How to Spot Employee Burnout and Offer Support

How to Spot Employee Burnout and Offer Support

Carolyn Nevitte of​ People Insight explores how to spot if your staff are burnt out and what you can do to help employees who are disillusioned with their work

By Carolyn Nevitte

Burnout affects organisations of all sizes. While we’re carried away with the day-to-day functions of our jobs, it can be easy to overlook the signs of burnout until it’s too late. Unfortunately, when this happens, the results can be serious and long-lasting for the individual, your team and your organisation as a whole. 

We've already explored the signs of burnout in SME owners, but it's equally important to watch out for employee burnout. Here's an in-depth guide on spotting employee burnout and how to prevent it. 

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 get stressed in the short-term, but they can keep a level head, deal with the situation and move on. Burnout is stress magnified. It is stress endured over a long period that seems insurmountable to the employee.

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. 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. If an employee is doing a job that is completely wrong for them, they won’t have the stamina to continue for long. 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 intrinsically rewarding to them.

2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is often touted as a positive. But employees who are prone to 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 fall short of perfect, they beat themselves up mentally, and this can take a toll on stress levels over the long-term.

3. Being given unrealistic objectives, goals or demands

Your employees are only human. They can only do what is realistic. If you give your employees objectives or demands out of the scope of their ability, they will wear themselves out trying to achieve them, only to constantly fail. The demotivating effects of unrealistic expectations are 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. If they’re constantly falling short of their expectations or they aren’t progressing at a pace they like, this will compound their problems and lead to stress.

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:

  1. Insomnia
  2. Weight gain or weight loss due to poor diet
  3. Anxiety and depression
  4. Alcohol or drug abuse
  5. A lowered immune system, due to constantly elevated stress levels
  6. High blood pressure
  7. Increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease

For the employee’s team, burnout can result in:

  1. Poor cooperation from the employee, due to apathy or disengagement
  2. Increased levels of conflict, as the employee is always on edge
  3. Decreased communication
  4. Poor levels of morale

For the organisation, burnout can result in:

  1. A loss of productivity
  2. Increased absenteeism
  3. Rudeness to other members of staff and customers or clients
  4. Poor decision making
  5. Increased error rates
  6. Damage to the company culture and brand (which will affect recruitment and retention efforts)
  7. Recklessness with regards to safety procedures and policies, resulting 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. But to do that, you need to recognize the early warning signs that an employee is experiencing (or will soon experience) burnout. Keep an eye out for the following red flags:

    1. Exhaustion

    The employee is no longer invigorated 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.

    3. Absenteeism

    Employees with burnout will be tired. They’ll also be dreading work on some level. So whether or not they are physically sick (and they might be, considering how burnout can impact them physically), they will 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.

    5. Cynicism

    Employees with burnout are no longer passionate or enthusiastic 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 past caring.  It could also mean they already have too much on their plate.

    7. A decrease in productivity and quality of work

    If an employee is burnt out, they’re not going to be able to perform to the level they once did, even if they want to. They’re simply worn out and this will show in their work.

    What to do about employee burnout

    Below are a few ways companies can better support employees with burnout. With a few organisational changes, you can make all the difference to your company culture and employee experience, result in increased levels of engagement, morale and productivity.

    1. Promote a culture that is open and understanding about 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 like this will reduce the stigma associated with stress and it will increase the odds of the early detection of burnout.

    2. Have regular check-ins with employees. Check-ins help to create a closer and more trusting employee-manager relationship that will encourage employees to speak up when they need help. Line managers should ask how employees are coping, opening the lines of communication.

    3. Hold resilience workshops that explore coping skills and strategies. This training will make everyone in your company more resilient and more aware of stress, what prompts it and what can be done to alleviate burnout. You can also carry out and wellbeing assessments that can help pinpoint areas of the business that are at risk for burnout, which will help you predict burnout before it occurs.

    4. Ask employees what they need. This feedback is invaluable. Only they will know what elements have compounded to result in the current problem. Once you have a clear idea of where the issues began and how they affected your employee, you can start to draw up an action plan on how to turn the problem around. You will also be equipped to avoid the problem recurring in the future.

    5. Carry out personal resilience audits 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 and the employee won’t feel under strain, as they are playing to their strengths. Furthermore, training can be given to help the employee develop their weaknesses.

    About the Author

    Carolyn Nevitte is HR Director at People Insight, a company that helps organisations measure and improve the employee experience through employee surveys, expert consulting and 360-degree feedback.