Employee burnout is kind of like a leaky faucet, insidiously draining both employees and businesses.
Job burnout leads employees to seek out new jobs, and it can even put a damper on personal relationships that should be uplifting. It can cost companies up to $190 billion a year on healthcare costs. Plus, according to Forbes, companies could be losing up to 34% of every burned-out employee’s annual salary due to disengagement and low productivity.
In short, failing to take proactive action to identify and treat burnout is like letting all those leaky faucets drip, drip, drip away, only taking action when an unmanageable water bill lands on your desk.
In his book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, Sam Keen offers this description of burnout:
“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administering stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.”
Let’s put zombies aside and get real. Employees certainly aren’t zombies or leaky faucets. They are your most important resources, the assets that make or break all your company goals.
Are you ready to learn how to spot, prevent, and treat burnout for the good of your employees and your business? Read on.
Table of Contents
What Is Employee Burnout?
Employee burnout is the deterioration of motivation and commitment to a job, mission, or task.
The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) says:
“People experiencing burn-out typically feel exhaustion but are also likely to feel detached or cynical about their job. They often perform less well at work, putting their patients at risk.”
They’ve even technically classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”
All employees, even (and maybe especially) top performers can experience burnout. Even the owners of the businesses themselves, the people who wrote the company vision statement, can experience burnout.
Burnout can go unnoticed by team members, bosses, and possibly even the affected individuals themselves. So anchored in feelings and emotions, this occupational phenomenon can be hard to recognize and confront. The best way to identify it is to know its common signs, symptoms, and triggers.
The Signs & Symptoms Of Employee Burnout
None of these signs of employee burnout definitively confirm burnout, but they are all good things to watch out for. You know your employees. Just remember that one of the clearest symptoms of burnout is a major shift in behavior.
If employees suddenly stop showing up at work, using more sick time off than average, or even just showing up late, it could be a sign that they’ve reached a point of burnout.
Missed deadlines could be a sign that someone is overwhelmed, overworked, or just overdoing work in general.
Employee turnover, according to Gallup, can cost companies millions, and it’s also a sign of burnout. If employees began departing your company at higher rates than normal, it could indicate an underlying issue.
If you notice fatigue in yourself or sluggishness in your employees, burnout could be the cause. People might be drinking more caffeine than usual or complaining of headaches and general listlessness.
No Learning Or Change
If employees aren’t getting training or developing, their work can become monotonous. They have nothing to look forward to and may feel trapped.
You might be burned out if you find yourself daydreaming. Others may be burned out if they’re asking you to repeat things a hundred times.
Low Employee Engagement
If employees stop sharing ideas or lack excitement about accomplishments and victories, burnout might be the culprit.
Listen for an increase in complaints and cynical remarks. Also, pay attention to how people respond if you ask them to take on additional work. If they are slow to agree or pepper their response with “maybes” and “mights,” it could be a sign that they don’t want to take on more work and just don’t know how to say “no.”
Poor posture, crossed arms, palms pressed on foreheads as though in pain…this body language doesn’t always mean burnout, but it could be a sign, especially in people exhibiting other symptoms.
What Are The Causes Of Employee Burnout?
This is one of burnout’s unexpected warning signs and causes. Hard work can be a good thing, but it can also lead to burnout if it’s paired with unsustainable and unmanageable workload and time pressures. Anyone who thinks it’s impossible to do the amount of work they need to do in a set timeframe will become overwhelmed.
If employees never receive adequate recognition, they may start wondering why they do what they do every day.
Employees love to share their ideas and opinions. If they don’t get a chance to do so, they may feel they lack influence and a true place in the organization.
If employees lack stimulating goals, they might forget why they’re going to work. Eventually, that leads to a complete lack of motivation to do anything at all. Boredom and detachment from the company mission soon follow.
Lack Of Support
Employees need work friends, a strong team, inspiring leadership, clear communication, and the right tools and technologies to do their best work. If they don’t have the right tools, they may feel like they can’t accomplish anything and grow frustrated.
Injustice, Discrimination, And Unfairness
When treated unfairly, many employees start asking: “What’s the point?” Asking that question day after day creates a shortcut straight to burnout.
Lack Of Role Clarity And Direction
If employees have no clear job description and no clear advancement opportunities, they might struggle to figure out what they should even be doing. They could grow to believe their work is pointless and then disengage.
