Burnout in the workplace is a pervasive and serious problem, affecting employees’ health and wellness, engagement, and retention. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that should be treated as a legitimate health concern for which employees sometimes seek medical attention.
Fortunately, as serious as burnout can be, there are plenty of warning signs that can help employees and managers detect the issue early, as well as short- and long-term solutions that can help reduce the impact of burnout on an employee’s wellbeing and prevent it from happening in the future.
What causes burnout? According to the WHO’s definition, the major cause of burnout is “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Some of the most common causes of chronic stress in the workplace are unsustainable workloads, lack of support, misalignment in employee and company values, personal or professional conflicts, and poor work-life balance.
The effects of burnout can be detrimental. Employees often lose motivation and have sharp declines in productivity and efficiency at work. Their attitude might suffer, and they might struggle to maintain healthy working relationships with coworkers and managers. Untreated, burnout can also lead to high rates of turnover, as the employee lacks the energy, motivation, and goal orientation to continue on in their current role.
Signs to Watch For:
Everyone handles stress differently, so burnout can look different from one person to the next. However, there are some common warning signs. Employees might show increases in frustration with their company or their job, low motivation, or a cynical outlook on their work or their future with the company. There might be a noticeable difference in what the employee says they want to do or accomplish, and what steps they’re actually taking to meet their goals. They also might isolate themselves, socializing and communicating less often with coworkers and managers.
It’s important to note that if one employee is experiencing burnout, other employees in similar situations might also be at risk. Again, every employee handles stress differently, but managers should be proactive about connecting with everyone on their team if they learn that one employee is struggling with burnout.
Employees are a company’s most valuable assets, and taking action to support employees who are struggling with burnout is an important part of creating a healthy workplace culture and improving employee retention. So what can managers do in the short term to help employees who are experiencing burnout? Burnout can cause an increase in negative thinking and cynicism, leading employees to think that they’re stuck in a bad cycle and things aren’t getting any better. One of the best ways to break that cycle is to make an immediate change to the employee’s circumstances. First and foremost, managers should let the employee know that they believe and support them. Coming forward to talk about mental health challenges can be incredibly stressful, and the best thing managers can do is ensure that their employees feel safe and supported when they need help.
Then, take action: Can the company offer a paid week of vacation or a long weekend to give the employee time to rest and uncharge? Do they need extra support on an ongoing project, or to have someone help clear items from their to-do list? These types of quick fixes aren’t going to solve the problem, but it will make a big difference for the employee simply to feel heard and taken seriously, and to see that the company is willing to make changes that will support the employee’s wellbeing.
The best long-term solutions for burnout are strategies to prevent it from reoccurring with the same employee or happening to anyone else. Consider training executives and managers on how to identify early signs of burnout and handle it appropriately. Encourage employees to exercise and take care of their physical wellness, and ensure that employees are taking time off to recharge. For example, offering flex time or extra vacation days that employees can use with no questions asked gives them an option for taking time whenever the need arises.
The most important prevention tool and long-term solution is to talk openly about burnout and to ask employees what they need. More control over their schedule? More support on projects? It might be different for every employee, so it’s important to have individual conversations and ensure that the company is doing what it can to support its employees.
In both the short and long term, it’s also important to remember the little things: by treating employees with respect, gratitude, and kindness, and by supporting them in good times and in bad, managers can reduce the chances of burnout among employees and help them manage it successfully when it does arise.