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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 can affect a company's bottom line.

Today 60% of HR leaders say they’re concerned about employee burnout, an increase of 18% from before the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be due, in part, to the shifting work environment: One-third of HR leaders say the competitive hiring environment and its associated high turnover is putting stress on their team members who are responsible for filling open positions and on current employees who are working to compensate for staff shortages.

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 and/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
  • 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. 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 burnout in the workplace

Whatever plan you use to prevent burnout should 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 burnout:

Recognize the signs

Train managers to recognize the signs of burnout and have a plan in place to evaluate employees and address any underlying issues. Signs often include:

  • A decreasing enthusiasm and engagement in their work
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Higher sensitivity to feedback
  • Decreased productivity
  • Isolation

Evaluate workloads

It can be easy to miss the signs of burnout, especially when it comes to remote workers. 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. Be sure to take note if you notice employees working at all hours (consistently sending work emails late at night or on weekends), not taking time off, or if there is a dip in their performance. These could be signs that they are overworked.

Adopt flexible scheduling

Forty-one percent of HR leaders say that offering flexible work schedules is their top tactic for improving employee retention. Consider adopting flexible scheduling, telecommuting, and paid time-off policies that can help provide better work/life balance, where possible, to help avoid employee burnout and improve retention.

Invest in employee engagement

Improve employee engagement by investing in recognition programs, whether it be via a bonus program, employee awards, professional development or providing benefits that may alleviate some of the stress employees may feel outside of work.

Offer an employee assistance program

Add an employee assistance program (EAP) to your benefits package so employees have access to confidential resources and support that can help them deal with personal stressors head-on: from mental health counseling to financial assistance, healthy lifestyle choices, and more.

Invest in soft-skills training

Invest in a learning management system (LMS) to provide employees with easy access to soft-skills training that can help them better manage workplace-related and general life stress. This could include trainings on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and stress management. In fact, more than a quarter of HR leaders say they implement training for employees and managers to help avoid burnout, specifically when it comes to remote or hybrid workers.

Set expectations for work-life balance

Creating policies that set expectations around completing work, checking email, or availability outside of working hours can be fundamental to helping employees achieve a work-life balance that helps them avoid burnout. In fact, nearly one-third of HR leaders say that emphasizing work/life balance as part of company culture is a tactic they use to avoid burnout, while 29% say they try to avoid employee burnout by encouraging managers to create clear job descriptions and expectations to make work feel manageable.

Designing a work environment where employees are challenged and engaged rather than overwhelmed can help avoid employee burnout. 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.