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How to Identify and Combat Employee Burnout in the Workplace

6 min read
how to identify and combat employee burnout in the workplace

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now officially recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon.’ This move has come amidst a rise in remote working which has caused the line between home and work to become increasingly blurred. The conflation of home and office has meant employees are less able to switch off from work and recharge. Employees are becoming overwhelmed as a result which is impacting both mental health and work performance. Mental Health UK has even reported that 20% of UK workers are currently experiencing burnout and cannot manage professional demands.

In this article, we’ll cover how to spot signs of burnout and emotional exhaustion in your employees and ways to tackle the root issue in your workplace.

What is Employee Burnout?

Burnout is the condition of total exhaustion, either physically or emotionally. It results from long-term stress related to your job and poor work-life balance. When ignored, it can negatively impact employees’ physical and mental health.

According to research by Ceridian, 79% of employees have experienced burnout, with 35% stating that the burnout they experienced was high or extreme. The issue is widespread and on the rise, which is neither sustainable for employees nor organisations.  Employers must understand how to identify and address employee job burnout to support wellbeing and business success.

How to Identify and Combat Employee Burnout in the Workplace

What Does Employee Burnout Look Like?

Identifying burnout can be tricky as it affects individuals differently and presents itself in various ways. Employers need to be on the lookout for the following burnout symptoms:

  • A decline in mental health

Employees experiencing burnout will likely have issues with mental health. This could mean an employee talks about feeling anxious or changes their behaviour; for example, a team member who is usually upbeat and enthusiastic becomes less chatty or energised.

  • Irritability

Managers might also spot employees becoming ‘snappy’ or resisting requests. This could result from employees having too much on their plates and resenting additional tasks coming their way.

Some employees may have difficulty saying ‘no’ to their employer as they don’t want to disappoint them. It’s always worth digging a little deeper if an employee responds to a request in a way that’s out of character for them, even if they tell you they’re fine.

  • Being withdrawn

Some employees might become insular due to pressure to finish their backlog of work. They might skip team meetings, eat lunch at their desks or avoid small talk. This behaviour could indicate they’re close to their limit.

  • Working longer hours

Employees needing help to keep on top of their workload might start work before anyone else and leave last or long after their contractual finish time. Managers may mistake this for conscientiousness but should avoid rewarding this behaviour to minimise excessive work and the risk of burnout.

  • Being less productive

Another one of the burnout symptoms could be a drop in productivity. Metrics are reliable indicators of this, for example, reducing the number of calls answered if an employee is a call handler. However, efficiency might be harder to measure in more project-based roles.  Time tracking software can help by showing time spent per task and generating productivity reports to raise the visibility of downward trends.

Managers should remember that performance issues might result from burnout and chronic stress, so reviewing workload demands is vital before jumping to conclusions!

  • Missing deadlines

Employees experiencing burnout might feel a drop in motivation and become complacent. If someone is consistently unable to complete their to-do list, they’re more likely to give up trying and miss critical milestones. Plus, with multiple plates spinning simultaneously, dropping one is much easier.

How to Identify and Combat Employee Burnout in the Workplace

What are the Risks of Employee Burnout?

Burnout can have a detrimental impact on the person experiencing it and the organisation they work for. The significant risks include:

  • Poor mental and physical health

Employees who experience burnout are likely to feel a decline in their mental or physical health due to high stress and anxiety levels. These psychological and physical symptoms also commonly lead to poor sleep habits and tiredness, which can have a knock-on impact and cause several health conditions.  Business performance could resultantly take a hit; according to HSE, 36.8 million working days were estimated to be lost in 2021/ 2022 due to work-related health issues.

  • Absenteeism

Gallup research shows that employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a day off work due to sickness. Employers should be mindful that putting too much onto their teams could quickly lead to a downturn in productivity.

  • Reduced engagement

Misjudging workload and overestimating employees can significantly negatively impact engagement levels in your organisation. When people are consistently challenged beyond their capabilities and resources, they can become resentful of work and resist new requests.

  • Damaged reputation

Your current employees hold all the power regarding your employer brand. Word travels fast; if employees are overworked, the news will get out that you are uninvested in wellbeing. After whispers like this, a good reputation can be difficult to rebuild, and recruitment can become more challenging.

