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HomeEmployee experienceWhat is employee burnout, and how do you prevent it?

What is employee burnout, and how do you prevent it?

Last updated

18 July 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Lara Leganger

Employee burnout is rife, and it often causes absenteeism, low productivity, and dissatisfaction.  

High stress, competitive jobs, and overwork can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. Employees suffer, and businesses feel the effects.  

Getting a better understanding of burnout can make a huge difference. We’re going to look at how to prevent employee burnout so you can enjoy improved job performance and morale.

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is not an isolated affliction. It is a type of work-related stress that affects employees with mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. 

The World Health Organization recognizes employee burnout as unmanaged chronic workplace stress with three dimensions:

  • Exhaustion

  • Feelings of job negativity or cynicism

  • Decreased productivity

Though some may mistakenly view this as an employee problem, it’s actually a company problem. When an employee suffers from burnout, they: 

  • Are less productive

  • Miss work more often

  • Are disinterested and distant

  • Often leave their jobs, adding to high turnover issues

It’s really important to address an employee burnout issue in the workplace and find solutions. 

How common is employee burnout?

The American Psychological Association recently conducted the Work and Well-being Survey of US workers: It found that 79% of American workers had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. 

Three in five employees said they experienced negative impacts of work-related stress, such as lack of interest, low energy, cognitive weariness, or emotional exhaustion.  

In 2021, a Time study found that 42% of women and 35% of men were burned out often or almost always. Many employees left their jobs, are planning on leaving their jobs, or are unhappy in their current positions.  

Reasons behind employee burnout

To rectify the causes behind employee burnout, you must be able to detect burnout. If your workforce is remote, spotting the signs can be even harder.  

However, by paying attention to employee responses, productivity, and decision-making, you may be able to determine when an employee is feeling the effects of burnout.

Many reasons lead to employees feeling burned out. If you notice employees’ waning motivation or productivity, these issues may be causing it:

Employees are bored

If you have an employee working far below their potential, they may be bored and feel hopeless.

Employees are overworked 

With recent hiring issues, you may be giving them too much work or asking them to work too many hours, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion.

Confusion, dysfunction, or lack of communication

Employees may easily become disenchanted and burned out if they: 

  • Don’t understand company expectations 

  • Are confused about their direction

  • Feel management is not effectively communicating

  • Are bullied, singled out, or left out by supervisors or peers

Lack of control, resources, or social support 

Employees need input into their schedules and workload. They also need support in the workplace to avoid burnout.

Lack of work-life balance 

This goes back to excessive work hours or high-stress assignments. For an employee to function effectively, they need to balance the quantity and quality of time spent between work and home. 

It often helps to have a vacation plan or other PTO so employees can relax and spend time away from work.

Not being paid a fair wage

Burnout is a real risk if you’ve increased your employees’ workload without compensating them for the additional time and stress. If you’ve cut their hours, they may struggle to pay bills and feel pressured.

The 3 phases of employee burnout

It’s essential to recognize the three phases to address employee burnout. They are generally sequential but can stop at any phase.

Generally, when you possess any two symptoms in a category, you can consider yourself to be in that particular phase:

Stress arousal 

This is usually the first burnout phase and includes responses such as irritability, anxiety, and forgetfulness.  

Physical symptoms may include increased blood pressure, grinding your teeth at night, or unusual heart palpitations. 

You may have trouble concentrating or suffer from gastrointestinal issues or headaches.  

Energy compensation 

This is the body's way of compensating for the increased stress you feel in phase one.  

You may be late to work and other social engagements more frequently. You may procrastinate, feel persistently tired, or isolate yourself from family and friends.  

This phase also includes self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or other things that may temporarily make you feel better or happier.  

Your personality may change, making you resentful or cynical, and you may feel apathetic and hopeless.

Exhaustion

This is the third and final burnout phase, culminating in physical, mental, and emotional fatigue.  

You may feel depressed and have physical issues like gastrointestinal issues, migraines, or chronic fatigue.  

It may be hard for you to get out of bed in the morning, and you may want to avoid the people and things that previously made you happy.  

Extreme burnout can also cause suicidal thoughts. If you’re feeling hopeless about your future, you’re certainly not alone, and help is available. Please find a crisis hotline in your area here.