Failure Or Setback
Employees who tried an initiative that didn’t pan out or maybe got passed over for a promotion might lose all motivation to keep going.
Poor Workplace Culture
If you lack a strong overall culture of engagement or support, it could manifest in the behavior of individual employees.
Poor Work Environment
Workplace stress runs rampant when employees are forced into environments that don’t support or inspire them to do their best work.
Personal And External Causes
A distressing event, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can cause people to question their priorities and possibly even disengage from things they used to care about, including work. This is also true of events that affect only the employee, such as the loss of a loved one.
Lack Of Family And Friend Support
If employees are dealing with personal issues, but they lack a strong support network, they may feel too preoccupied and overwhelmed to put their all into work.
If employees don’t personally value the things your company does, it could grow hard for them to maintain commitment in the long run.
No Free Time
Overwork and long hours don’t stay neatly contained at work. These things can overflow into employees’ personal lives, making them feel as though they have absolutely no time of their own and no personal life.
If employees have poor work-life balance, they might feel forced to choose between their families and work. Most people driven to this will choose family and detach from work.
Often linked to mental health issues, perfectionism can also drive people to burnout. Why bother doing it at all if it can’t be perfect?
A pessimistic disposition could contribute to the negative thought patterns that fuel burnout. When you feel powerless and imagine nothing matters, motivation will be hard to find.
How To Prevent, Treat, And Cure Employee Burnout
So by now, you’ve probably identified a few burned-out employees, but don’t worry. The prognosis isn’t as grim as you might think. Burnout is not an irreversible condition, and there are plenty of ways you can try to treat it and, with hope, cure it.
1) Host Team-Building Events
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Work friendships have been linked with the kind of engagement that wards off burnout. By hosting a team-building activity, you can help drained employees reconnect with friends and maybe even make new ones. Not only is this fun, but it also reconnects employees with an overarching purpose and will maybe even rekindle some of their old motivation.
2) Offer Half-Day Fridays
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Something as simple as a half-day Friday can be just the kind of treat people need to get through the week. But this burnout treatment isn’t just about the time; it’s about showing employees you see them as more than just producers who must be chained to their desks for set hours. It shows you value them and trust them, and that, in addition to some extra time off, goes a long way for rejuvenating a burned-out employee.
SnackNation tip: On that half-day, be sure to follow an important retention takeaway: Let your employees be their true selves at work.
3) Empower Employees To Recognize Each Other
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: A little employee engagement goes far to boost morale, even among burned-out employees who’ve forgotten why they do what they do. Just hearing that their work is important, valuable, and excellent can be enough to inspire employees to keep on doing that work.
4) Listen To Them
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: No prodding. No awkwardness. Just a real conversation. Ask them how they’re feeling. Involve them in your decision-making. All this makes any burned out employee feel like a human, like a human not only valued for their output but also for their opinions and life experiences. This open-door policy is the perfect way to create a culture of listening that ensures employees feel heard.
- Start an employee assistance program to give employees access to mental health professionals to listen to them as well.
- Follow one of our favorite employee satisfaction tips and survey your employees.
5) When In Doubt, Give Out High-Quality Swag
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Getting gifts just feels good. Use this idea in conjunction with other burnout treatments to make employees feel special enough to dust off the burnout.
6) Let Employees Give Feedback
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: When you let employees provide feedback, you might learn exactly why they’re burned out, and therefore, what you need to do to reduce the burnout. Beyond that, employees will love sharing their ideas, their good ideas. Maybe they’ve just been waiting for this opportunity to speak their mind.
7) Give Employees A Spending Card Or Monthly Allowance
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: This idea has an impact not only because of what it is, but also because of what it enables employees to do. Whether they put their allowance toward the training they need to reinvigorate their work or simply purchase something that makes them happy, employees will always appreciate receiving this little boost.
8) Automate Recurring Employee Engagement Activities
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Any amount of time you can dedicate to employee engagement will help out employees feeling burned out or underappreciated. Engagement activities can reconnect employees to one another and also to company missions, inspiring them to feel, once again, that motivation and passion for work they’ve been missing.
