Burnout is a state of complete physical or emotional exhaustion at work. It can happen when people suffer from work-related stress for too long, and can also be made worse by other factors like home life and personality traits.
A certain amount of stress can be productive and even exhilarating for some workers—but nobody thrives on excessive stress that just goes on and on.
Burnout is a real and growing problem. A 2020 survey by Mental Health America found that 75% of U.S. workers have experienced burnout at work, with 40% saying it had begun to affect them during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 37% of respondents explicitly pointed to working longer hours during the pandemic as a cause.
Burned-out workers are both unhappy and unproductive. As we’ll see, people suffering from burnout are deeply anxious and unfulfilled in their work, and that makes them less likely to perform at their best—and more likely to move on.
This article will help you to spot the signs of burnout in your team members, address the causes, and instill preventative measures to support employees in the long term.
How can you spot burnout?
The signs of burnout vary from person to person.
Some are outward signs that might catch your attention, such as reduced productivity or making uncharacteristic mistakes. Or an employee may stop turning up to work get-togethers that they used to enjoy.
If you spot these signs, it’s important to reflect on what they might mean.
To go deeper, ask employees what they’re feeling, either collectively—through techniques like surveys—or individually, by simply talking to them.
These approaches may reveal the emotional aspects of burnout, which include cynicism, disillusionment about work, or a feeling that the worker doesn’t feel they belong. Workers may also feel unable to celebrate their achievements, even if they seem to be doing really well.
For more on spotting burnout, check out our guide to the subtle signs of employee burnout.
How you can help your employees overcome burnout
There are a number of ways to help employees tackle burnout. As with anything, prevention is better than the cure. Dedicated mental wellness platforms like Calm can help with that, by offering stress and anxiety-reducing benefits.
But, to be effective, any wellness programs need to be supported by positive workplace cultures. There are a number of ways you can bring about change and help your employees and colleagues—and we’ll cover that in this section.
Talk and listen
Talking and listening may seem like “soft” activities that won’t necessarily have any concrete effect. But, according to research by Gallup, employees whose manager is always willing to listen to their work-related problems are 62% less likely to be burned out.
Burnout can be a tough topic to approach. You might feel that you’re admitting shortcomings in your own management style, or even criticizing the organization you both work for.
If so, it might be helpful to acknowledge that this is a problem that anyone can fall prey to—without blaming the employee for their own situation, of course. If you’ve had to overcome burnout yourself, share your experience. Any common ground you can find will help you work towards a solution.
Put a stop to overwork
A heavy workload and long working hours are often the main risk factors for burnout.
One study found a strong correlation between working 40+ hours per week and burnout—and the link was even stronger when the total topped 60 hours. Other research has found that other important factors include how long workers have to recover from a long day, their level of emotional investment in their work, and how much control they have over their working hours.
The occasional late night or weekend stint probably won’t be an issue—but if your teams are consistently doing more than they should, you need to act.
The obvious solution is to look again at the tasks allocated to employees. Think about how work is distributed around teams, and how people could do more to share the load and support each other.
You may also need to consider whether there’s a culture of overwork in your company, and how incentives and personal values are linked to workload. People may have an underlying reason to work long hours—even if, on the face of it, you’re telling them not to.
Restore work-life balance
There are only so many hours in the day, so if your teams are burning the candle at both ends, the rest of their life will suffer. That includes simply being away from home, as well as lacking the energy or motivation for other aspects of life. This can affect relationships with partners, children, and friends.
As with overwork, the key to restoring balance is to talk to your team members and find out what’s going on for them. Do they feel in control of their own lives? Do they feel that they’re merely living to work, instead of working to live?
Cultivate a positive work environment
Different employees appreciate different environments to work in—but few will thrive in a workplace culture that puts pressure on them to perform, punishes mistakes, ignores personal problems, or ignores interpersonal frictions.
One study of nurses found that workplace bullying was strongly associated with emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and compassion fatigue. This made nurses more likely to leave their jobs.
To dispel negativity, you need to cultivate the positive counterparts to the factors mentioned above: a relaxed attitude to work, the freedom to experiment, forgiveness of mistakes, understanding of personal issues, and a zero-tolerance attitude to all forms of intimidation or harassment.
Workplace culture doesn’t change overnight—and to make change, the impetus always comes from the top. As a leader, you decide what’s emphasized and valued within your workplace, which sends a message to employees about how they should approach their tasks and working relationships.
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that change works best when it’s guided by an overarching vision, but pursued in an incremental rather than dramatic way. (The prospect of sweeping changes and big upheavals can make people feel even more stressed.)
