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Employee Burnout in the Workplace

Stressed woman working from home at night

Employee burnout often manifests as an increasing lack of enthusiasm and engagement that builds over time in response to job dissatisfaction. The consequences of burnout may include increased employee absence, lower productivity, and higher turnover, all of which affect a company's bottom line.

Tight deadlines, lack of management support, or unachievable job goals are just a few of the many factors that contribute to workplace burnout. By learning how to recognize early signs of employee stress, HR managers and business leaders can take action to prevent burnout from impacting their staff.

What is workplace burnout?

Workplace burnout is the emotional and physical exhaustion caused by job or personal stress that ultimately affects an employee's performance. Burned out workers may shut down and become overwhelmed, leaving them unable to complete job tasks successfully.

What are the causes of employee burnout?

Employees burn out for a number of reasons. Given increasing job pressures and the ability to communicate virtually through email or cell phones at any time of the day, employees may have difficulty "turning off" and stepping away from work. This can lead to burnout, which is a common reason for low productivity.  While some job stress is expected, extreme factors or a mix of multiple stressors can weigh someone down. A list of potential causes includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Heavy workload and an "always-on" culture
  • Unfair treatment
  • Lack of communication from management
  • Tight deadlines and time pressure
  • Implementation of new technology without proper training
  • Uncertain expectations
  • Interpersonal / work philosophy differences with colleagues or managers
  • Instability in the workplace or job uncertainty
  • Lack of work/life balance

When employees become burned out, they can suffer from mental anxiety, physical symptoms, emotional outbursts, and a decline in productivity. In extreme cases, burned-out workers may leave to pursue other opportunities, believing a new job will be less stressful or a better fit with their needs.

How to spot the signs of employee burnout

Recognizing employee burnout signs and analyzing their frequency in the workplace can help you assess the stress levels of your staff. Learn how to spot workplace burnout by reviewing trends and identifying changes in worker behavior. Employee satisfaction surveys or direct feedback can also provide information about burnout.

Signs that your team may be stressed include:

  • Employees complaining of being stressed, overwhelmed, or under pressure
  • Unexplained absences, or complaints about new physical ailments such as headaches or stomachaches, as well as other ailments associated with stress
  • Managers who are concerned that their team faces an unmanageable workload
  • Increases in accidents, errors, or other issues that could be caused by stress and distractions
  • Signals that employees may be seeking new employment

Dealing with employee burnout

The best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it from happening. When preventative actions don't work or external stressors are beyond the employer's control, it's important to set a plan and decide how to deal with employee burnout. When you notice the signs of burnout becoming more prevalent, prioritize implementing strategies to improve the work environment, with the goal of helping employees achieve a better work/life balance.

How to prevent and avoid burnout in the workplace

Whatever plan you use to prevent and avoid burnout must be adaptable based on an individual's needs. Consider a range of strategies and multiple solutions. Some ideas may work better than others, but it's important to be proactive and try something rather than simply hoping an employee will develop their own coping mechanisms.

Here are some suggested steps you can take to prevent and avoid burnout:

  • Train managers to recognize the signs of burnout and have a plan in place to evaluate employee situations and address any underlying issues.
  • Evaluate the workloads associated with specific teams and positions to ensure they are realistic and assess employees to see if they have the skills and support needed to be successful.
  • Adopt flexible scheduling, telecommuting, and paid time-off policies that can help provide better work/life balance where possible.
  • Invest in employee engagement and recognition, using tools such as engagement monitoring, bonus programs, employee awards, and setting minimum cost-of-living adjustments.
  • Add an employee assistance program to your benefits package to provide access to support across a wide variety of areas that may be causing stress.
  • Invest in training around areas such as emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and stress management to give your workforce the tools to better manage workplace-related and general life stress.
  • Create policies that set expectations around employees completing work, checking email, or being "always available" outside the set hours required to conduct their jobs.

The best way to avoid burnout is to design a work environment where employees are challenged and engaged rather than overwhelmed. Give employees as much control over their workload as possible and involve them in the goal-setting process. Encouraging work/life balance instead of expecting 24-hour availability can allow employees to flourish and remain engaged while on the job.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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