*Content includes branded mentions of our sponsor ZipRecruiter.
Burnout is a serious issue that can have a negative impact on the wellbeing of your employees and, consequently, the success of your business. As an employer, you need to be able to recognize when an employee is showing signs of burnout in order to keep them productive and motivated.
Employee burnout can result in a decline in job engagement and even resignation if left untreated. While you’ll need to address the underlying issues leading to burnout, you’ll also need to hire and replace employees who have left. As the #1 hiring site in the U.S., ZipRecruiter has helped millions of businesses of all sizes find the right candidates for their job openings.
Read on to learn the causes of employee burnout, how to prevent it, and how to identify its signs.
What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion employees feel in the workplace. This exhaustion can stem from stress caused by a negative work experience such as an unfulfilling role, a strained relationship with a manager or co-worker, a toxic company culture or something else entirely.
Left unchecked, burnout can spread quickly to other employees. One person’s disengagement may cause a ripple effect throughout an entire team or department. Before long, employee burnout can become full-on organizational burnout.
What causes workplace burnout?
Workplace burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, typically related to adverse changes in the employee experience within the company.
Some factors that can cause employee burnout are:
- Job insecurity
- Lack of agency or control over work
- Lack of recognition
- Poor compensation
- High job demands
- Lack of support from supervisors
- Unclear job expectations
- Lack of autonomy
- Lack of resources
- Poor work-life balance
If an employee becomes tasked with work that's outside their job description, or their job title outright changes, it can lead to lower job satisfaction and burnout. Employers can head off some of these issues during the search for candidates and the hiring process. By providing clear and concrete job descriptions on job posting sites such as ZipRecruiter, you can better communicate your company needs and attract the top talent.
Why is managing employee burnout important?
Managing employee burnout is critical to maintaining a positive employee experience. When burnout sets in, it can generate frustration among employees and resentment toward your company. At its worst, burnout can lead to disengagement, reduced productivity and increased employee turnover.
Burnout doesn’t cause itself. According to Harvard Business Review, burnout results from poor oversight and bad management. Of course, someone could also experience burnout due to life challenges or family matters beyond your organization’s control. But in the vast majority of cases, you have the power to prevent burnout from happening.
How to know your employees are at risk of burnout
At a time when job satisfaction is at an all-time low, it is incumbent upon you and other leaders in your organization to spot the signs of burnout when you see them. By quickly identifying burnout, you can address it before it gets out of control, thereby minimizing any potential damage to your workforce and bottom line. The more you learn about burnout, the easier it is to quell and outright prevent it.
You can identify employee burnout through the following seven signals:
You notice signs of stress and anxiety
Research shows that stress and burnout are inextricably linked. It makes sense; if you were asked to cram 80 hours of work into a 40-hour workweek or lose your job, the resulting stress and anxiety would likely lead to disillusionment and disengagement. You might even decide it’s better to call it quits and start looking for another job.
Take action if you see an employee who’s antsy about getting their work done on time or complains about the pressure of an unmanageable workload. Don’t assume those feelings will pass. Instead, ask why they feel that way. Listen to their response and devise an action plan to assuage those feelings by working with them or their manager to go over their performance goals and lighten their workload.
You notice signs of exhaustion
A telltale sign of burnout is employee exhaustion, which can be both physical and mental.
Physical exhaustion is the easier of the two to spot. There are extreme cases, like falling asleep at their desk, as well as more subtle ones, such as calling out sick more often. Regardless, if you see a person physically struggling due to the demands of their work, something needs to change.
Emotional exhaustion is equally prevalent yet often much harder to identify. For decades, the corporate world has stigmatized mental health issues to the point that people feel the need to hide their struggles. However, mental health issues don’t go away on their own and, without addressing them, they may simply get worse.
If you notice a normally talkative employee has fallen silent, don’t assume they’re all right. If their productivity has slipped, don’t assume they no longer care. See the signs for what they are, and reach out to these individuals.
You notice increased irritability
When burnout takes root, optimism about the job can sour, and tempers may flare. If a team member who is usually easy-going starts showing signs of anger, it may stem from an ongoing decline in their job satisfaction.
If an employee’s irritable, they likely have grievances about how they’ve been treated by a manager, a team member or the organization at large. Complaints might not have a neat and simple solution, but it’s a leader’s responsibility to address any misgivings head-on.
Your HR team can be invaluable in managing employee frustration, especially if you notice it’s trending across your organization. Take time during your next all-company meeting or town hall to clear the air, encourage people to share their feedback openly and reiterate your commitment to their health and happiness.
