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The Early Warning Signs of Burnout at Work (And What to Do About Them)

Lakshmi Devan

Last Updated: 3 March 2023

In this article:

A cursory search on employee burnout revealed something I half expected: Most reviews on Glassdoor that warned against employee burnout also wrote about the prevalence of toxic work culture in an organization that doesn’t actively listen to employees. In today’s hustle culture of urgency, organizational leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place. You don’t want employees to burn out, yet you want to inspire better performance and drive results. 

Temporary solutions such as managing individual cases of burnout or providing “mental health days” to teams offer only a band-aid solution to a workplace issue with deeper underlying causes. In fact, stop-gap measures could do more harm than help. How employees are managed strongly influences burnout, and it can be kept at bay as long as your organization proactively focuses on what truly matters: your employees, and what they need to thrive within the organization, acting on employee feedback, and actively listening to your employees. 

In this article, you’ll learn how to identify burnout, what you can do to prevent it, and what it takes to build a high-performance culture that is also sustainable.

What is employee burnout?

“Burnout” is not a phrase millennials coined to take a break – it is a mental and physical collapse classified as a syndrome. The World Health Organization has declared burnout as an official occupational occurrence, often caused by chronic workplace stress. Asana looked at over 10,000 workers and found that at least 70% experienced burnout in 2021.

As employees witness the line between work and home blur – chronic fatigue and disregard for work sets in, followed by extreme anxiety, stress, and depression. This is burnout. Global movements such as the ‘Great Resignation’, ‘Great Re-Thinking’, and ‘Quiet Quitting’ are a testament to how serious this problem is and how urgently organizational leaders need to acknowledge and tackle it. 

What causes employee burnout?

To quote a recently published report:

Burnout is experienced by individuals, but the most powerful drivers of burnout are systemic organizational imbalances across job demands and job resources. “We need this done ASAP,” “Drop everything you are doing and reprioritize this new project,” or, “We need the entire team to push through to achieve the next round of funding.” 

Employee burnout stages

Jennifer Moss, in her book The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It, writes that employees experiencing burnout frequently cite unreasonable workload, the feeling of always being on-call, unfair treatment, low autonomy, and lack of social support. 

Employee burnout stages 2

1. Unmanageable workloads in a hybrid post-pandemic world

The increasingly blurring line between home and work, coupled with unreasonably high expectations and performance output are forcing employees to burnout and quit the workforce. Driving anxiety to record levels, a “Great Exhaustion” is expected to inflict global workforces by 2023, with 49% of the hybrid workforce stating they feel at least somewhat burned out.

2. Unreasonable deadlines

The concept of a deadline was designed to create eustress within the workforce – to give them a target. Fuelled by a culture of urgency, deadlines have morphed into events that make employees break into a cold sweat. During and post the pandemic, people are working earlier in the morning and deeper into the night. The short-term benefit of multiple tight deadlines might help your company meet its target, but leave your workforce, tired, exhausted, and burnt out in the long run. 

3. Low autonomy

It is a known fact that micromanagement is a costly style of managing employees, and it leads to employee distress, lower confidence, and a lack of innovative solutions. In addition, employees who feel they’re micromanaged are three times more likely to burnout. A Korn Ferry poll reports that the lack of autonomy—feeling micromanaged—is one of the top reasons burnt-out employees quit. 

4. Poor support from their manager

At a time when we are observing persistent burnout challenges around the world, a good manager can play the role of a psychological safety net for employees. A manager is every employee’s connection to the organization, and they have the power to control almost every aspect of an executive’s work - from deadlines to hours spent in meetings, or even when they get to take vacations.

Because executives want to be good soldiers, they have a tendency of sacrificing their own time and well-being for the business – leading to burnout. A manager has top-down and bottom-up visibility of the business to minimize unexpected targets, set clear employee expectations, and nip burnout in the bud.

5. Unfair treatment in the workplace

From bias, favoritism, and mistreatment to unfair compensation or corporate policies – one in four employees report experiencing high rates of toxic behavior at work. As per a McKinsey report, toxic workplace behavior has been ranked as the number one predictor of negative employee outcomes such as burnout, intent to leave, and attrition. 

What are the signs of employee burnout?

Employee burnout initiates a gradual, dark, and uncontrollable downward spiral in individual and business performance. There is a strong correlation between burnout, depression, and anxiety, and in high-pressure organizations, healthcare costs are 50% greater. As a psychological condition, burned-out employees show all the following signs:

1. Loss of confidence: 

Remote employees are often under pressure to demonstrate their work ethic and productivity. They tend to overcompensate by working longer hours, and soon, they burn out. What follows next is that their motivation dips, performance suffers, and naturally, confidence takes a hit. 

2. Disengagement and frequent slips:

An indifferent employee doesn’t care about work or results. They experience disinterest in work, disregard for meeting deadlines, and question the meaningfulness of their work. As a result, burnt-out employees are also prone to more errors, and miscalculations; displaying a carelessness that may have been previously absent.

3. Physical and mental illness:

Chronic stress is associated with insomnia, persistent anxiety, fatigue, and reduced immunity which naturally leads to illnesses. In the United States, a burnt-out workforce requires an additional $125 billion to $190 billion investment to manage the "psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees," the Harvard Business Review reported. "The true cost to the business can be far greater, thanks to low productivity across organizations, high turnover, and the loss of the most capable talent."