9) Delegate Tasks Efficiently
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: When you’re addressing employee burnout, always consider the possibility that it may not be something they can correct. You might actually have to work your delegation magic to take some things off their plate. For example, consider tasks they’re taking on that aren’t recorded in their official job description. Work with the employee to find ways to delegate and redistribute tasks that are pushing the employee to burnout. So really, the bottom line for this intervention: Don’t just focus on how the employee can change; focus on what you can change as well.
10) Offer Wellness Activities
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: An hour or two of shared mindfulness with co-workers can boost an employee’s sense of well-being, connection to a mission, and vigor to show up at work. It can also help employees clear their heads and refocus on what’s truly important.
11) Let Them Enjoy Some Time Outside The Office
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: When a given employee has taken their tenth sick day in a month or two, it’s definitely time to start worrying about your retention numbers. What can you do when you see this major warning sign? Give them some time outside the office. It might not work every time, but a little time away might just give some people the energy boost they need to come back to work with a renewed sense of excitement.
- City Brew Tours
- Take a farm tour where you can experience the sights of an American staple
- Offer an alternative workspace such as a co-working space or hotel day pass
12) Integrate An Employee Engagement Software
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Engaging employees takes constant attention, and we get it, you’re busy. By using a tool or software for employee engagement, you take some of the burden off yourself and your time. Keep employees involved and in the know with employee engagement software.
13) Send Them An Employee Care Package
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Some burned-out employees just want to know that you care about them, that their hard work is seen and appreciated. A good employee care package sends exactly that message. Carefully selected items have the ability to show how much you care about them and value them.
14) Appoint A Culture Committee
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: This kind of committee will be structured to prevent and also to root out the common symptoms and triggers of burnout, including low employee recognition and engagement. A culture committee takes some of the burden of monitoring employee engagement off of managers and weaves it into the fabric of company culture.
15) Create Burnout-Busting Systems Using Robust Tools
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Burnout is a chronic condition, often systemic. To root it out not just on a case-by-case basis but also on a holistic basis, the infrastructure of your company must be designed to work against it. Luckily, there are software and tools that help you build the kind of company structure that burnout rolls right off of.
16) Let Them Take Mental Health Days
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Burnout often strikes when employees feel they just can’t face another day. This idea allows them to avoid that day. When they’re allowed to spend the day rejuvenating and regrouping, they might just find that the next day doesn’t seem as daunting as it once did.
17) Educate Your Team On Burnout Warning Signs
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: When people at multiple levels can spot burnout and launch interventions, the chances that someone will get the help they need to go up considerably. By teaching and communicating burnout within your company, you ensure that help can come on an individual and peer-to-peer level as well as on a management level. It might be less jarring and uncomfortable for an employee to admit and openly discuss burnout with a work friend instead of the big boss.
18) Let Them Know It’s Okay To Make Mistakes
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Sometimes, employees experience burnout because they’re not doing enough of what they love. The work has grown stale, repetitive, and routine. By giving them carte blanche to make a few mistakes, you’re also encouraging them to pursue new projects and ideas that actually get them excited. It could be enough for them to feel that love of the job once more. If and when employees actually make mistakes in their pursuit of higher goals, use those moments to promote learning and growth.
19) Give Them Opportunities To Learn From Other Departments
How this idea prevents/cures burnout: Learning something new has a way of reenergizing people. By launching a cross-training initiative between departments at your company, you’re providing the learning and development people crave while also fostering opportunities for deeper collaboration. Plus, there might be a few cases where a burned-out employee really has outgrown their current position and wants something new. This intervention could introduce them to their dream role in a different department, keeping them within the company at least.
SnackNation tip: You can also consider trying team communication training.
People Also Ask These Questions About Employee Burnout
Q: How can I avoid employee burnout?
- A: You can avoid employee burnout by taking proactive preventative measures, such as hosting team-building events and communicating about the signs and symptoms of burnout. Find more ideas for preventing and treating burnout in this post.
Q: How do you identify employee burnout?
- A: You can identify employee burnout by watching its most common signs and symptoms, including displaying low energy or missing deadlines.
Q: How do you measure employee burnout?
- A: You can measure employee burnout by having direct managers provide educated estimates, but also by fielding an anonymous survey that leads the burned-out employees themselves to confidentially report on their own burnout estimates.
Q: How can companies deal with employee burnout?
- A: Companies can deal with employee burnout by taking corrective measures once it has been identified. For example, companies might send care packages, provide mental health days, host wellness events and activities, or try one of these other ideas.