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Understanding employee burnout: Causes, symptoms and prevention strategies

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Employee burnout has a long-term impact on employees’ well-being, workplace culture and the business’s bottom line.

A recent WHO analysis of data from 2016 found that working 55 or more hours a week increases someone’s risk of a stroke by 35% and raises their risk of dying by ischemic heart disease by 17% compared to working 35 to 40 hours per week. Overwork leads to an additional 745,000 deaths a year.

While there’s no more recent data on the health consequences, the number of people working long hours is increasing.

working 55 hours or more a week increases someone’s risk of a stroke by 35% &
raises their risk of dying by ischemic heart disease by 17% compared to working 35 to 40 hours per week
Source: World Health Organization

In 2021, it was 9% of the global population, which means even more employees are at risk of work-related disability and early death from their job.

In the workplace, unaddressed burnout can lead to absenteeism, high turnover rates, decreased employee morale and reduced profits. It’s therefore important to recognize, and address, employee burnout before it causes bigger issues.

So, let’s take a look at what employee burnout is, what causes it and what you can do to prevent it in your workplace.

What is employee burnout?

Burnout isn’t temporary stress or feelings of tiredness. Burnout is a long-term condition with long-term health consequences for employees who experience it.

In WHO’s ICD-11 (the global standard for diagnostic health information), burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” classified as:

“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

While burnout isn’t classified as a medical condition itself, it does exacerbate existing health conditions and cause new ones, increasing absenteeism and presenteeism.

The most common causes of employee burnout

There are many elements within the workplace that can cause employee burnout. One of the main causes is overwork or working too many hours. Employees who love what they do, or derive a sense of purpose from it, may be more prone to experiencing it.

In fact, purpose-driven employees are more stressed while having lower self-efficacy, resilience and well-being, according to a Canadian study. All these symptoms pave the way to burnout.

Long term, these issues lead to sleeping problems, chronic pain, weight loss and increased cortisol levels.

Millennial employees are more driven by well-being and purpose than any other generation. Helping them find balance is key to their workplace success.

Time management issues or, if they feel they lack control in the workplace, can also trigger burnout, as can a lack of support or unclear communication from their colleagues.

Misalignment of values with their employer can impact an employee’s well-being. So can feeling like they’re not getting sufficient rewards or recognition, or they’re stuck without the chance for career progression.

What it really boils down to is feeling stuck. Stuck in a job where the workplace culture is the wrong fit for them, or stuck helping so many people they can no longer help themselves.

Signs and symptoms of burnout in employees

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
•	increased
•	stress levels
•	exhausted
•	headaches or migraines
•	easily emotional
•	cynical
•	detached
•	poor interaction with colleagues
•	decrease in quality of work

Burnout impacts every part of someone’s life. It affects how they deal with emotions, their professionalism at work, their sleep and even their personal life.

An employee who’s burned out may suffer from restless sleep or insomnia. Because of this, and/or their increased stress levels, they may also suffer from headaches or migraines.

A burned-out employee may come across as more cynical or detached, or exhausted and easily emotional. This can impact how they interact with their colleagues and the quality of work that they provide.

You may find, over time, the quality of their work or their number of deliverables, decreases.

It’s important to watch for these symptoms so that you can intervene before things get worse and it takes the employee longer to recover.

7 strategies for preventing burnout

You know what to look for. Now how can you prevent burnout in the workplace?

Here are some strategies for preventing burnout:

1.     Encourage regular breaks and time off

Managers should look for signs that employees need to take a break, such as simple errors like typos or bigger problems like muscle aches or eye strain.

Encouraging regular breaks and making break time a part of workplace culture, means employees don’t feel guilty for temporarily stopping work and are more likely to prioritize rest.

2.     Promote a healthy work/life balance

You could promote a healthy work/life balance by encouraging discussions about employees’ weekend plans, reminding employees who haven’t used their paid time off they still have some left to use or organizing days out, which could double as team-building activities.

3.     Create a supportive work environment

When someone feels supported, they’re more able to express how they’re feeling. And just the act of expressing emotions can help us let go of what’s bothering us, meaning it’s less likely to manifest as physical, psychological or emotional pain. Therefore, it helps reduce the likelihood an employee is going to get burned out.

4.     Foster open communication and feedback

Clear communication means employees know what’s expected of them, and they’re not frustrated because of a lack of direction or guidance.

When employees can communicate openly, they’re comfortable sharing how they feel and more likely to reveal signs they’re at risk of burnout.

5.     Implement time and project management strategies

Time and project management strategies help employees organize their day so they can factor in breaks and better pace themselves. This lowers their stress levels and increases their well-being.

You could help them with this by adopting project management tools, adding a whiteboard to the office, or holding regular catch-up meetings where you can find solutions if someone is feeling overwhelmed.

6.     Provide opportunities for professional growth and development

Professional growth and development keep employees happy and engaged at work. How can you help them grow?

Could they become an internal subject matter expert or are they better suited to a management role?

Is there a particular skill they’d love to learn that complements their current role?

Or maybe it’s time for them to change careers while still working for the same company, like moving teams from software development to marketing.

There are lots of ways for employees to grow. What matters is that they feel their employer supports them.

7.     Address workload issues and ensure adequate staffing

The right level of work can make or break someone’s career success.

It’s important to talk to employees about how they’re getting on with their workload and if they need extra help. You can also explore tasks that could be streamlined, automated or outsourced to support them.

How to address burnout in employees

There are lots of things you can do to address burnout in employees. Here are some suggestions:

Recognize and validate employees’ feelings

Burnout can be a scary time. It’s important that you recognize and validate employees’ emotions. This will make them feel supported by their employer and mean they’re more likely to accept any help you can offer.

Collaborate on a recovery plan

What does recovery look like? How can you monitor it?

Work together to create a recovery plan. This may involve them taking some paid time off, adopting new technologies or temporarily adjusting their workload/responsibilities.

Offer support resources

What kind of support could you offer them? Could you enroll them in an employee assistance program?

Is there an ERG or a training course they could benefit from?

How about a colleague who’s been there and recovered, who could buddy up with them?

You don’t want to overwhelm them, but knowing there are people to support them can give them a positive direction to follow.

Temporarily adjust workload and responsibilities

To get the most out of a burned-out employee, it’s important to temporarily adjust their workload and responsibilities.

Some tasks may take them longer or be harder for them while they recover.

Adjusting their workload will reduce their stress levels and ensure you’re still getting their best-quality work.

Follow up regularly and monitor progress

It’s important to check in and remember that healing doesn’t happen in a straight line. One week they may be improving, but the next, it may seem like they’ve gone backward. This is a natural part of healing from any health condition and burnout is no exception.

If something isn’t working, adjust the plan to better suit where they are now.

Key considerations for HR professionals dealing with burned-out teams

The earlier you can intervene when an employee is burned out, the less it’ll impact their physical and mental health.

Educating supervisors and managers on the signs of burnout, and how they can help burned-out employees is an important early intervention step.

Implementing policies and practices that promote well-being and resilience encourages employees to not work to the point of burnout, but to prioritize how they’re feeling and what their mind and body are telling them.

Understanding, preventing and addressing employee burnout

Understanding, preventing and addressing employee burnout is key to reducing the impact it has on the workplace.

Actively supporting employees and promoting a healthy work/life balance are critical steps to preventing burnout in the workplace. The more you can foster a healthy working environment that prioritizes well-being, the more cases of employee burnout you’ll be able to prevent.

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