August 19, 2021

Employee burnout: how to spot the signs

Lucy Hitz
Lucy Hitz

Burnout. It’s become such a prevalent term in our daily lexicon that it’s started to lose its meaning, becoming a way of life rather than an isolated condition.

And yet, having a clear understanding of what burnout is, what causes it, and how to distinguish it from say, a bad mood, is critically important to employee well-being and business performance.

When surveyed, 71% of workers said they experienced burnout at least once in 2020. That’s more than just a bad day; that’s a workplace phenomenon. Rather than accept burnout as an occupational hazard, organizations should commit to developing strategies to recognize and alleviate burnout and invest in opportunities for their employees (and their business) to thrive. 

Burnout: The basics

Burnout doesn’t come from a day or two of grinding work or stressful moments.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a prolonged period during which these three things are being felt simultaneously: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced productivity.  

That’s a clear recipe for disaster for employee wellbeing, but also for your workplace culture and your overall bottom line. A Gallup poll found that teams who score higher on employee engagement see 21% more profitability than those with unengaged (see: burned out) teams. Addressing burnout is more than just the right thing to do; it’s a business imperative.  

What’s causing burnout?

The Mayo Clinic lists a lack of control, unclear job expectations, and work-life imbalance among the main causes of workplace burnout. Sound familiar? 

The COVID-19 pandemic shook up the lives of employees around the world. Over a year out, and we’re still not nailing the work-life balance part, we’re still being subjected to forces beyond our control, and – depending on where we work – our job expectations are likely still in flux.

Work life balance

But the pandemic was hardly the only impactful thing that has happened over the past year and a half. Employees have also been faced with extraordinary challenges as we grapple with social and racial injustices, environmental hazards, conflict and violence, and innumerate personal trials. 

Tack on child and family care obligations, a shift to remote work, and physical isolation, and it’s no surprise that employees are feeling the weight of the world upon them. These stressors are going to continue, and the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic aren’t going to go away quickly, so it’s critical that organizations understand, address, and eliminate the causes of burnout. But how do you actually recognize the signs? 

How to recognize your team is burned out

The obvious signs.

Zoom fatigue is real for everyone, but especially burned out employees. You’ll notice:

  • Turned off cameras and microphones
  • Lack of participation in meetings
  • Last-minute cancellations
  • Unusually cynical, harsh or self-deprecating comments
  • Lack of follow-up on meeting outcomes or on your internal communication channels

This may further escalate into absenteeism, as days off start being used to avoid a workplace that’s causing stress or exacerbating already stressful circumstances in their lives.

Behavior changes.

Perhaps the employee who always volunteers to take on new projects hasn’t raised their hand in a while, or the over-communicator stops responding to Slacks or emails. You may even have a tenured and beloved leader who starts to check out on their team. These signs of disengagement often bear the mark of burnout. 

The data proves it. 

Keep an eye on the data. First take a look at productivity, as that takes a nosedive when employees are burned out. Use your goal management tool to tap into how teams and individuals are tracking towards their goals for the quarter. Which goals are at risk, on track, or completed? Shifting your perspective away from employee behavior to outcomes can provide relief, alignment, and clarity for you and them.

Goal tracking

Another way to turn to the date is via employee surveys with questions that employees can rank their responses to like “I believe my workload is reasonable for my job,” or “I feel like the work I’m doing is meaningful.” These can serve as a critical pulse-check into the wellbeing of your employees. Track these metrics over time. If positive responses dip in frequency, consider breaking employees out into smaller focus groups to dive into the feelings behind the responses, and gain insight on if it’s burnout–or something else–at the root of the problem.

Your people tell you.

The simplest way to find out if your team is experiencing burnout? Ask them. If you’re still working to develop an emotionally-focused or open culture, try asking questions like, “How much ‘free’ time – away from meetings – do you have to do actual work?” If the answer is none, then you probably have a problem on your hands, and need to start considering ways to alleviate the work or meeting load on your team. 

Getting a handle on employee burnout

You’ve taken the first step toward addressing employee burnout within your organization: becoming aware. The next—often more difficult—step is taking action. Here are a few ideas to consider.

  • Find, pay for, and encourage wellness programs for employees. Especially benefits and experiences that employees can do on their own time, at their own pace, like Headspace for Work. 
  • Encourage healthy boundary-setting. Build balance, integration, and flexibility into your work model by encouraging employees to block out their calendars for workouts and personal time, and focusing on achieving goals rather than micromanaging how you get there. Spending the time to get ultra-clear on your company-wide goals and making sure your whole team is aligned, accountable, and knows how they are contributing helps you focus conversations on outcomes, not outputs.

  • Address it head-on. Don’t pretend that burnout isn’t in the zeitgeist. When you have all-company meetings, address this topic and show how you’re taking action—whatever that means for your organization. Equip your managers to have conversations with their teams about burnouts and systemic ways you can alleviate it in your organization. Acknowledgment, empathy, and encouraging time off go a long way.

For more solutions to employee burnout, read our post on 11 ways to reduce employee burnout in your organization here.

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