The quality of their work decreases
Perhaps the easiest way to identify employee burnout is to note when individuals or teams experience a dip in work quality.
If you observe a drop in the quality of someone’s work, it’s best not to jump to conclusions. Everyone has an off day or even an off week, but something's likely amiss if that trend continues over weeks or months. Work with that individual or their manager to understand why they’re not meeting expectations. Come from a place of empathy, and don’t assume they’re simply phoning in their work.
You can realign expectations and develop an action plan to get things back on track by ascertaining why someone isn't thriving in their role. They may also have useful feedback you can use to improve their role and even the organization.
You notice they're choosing to be isolated
As a leader in your organization, you likely work as part of a larger team. Collaboration and teamwork are essential drivers of innovation and productivity, especially in today’s remote-first world. Without good group cohesion, it’s easy for conflict and miscommunication to arise.
When employees distance themselves from the overall culture of your organization, it’s a sign they may be unhappy, disengaged or both. If a team member chooses to skip meetings or not participate in company-wide events, it may be a sign that they want to create distance between themselves and others. If a person known to drive conversations at lunch suddenly starts eating alone at their desk, it’s worth checking in to make sure they’re doing all right.
You notice that they're not as productive
Poor productivity can stem from many things: a bad relationship, recent family drama or a sudden death, to name just a few. These emotional valleys are natural for any person. It’s not necessarily fair to assume a lull in productivity means someone’s burned out.
However, when you notice a drop in productivity across a larger sample size — say, an entire team or department — you know something's wrong. Staff burnout is a particularly dire problem, because it can torpedo your company goals.
The best way to combat corporate burnout is from the top down. As a leader, recognize that a company-wide case of burnout likely means your culture needs a drastic refresh. Organize an emergency strategy meeting with your team leads, and share what’s working well culturally and what needs improvement.
Once you have a plan, communicate your intent with the rest of your organization. You won’t be able to overhaul your company culture overnight, but by being candid and authentic with your people, you’ll build trust as you prepare for the hard work to come.
They begin calling out of work more often
Every employee has a right to take time off and recharge their batteries, especially when they’re sick or emotionally drained. But it's cause for concern when a person’s out-of-office alert is active more often than not.
If an employee takes a spontaneous sabbatical or leave of absence, it’s worth checking in to ensure everything is OK. Often, there will be a perfectly good reason behind the time away from work. But in cases where it’s obvious someone is burned out, it’s critical to understand why they’re feeling depleted so that you can improve their experience.
Employee burnout FAQ
What are the three levels of job burnout?
There are three levels of burnout you can track within your organization:
- 1. Physical exhaustion
- 2. Emotional ambivalence
- 3. Feelings of dejection
As burnout sets in, it tends to cause your people to feel drained due to stress or anxiety. After sustained exhaustion, these employees may become irritable, frustrated or outright ambivalent toward their work and the organization. At its worst, burnout leads to feelings of dejection and a lack of fulfillment.
How long does professional burnout last?
Professional burnout has no set end date. When people are subjected to unfair treatment, the only way to improve their experience is to address the problem.The biggest burnouts are ones that are ignored. If you notice employee burnout within a specific team or department, the onus is on you and other leaders to set an example and reject the burnout labor system of decades past.
How can you help employees who are already burned out?
Dealing with employee burnout starts with understanding what motivates your employees. What brought them to your company in the first place? What are their professional goals and aspirations? What keeps them returning to work each day (aside from the paycheck)?
An employee experience survey is a great way to solicit candid feedback about your organizational culture. Not only can you use these surveys to probe for burnout within teams, but you can also gather valuable insights to prevent it in the future.Take the feedback to heart and work with fellow managers to implement it within your teams. Pay special heed to the voices of your burned-out employees, as they likely speak for many others at your organization.
What are the benefits of helping burnt-out employees?
Burnout can be contagious, but so can the opposite. By engaging a previously burned-out employee, you won't just improve their experience but also build morale across your workplace.Addressing burnout also helps prevent disengagement and employee attrition. It's beneficial to the organization to retain its top talent. Show them you're committed to their health and well-being, and they'll pay that loyalty back.
Spot signs of burnout before they get out of control
Burnout won’t stop until leaders recognize its signs and causes. Thankfully, you have the power and means to identify burnout and address it before it becomes a problem. Take these warning signs to heart, and you can future-proof your organization while fostering an employee experience you can be proud of.