Common employee burnout signs

You can spot several signs that employees are burned out, although some are subtle and hard to pick up on. Look for changes in behavior and the most common employee burnout signs:

Lacking in motivation

Unmotivated employees may initially be difficult to spot. When they lack motivation, the behavior manifests into a pattern of: 

  • Being late or missing work

  • Skipping meetings

  • Having incomplete work

  • Turning in work after it is due

Reduction in productivity 

Regardless of what’s causing the burnout, stressed-out employees are usually less productive than those not dealing with that stress.  

Compare their work to prior productivity, and you may be able to pinpoint when it began to diminish. You may also find more mistakes in their work, or it may be late or incomplete.

Irritability, difficulty concentrating, and poor decision-making

Burned-out employees may not be sleeping well, feeling pressure from family, or are unable to give their job their full attention.  

This can result in irritability, poor decision-making, and struggling to concentrate on normal activities at work.   

Physical and emotional changes

Employees who are suffering from burnout may use drugs, alcohol, or food to alleviate some of the negative feelings that they have.  

Look for signs of sudden weight loss or gain, chronic illnesses, or excessive absenteeism. 

Other changes may include emotional outbursts, antisocial activity with co-workers, and the inability to work with others.

High turnover rates

Even if you do not see your employees every day, you can still look at the turnover rates to see a trend in burnout.  

If there’s a sudden increase in turnover, determine what’s changed.

How to address employee burnout

When addressing employee burnout, never single out an employee. Rather, work to engage them and do what you can to reduce their stress levels.  

Employers can address burnout by combatting it positively, such as recognizing great work or appreciating their long hours.  

Other things include:

  • Creating a positive environment at work

  • Encouraging a balance between their personal life and work

  • Offering support and letting them know that getting help is encouraged

  • Ensuring employees use vacation time that they have accrued

  • Looking at your expectations: Are deadlines realistic or long hours necessary? 

  • Letting your employees know you’re in their corner

Preventing employee burnout in five steps

Averting employee burnout is much easier than trying to manage and rectify existing burnout.

If one or more employees are suffering from burnout, you can do things to reduce their stress and create a positive work environment:

1. Minimize distractions

Multitasking typically deters productivity. If your employees face deadlines or work on intensive projects, offer resources so they’re not distracted by phone calls, emails, or appointments.  

Your employees will be more content if they have just one thing to deal with, and productivity will increase.

2. Lead by example

It can confuse employees if you eliminate distractions from their workload but continue to take calls or cut your work short because of meetings. Some may think they must replicate your work habits to advance in the company. 

It’s unacceptable to rely on saying, "Do as I say, not as I do." It’s up to you to set the standard for your business.  

3. Define your company's core values

Your company's core values should not just be words on paper—corporate decisions should support them. 

For example, your company says that it puts its people first. Your employee has a family emergency, but do they feel they can put their family first without fear of retribution?  

4. Promote a balance between work and home

Employees suffering from burnout often feel on-call 24/7. They get phone calls, emails, and texts at all hours of the day and feel they must respond quickly.  

Institute a no-email policy after working hours or reward a job well done with time off for employees to spend with their families.  

5. Stay in touch

If you really want to know what’s working and what needs improving, speak to your employees. You can also create an anonymous survey to collect vital feedback.  

If your employees are unhappy or struggling, initiate programs to combat the causes of burnout.

FAQs

How long can burnout last?

The degree of burnout varies, so the time it takes for an employee to recover can be anywhere from a few weeks to years.   

That's why it’s important for your company and your employee to identify burnout early on and take steps to fight it.

How is burnout measured?

You can recognize burnout by looking for things like attendance issues, low quality of work, or employee disengagement. 

You can measure burnout with the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory, which covers exhaustion and disengagement in a 16-item survey.  

What age is burnout most common?

Burnout seems higher among young adults under 35 and senior adults over 55. Women tend to experience burnout at a higher percentage than men, possibly because they are trying to excel at work and at home.

Where is burnout most common?

Burnout can happen in any occupation, but it seems to impact emotionally stressful jobs the most, including social work, emergency response, and medicine.

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