Even if your employee(s) show one or more signs, they may not be completely burned out, but they require intervention to prevent their condition from worsening. 

Signs of employee burnout

How does burnout affect your enterprise?

1. Burnout negatively impacts your workplace culture.

a. Burnout fuels a culture of fear

  1. Should your employees keep their devices signed in to work applications even on paid time off?

  2. Can their phone be silent when they go to sleep?

  3. Do they need to take their laptop out to dinner?

In a post-pandemic hybrid workforce, it is imperative to stave-off such anxieties. A high performance work-culture with a hire-fast, fire-fast approach often adds to these anxieties and they significantly impact an employee’s well-being and social interactions. Such organization-level challenges often find their origin in how the management team and leaders view productivity and efficiency.

Another important source of such anxieties in the lack of clarity on deadlines, targets, and expectations from their managers. For instance, Mckinsey reports that in the post-pandemic world, the one thing that burned-out employees have in common is leaders who have yet to get specific about the future of hybrid work

b. Lowers scope for innovation

You should expect sloppy and rushed work when you rush your employees from one project to the next. An urgent and reactive culture leaves no time for employees to press pause and deliver their best work or innovate. Your business may lose out on efficient, potentially cost and time-saving solutions that may have benefited multiple customers. The result? A poor customer experience - an outcome that isn’t favourable for any organization.

2. Burnout affects your talent pipeline.

a. Negatively impact your employer brand

Burnout is one of the top three reasons employees quit their jobs in the 2022 Deloitte study. The single negative of employee burnout overshadows good coworkers, employee benefits, and career growth. Those who leave after burning out chose not to recommend the organization despite a multitude of positives. Prospective employees refer to peer reviews frequently to gauge a company's culture, which could reduce the size of your accessible talent pool, spoil your reputation, and increase talent acquisition costs in the long run.

b. Higher turnover

A staff turnover and attrition rate well beyond the average for your industry is a leading sign of employee dissatisfaction. This results in expensive talent acquisition costs, losing time on training and re-training employees, and ultimately increasing cost-to-company.

How can burnout be managed effectively?

Unfortunately, in 2022, only 24% of employees feel their organization offers adequate support, compared to 49% in 2020. However, there is a solution. Employee burnout has more to do with how someone is managed than with effort or performance.

Find out if your employees are burning out with this 10-point checklist:

  1. Are your managers mindful of how your employees feel?
  2. Are you actively listening to your employees?
  3. Have you closed the feedback loop on employee feedback by fixing employee experience gaps?
  4. Are enterprise-wide projects setting realistic expectations from employees?
  5. Does the senior leadership demonstrate a healthy work-life harmony?
  6. Is dialogue and feedback from employees encouraged?
  7. Is your employee attrition rate healthy for your industry?
  8. Has any team recently faced multiple resignations?
  9. Can you collect and analyze your employees' insights in real-time?
  10. Are you promoting a culture of well-being?

Your enterprise will inevitably have to overcome unique challenges in the new work paradigm with remote-first digital architecture.

Annual or quarterly surveys are insufficient, and uni-directional surveys often provide false positives. Is there a way to automate this checklist and identify employee burnout before it impacts your team?

Employee burnout

Modern challenges cannot be solved using yesterday’s solutions.

As we enter a new World of Work, it has become imperative that organizations focus on the employee pulse in real-time to identify and act on the ‘listening’ gaps that hamper time and stress management, autonomy, and expectations. In the future, only organizations with a reliable on-ground listening tool and a direct voice channel for employees will be able to ensure employee wellness, business continuity, and prosperity.

Managers and immediate leadership play a significant role in proactively identifying signs of burnout in an employee. They are the first to notice careless errors, tardiness, or poor performances, and are well-positioned to identify disinterest, anxiety, and depression.

Amber by inFeedo enables managers to be empathetic towards at-risk employees. She implements an early warning system that continuously tracks employee behaviour, to identify disengagement & alerts the right manager with automated sentiment analysis. Amber also helps senior management understand & compare different team leader strategies based on employee engagement scores – to make enterprise-level changes to tackle burnout.

Amber by inFeedo has collaborated with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive helps your employees press the pause button and reset. With Thrive’s intelligence and Amber’s AI-powered background, you can:

  • Leverage Amber’s Anonymous Bat feature as a safe haven for employees who want to discuss it with management but fear repercussions.
  • Help your employees destress in just 60 seconds, using guided content experience
  • Check your organization’s real-time burnout prediction pulse and uncover the true employee sentiment.
  • Develop a framework that will help you understand what's causing stress & apply AI-driven suggestions to avoid them.

“We had been bought into the delusion that burnout is the price we pay for success” – Ariana Huffington, founder of Huffington Post and Thrive. It is time to change this. As a leader, you need to spend one-on-one time with the employees who need it the most through real-time insights. Every company is a living, breathing, and moving entity because of its employees.

Every company has a culture. And every company reaches an inflexion point where its culture evolves. Take proactive oversight, listen actively to your employees – they tell you when they start observing the signs – and save your employees from burning out. 

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