiet. Pay attention to those extroverted employees and notice any longterm behavior changes.
6. Negative Attitude
When an employee is experiencing high levels of stress and bunout, they may develop a noticeable negative attritude. Their outlook may cause them to act out of character. Though, everyone has a bad day, so it is important to notice long-term and unusual negativity.
7. Increased Absenteeism
An employee who is on the verge of burnout, they are likely to be experiencing a lot of mental or emotional symptoms than can cause them to feel physically unwell. Burnout may cause employees to be unable to get out of bed from extreme stress and work overload. Their chances of taking a sick day and being absent will increase.
A Matter of Health
Note that the symptoms associated with burnout can also be caused by depression, anxiety disorders, certain physical illnesses, and other circumstances. Struggling employees may appreciate a reminder of what mental health benefits are available to them.
How HR Can Address Employee Burnout
Encouraging employees to take vacations and allowing them “mental health days” is appreciated—and may very well be what some employees need to get back on track—but they don’t get to the root cause of burnout. The key to addressing employee burnout is proactive actions to alleviate stress, not just offering a break from it.
Ensure workable workloads
Employees may tend to experience burnout when they feel overworked, under-valued, or without purpose. Ways to ensure a manageable and satisfying workload include:
- Clearly communicating performance goals—and reworking them at regular intervals
- Monitoring schedules to ensure deadlines, high-stress meetings, or travel are spread out, with appropriate “quiet time” in between
- Including employees in discussions about their assignments or projects
- Designating clear priorities so employees know where to focus time and energy
- Implementing official work/life boundaries
- Offering regular feedback, recognition, and opportunities for employee input
Foster employee engagement
Individuals affected by burnout tend to withdraw. Put another way, employees who are disengaged—who don’t feel connected with their colleagues or their organization—are more likely to face burnout.
Fostering engagement requires regular communication, recognition, and soliciting (and acting on) employee feedback. For more detail, check out blog post that can help you avoid burnout by engaging your employees.
Create a safe environment
Employees must feel comfortable and empowered to speak up—to ask questions, to voice concerns, and to ask for help or accommodations. Burnout, like other mental health issues, may be difficult for some to admit to, out of fear for their jobs or the respect of their peers and managers. Talking openly about stress and mental health is a good way to break down these barriers. One-on-one check-ins, both informal and scheduled, are a valuable way to encourage dialogue.
Check out our Talent Management software to learn more about how to effectively recruit, onboard, and engage your employees.
Remote or virtual working is not an option for every job—but when it is, work with employees to find a solution that suits both them and the business. Some may prefer to work in an office; others at home. Many workplaces are offering hybrid models.
Allowing flexible working hours is a leading way to avoid employee burnout, say 75% of HR professionals. Every person’s situation and pressures will be different. A slight change in working hours may alleviate child- or elder-care challenges, for example. Listening to employees and working with them to develop a plan will help them regain a sense of control and engagement.
Build in breaks
Ensure employees are taking time away from work, whether that be vacation or mental health days. If possible, encourage employees to leave early after a stressful morning meeting or major deadline. Try walking meetings or employee socials as a change of pace and a chance to connect.
Offer wellness and self-care perks to your employees such as a discounted gym membership, yoga classes, or even volunteer time off. Consider offering a workshop on managing stress or healthy eating.
Further Resources to Help Address Employee Burnout
Understanding the root causes of employee burnout will help you implement strategies to help avoid and manage it. Be sure employees are comfortable coming forward to discuss their concerns and stressors, and be ready to listen—and work together to find solutions.
Download our Employee Wellbeing Email Template and Mental Health Resource Packet to easily share links to important organizations, crisis numbers, and other resources with your employees.
What are the signs that an employee may be suffering from depression?
Increased absenteeism, showing up to work disheveled, changes in social behavior, fatigue, and difficulty keeping up with work or meeting deadlines are signs that an employee may be suffering from depression. There are a few steps you can take if you notice your employee suffering from depression like learning about the disorder, allow a more flexible schedule, extend more time on projects, and contact professional help if needed.
What are the five stages of burnout?
- Honeymoon Phase- This usually occurs at the beginning of a new job role and is characterized as the employee feeling highley energetic and enthusiastic.
- Onset Stress- This stage of burnout is when the initial excitement begins to fade, and the work becomes stressful.
- Chronic Stress- When work stress persists, it becomes chronic. All we can think about is the work that we have to do. This will lead into a less fulfilling life, and the feeling of exhaustion and failure will begin to set in.
- Burnout- This stage is characterized as a feeling of hopeless, despair, or worry, and these symptoms may contribute to some physical feelings like headaches or gastrointestinal issues. This is the stage where you might notice yourself isolating or acting out of character.
- Habitual burnout- This last stage is extremely emotional and causes mental and physical exhaustion as well as depression and anxiety.