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  • High levels of employee turnover

You might also need help to retain existing talent. Research by Gallup revealed that employees experiencing burnout are 2.6 times more likely to be hunting for a job. Employees who feel stressed and overwhelmed in their role will want to seek a company that can offer them a better work-life balance, and organisations will see an increase in turnover rate.

How Can Employers Identify Employee Burnout?

Here are some ways organisations can identify the root causes of employee stress:

  • Observe employee behaviour

It can be easy to become blinkered by daily demands, but managers should always observe how employees behave. Taking note of this will make you more perceptive to any changes in behaviour that could be warning signs of burnout.

  • Have conversations with employees

Understand what their day-to-day challenges and pain points are. If you chat regularly and embrace open and honest conversations, employees will be likelier to talk to you about challenges, so you’ll know when they need support.

  • Conduct stress risk assessments

Stress risk assessments mean evaluating all areas of an employee’s daily working life.  Record this to identify risk areas, brainstorm ways to mitigate these, and implement strategies to alleviate pressure. In this case, prevention is the best cure.

How to Identify and Combat Employee Burnout in the Workplace

How to Address Employee Burnout in the Workplace

  • Regularly review workloads

Although it’s impossible to eradicate stress at work, reducing its impact is crucial wherever possible. Champion Health found a high workload was the top catalyst for employee burnout. Employees must acknowledge that roles often come with a certain level of pressure, and it’s important to flag this when it starts to feel all-consuming and unmanageable.

An excellent way to prevent burnout is for managers to systematically review workloads to ensure they are evenly spread across the team. Organisations should consider bringing in additional resources to support busy periods.

  • Hold wellbeing check-ins

Managers should be conscious that discussing wellbeing is as essential as having 1:1s about ongoing projects. Employees can feel self-conscious discussing coping during valuable meeting time, so organisations should actively encourage this and give managers a chance to offer support. Managers would then have the opportunity to openly discuss any underlying issues to any changes in behaviour and help to alleviate stress and burnout.

Managers could also consider discussing proactive approaches employees could consider to improve their wellbeing and develop supportive relationships between employees and employers. This could include managing stress through self-care, a balanced diet, deep breathing, regular exercise, and even considering changes to their work environment.

  • Monitor working hours

Organisations have a duty of care to ensure employees take regular breaks and do not work excessive hours.  Frequent breaks give people time to destress and boost morale, preventing burnout.

Managers should also proactively encourage their teams to take annual leave to avoid work overload.  Glassdoor research highlighted that only 60% of employees took their full annual leave entitlement in 2021. On top of that, 1 in 5 employees aged under 25 took no annual leave whatsoever.

Tackle this by tracking work hours and monitoring recorded breaks. Eating lunch together can support this as team members are encouraged to leave their desks and take a screen break. It would be best to remind employees of their remaining annual leave a few months before the end of the year to boost uptake.

  • Promote healthy work-life balance

Senior leaders and managers should be mindful of when they schedule meetings and communicate with their staff. Employees should have time to enjoy their home life without thinking about work. It can be easy to press send on an email at 10 pm, but this might make employees feel they should always be available to respond. If you’re working late, schedule your messages for the following morning.

Job stress often affects employees when they feel they have little or no control over their diaries. A great way to manage stress and ensure employees won’t feel overwhelmed is by giving them autonomy and avoiding micro-management. If employees feel optimistic about their power over their schedule, this will overcome burnout.

  • Provide an EAP

An EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) is a great way to support your employees. It gives them external agencies to speak to if they’re experiencing any difficulties in their life. Certain employees might find it easier to talk to someone outside their organisation; having an EAP will encourage them to do this. An EAP helpline will also signpost employees to resources about reducing stress.

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Amy is a knowledgeable People professional with over a decade of experience across a variety of private and public sector organisations. With a particular interest in employee engagement, Amy is an advocate for employee-centric approaches in all areas of HR which is reflected in her writing. Before a career in HR, Amy read English and Creative Writing at university and later studied for her CIPD, HR Management.

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