Make roles, expectations, and goals crystal clear
No one can work well when they don’t know what’s expected of them. If people are trying to achieve too many different things, or can’t prioritize between their goals, there’s a good chance they’ll suffer burnout—particularly if they’re overworked as well.
To prevent this, create written job descriptions with clear targets and metrics, then agree on them with your workers. Use performance reviews and informal chats to check how their roles and goals are working out.
Help people to feel fulfilled
It’s great to do work you love. But sadly, many workers may feel bored or unfulfilled by the content of their work, or frustrated about their prospects for learning or advancement.
First, talk to your employees to find out how they’re feeling. Then, consider your options to shuffle some tasks or even move people between roles to give them more fulfilling work. The more people feel they’re using their skills to best effect, the less likely they are to suffer from burnout.
While most people are motivated by money and career progression, they’re not the only things that matter. If you can’t make job changes, offer people training opportunities, so they feel they’re always making progress—even if their main job role stays pretty much the same.
Finally, don’t forget to offer people some praise for their abilities. Research consistently shows that praise boosts motivation—and it’s free and easy to do.
Lend a sympathetic ear
Finally, bear in mind that burnout could be linked to problems that people have outside their work. While these may be beyond your control, it’s still important to take account of them when discussing workplace issues and setting targets. And you can always offer people the chance to talk, even if sympathy is all you can offer.
Creating an employee wellness program
One of the most powerful and far-reaching ways to combat burnout is by creating an employee wellness program. This is a program aimed at maintaining employees’ well-being through activities, on-site facilities, one-off events, and more.
As well as helping employees manage stress, a wellness program also shows that you care about their well-being. However, as a way to prevent burnout, it can only work as a complement to good management—not as a substitute for it.
To learn more, read our post on Building an employee wellness program 101—then go deeper with our e-book on choosing the right wellness platform.
Mindfulness in the workplace
Activities like meditation can help reduce employees’ stress levels. To help them get started, Calm offers a friendly, accessible way to explore mindfulness, relaxation, wellness, and better sleep.
But do remember that burnout is not the fault of the employee. While there may be things they can do to help themselves, they can’t fix every problem in the workplace. To safeguard against burnout, you need to build mental wellness and resilience into your organization’s culture.
Tackling remote burnout
Burnout may be associated with late nights in the office, but it can easily affect remote workers, too. They can easily end up doing more than their contracted hours, working at off hours, or allowing work to invade their home lives.
The key to combating remote burnout is contact and communication. Remote workers must never be “out of sight, out of mind.” And just because they look sharp on an occasional Zoom call, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re on top of every aspect of their work, or feeling good about their work situation.
Make time to check in with remote workers one-on-one, and specifically ask them how they’re coping with remote working in terms of productivity, energy, maintaining focus, and preserving boundaries around their work.
Remember, everyone is different. While one team member may be thriving in the home environment, another may be finding it really tough. For some workers, who rely on the support of a structured environment, just turning up every day can be a challenge. Others may be finding it hard to carve out the time and space they need to work at home.
For more on this topic from the employee perspective, check out our post on Working-from home resilience strategies.
Giving time off for burnout recovery—and the return to work
If an employee has become truly burned out, some time away from work might be the best way for them to regain their equilibrium.
In April 2021, LinkedIn gave the entire company a week off to prevent burnout. At the individual level, more and more organizations are bumping up the number of vacation days.
For some companies, this can be quite a culture change. Instead of pushing your people to work harder, you’re inviting them to take care of themselves. That’s why this sort of initiative has to be sincere, and followed through. For example, if you offer more time off, employees need to feel they can actually take it, without worrying about being criticized or missing opportunities.
Think of it as a long-term investment in your people. You’re trading a few days’ work now for some far more productive months further down the line.
For the employees themselves, the time off will be a relief—but returning to work may be a time of anxiety. Don’t push them to come back too early. When they’re ready, consider easing them back into the routine with a less demanding schedule at first, and support them with back-to-work meetings so they can share anything they’re concerned about.
Try to see things through the employee’s eyes. They may be asking themselves whether they still have a role, or they may be worried about what colleagues are saying. You can help prevent that with some pre-emptive briefing and discussion before they return.
Above all, don’t assume that the problem will be solved by the time off in itself, and simply recreate the same situation that created burnout in the first place.
Burnout is a serious problem, but many of the most effective remedies are already within your grasp as a manager. Actively listening to your employees, providing them with fulfilling work, giving recognition, and providing a healthy, sustainable working environment can all help stop the problem before it starts. With empathy and understanding, you can keep your employees happy and productive no matter what the future brings.