Burnout affects organisations of all sizes. We can get so caught up in our everyday tasks that we miss the signs of burnout until it's too late.
Work-life balance, long hours, and negative work environments can all have an impact. When this happens, it can have serious and long-lasting consequences. These consequences impact the individual, your team members, and your entire organization.
We've already explored the signs of burnout in SME owners, but it's equally important to watch out for employee burnout.
Understanding stress and employee burnout
'Stress' is a word we use all the time.
An employee claiming to be stressed may not be anything to worry about immediately. Many people experience stress in the short term. However, they can maintain a clear state of mind and handle the situation. After that, they can continue with their lives.
Burnout is stress magnified. Stress endured over a long period can cause emotional exhaustion in your employees. This can lead to long term mental health issues.
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s rarely due to one cause. Usually, burnout is the result of a combination of negative work factors that the employee endures over a prolonged period.
The World Health Organization has listed burnout as a recognized syndrome since 2019. Employees who report feeling burned out can suffer from chronic fatigue. This can lead to reduced job satisfaction and even physical symptoms. The severity of the symptoms depends on the levels of burnout.
Below, we explore five factors that can lead to employee burnout:
1. Being in a role that is ill-suited to the individual
We work best when we play to our strengths, and when we are doing work we enjoy.
An employee won't be able to sustain a job that is wrong for them. It takes too much stamina to keep going. Problems will present themselves and the pressures and strains will seem too great.
Before long, the employee will be looking for a role that is less stressful and more rewarding to them.
Perfectionism is often touted as a positive.
But employees engaging in perfectionism put themselves under considerable strain. They expect too much of themselves. They expect to get everything right immediately, and they are unforgiving when they make mistakes.
If they don't achieve perfection, they harshly criticize themselves. This can lead to high levels of stress in the long run.
3. Being given unrealistic objectives, goals or demands
Your employees are only human. They can only do what is realistic.
Giving employees objectives that are outside of their abilities can work against you. They will exhaust themselves trying to reach these goals, only to constantly fall short. The huge loss of motivation caused by unrealistic expectations can be terrible for mental wellbeing.
4. Constantly feeling incompetent
This leads on from our previous point. Your employees don’t want to just turn up to work, do their hours and get paid. They want to contribute, and they want to feel like they’re proficient at their job.
People may feel stressed if they don't meet their expectations or make progress quickly enough. This stress can become worse over time.
5. Not receiving any reward or recognition
It’s not that your employees want constant positive affirmation. But when they have worked hard on a task or achieved incredible results, they deserve to be given some recognition. Receiving little to no recognition or reward will show your employees they aren’t respected or valued.
Effects of employee burnout
So what is the actual impact of burnout on the employee, their colleagues and your organisation?
For the employee, burnout can result in:
- Weight gain or weight loss due to poor diet
- Anxiety and depression
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- A lowered immune system, due to constantly elevated stress levels
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease
For the employee’s team, burnout can result in:
- Poor cooperation from the employee, due to apathy or disengagement
- Increased levels of conflict, as the employee is always on edge
- Decreased communication
- Poor levels of morale
For the organisation, burnout can result in:
- A loss of productivity
- Increased absenteeism
- Rudeness to other members of staff and customers or clients
- Poor decision making
- Increased error rates
- Damage to the company culture and brand (which will affect recruitment and retention efforts)
- Recklessness with regard to safety procedures and policies, results in more accidents.
How to spot employee burnout
Employee burnout is a serious concern and one you will want to eliminate as soon as possible.
To prevent burnout, you must recognize the early warning signs. These signs can indicate an employee is experiencing burnout or is about to experience it. Keep an eye out for the following red flags:
The employee is no longer excited by their work. In fact, they appear constantly exhausted. Burnout can take a physical toll and, on top of that, the employee will likely not be sleeping well.
2. An increased number of mistakes
Your once diligent, cautious employee is now letting more and more errors slip through his or her net. A few mistakes are nothing to be overly worried about. But if they are making far more than they used to, this is something to note.
Employees with burnout will be tired. They’ll also be dreading work on some level.
Burnout can have physical impacts on people. Therefore, they may call in sick more often. They could also make excuses to turn up to work late or leave early.
4. A change in demeanour
If your once extroverted, positive employee is now visibly downbeat, introverted or reserved, this is a sign something is wrong.
Employees with burnout are no longer passionate about their work, and they often verbalize this.
6. Increased sensitivity to feedback
How does your employee react to constructive criticism? If they are increasingly irritable or disinclined to take your feedback on board, this is a sign they might feel overwhelmed. It could also mean they already have too much on their plate.
7. A decrease in productivity and quality of work
Employees who are burnt out cannot perform as well as they used to, even if they try. They’re simply worn out, and this will show in their work, especially if time pressure is applied.
Preventing employee burnout
Below are a few ways companies can better support employees to prevent burnout and reduce stress.
Organizing your company in a few ways can dramatically change your company culture and employee experience. This can lead to higher engagement, morale, and productivity.
Promote a culture that is open and understanding of stress
Introduce training to help managers and employees become more familiar with the signs and symptoms of burnout. Encourage employees to discuss their experiences and to ask for help when they need it.
Communication can reduce the stigma attached to stress. This can also increase the chances of early detection of burnout.
Have regular check-ins with employees
Check-ins foster a closer bond between employees and managers. This strengthens trust, making employees feel comfortable to reach out for help when needed.
Line managers should ask how employees are coping, opening the lines of communication.
Hold resilience workshops that explore coping skills and strategies
This training will help your employees become more resilient and knowledgeable about stress. They will understand what triggers it and how to prevent burnout.
You could also carry out well-being assessments to identify areas of the business that are at risk for burnout. This will help you predict burnout before it occurs.
Ask employees what they need
This feedback is invaluable. Only they will know what elements have compounded to result in the current problem.
Identify the source of the issues and their impacts on your employee. Create an action plan to address the problem. You will then be equipped to avoid the problem recurring in the future.
Carry out personal resilience audits
Personal resilience audits can help to get a good picture of employee strengths and weaknesses.
These audits will help managers when it comes to assigning tasks. Companies will then have the best people suited to the job carrying out the task.
When employees are playing to their strengths, they won’t feel under strain. Furthermore, training can be given to help the employee develop their weaknesses.
About the Author
Carolyn Nevitte is HR Director at People Insight. People Insight helps organisations measure and improve the employee experience through employee surveys, expert consulting and 360-degree feedback.
This article was originally written Oct 2019. It has been rewritten for clarity.