What is workplace burnout, and how do you avoid it?

Workplace burnout isn’t anything new, but it is becoming more widely recognized, particularly in the wake of the global pandemic. With many employees now working at least part of the time from home, it’s more important for companies to encourage a good work-life balance, and keep burnout on the backbench.

Workplace burnout
What is job burnout?

What is job burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a kind of emotional exhaustion resulting from chronic workplace stress. Job burnout has 3 main symptoms:

  • Lack of energy or exhaustion

  • Feeling negative or cynical about work

  • Lack of motivation

But while these symptoms help us categorize burnout, they don’t tell us much about how burnout feels. Like other forms of stress, burnout can look different for different people. But left unaddressed, even milder symptoms could have significant consequences on a person’s long-term mental and physical health.

These are just some of the potential health problems caused by work burnout:

  • Fatigue

  • Prolonged sadness or anger

  • Alcohol or substance abuses

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Weakened immune system

In Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 Report, 44% of employees worldwide reported feeling daily stress, while 40% said they felt daily worry, 23% experienced daily sadness and 21% felt daily anger.

Being stressed and unhappy at work doesn’t just affect individual physical and mental health, but can also have knock-on effects for other employees and companies as a whole. With unhappy and unmotivated employees directly linked to absenteeism, higher turnover and accidents at work, it’s in the best interest of both employees and organizations to be able to identify and address workplace burnout, to help support a happy and motivated workforce.

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Why is burnout happening?

Why is burnout happening?

Work-related stress is the most common cause of stress in the UK, with 79% of people saying they frequently feel stressed by work. This is also true in the USA, with 40% of workers admitting to experiencing office stress and 25% saying work is the biggest source of stress in their lives. But what exactly is the cause of this stress?

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) names the most common causes of work-related stress to be: too much or too little work, feeling out of control, conflicting priorities and major internal changes. However, new working from home cultures have brought even more potential factors, including feelings of isolation and financial concerns. And while working remotely has improved work-life balance for some, boundary blur has made it difficult for others to switch off from work at the end of the day.

In fact, work-related stress has increased by 65% since the start of the global pandemic, making it more important than ever for managers and leaders to understand the causes of burnout, and how it can be avoided.

These were the most common causes of stress at work in the UK in 2021:

  • Volume of work

  • Non-work factors – relationships and family, for example

  • Management style

  • Health issues

  • Covid-related anxiety

  • Challenges related to homeworking

  • Poor work-life balance because of home working

  • Pressure to meet targets and deadlines

What are the signs of burnout at work?

What are the signs of burnout at work?

Like any problem, burnout can be most effectively dealt with when caught early. While stress and mental burnout can manifest differently for everyone, there are some common signs of burnout managers and leaders can look out for:

Behavioral changes

Noticeable changes to employee behavior in the workplace could point to distress either as a result of work, or something outside the workplace. Either way, if changes in behavior, like withdrawing from responsibilities, depression, irritability or actively avoiding important tasks are becoming noticeable at work, there’s a good chance that this employee is suffering from some form of stress.

Lack of concentration

Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done, or missing deadlines altogether is another potential warning sign of burnout. Employees who are usually on the ball and dedicated, who seem suddenly unmotivated or distracted, are highly likely to be experiencing emotional burnout.

Cynicism and negativity

Expression of negativity or cynicism that seem out of character for that employee could be an early sign of workplace burnout. Feelings of disillusionment with their role or the company as a whole could be a result of recent internal changes. But they could also be a sign of longer-term frustrations. It’s important for leaders and managers to respond to expressions of negativity empathetically and with an open mind, seeking to understand the underlying causes rather than judging the employee.

Becoming socially withdrawn

Withdrawing from social contact is a classic sign of stress. Employees who are feeling emotionally exhausted may feel unable to take in their regular meetings or attend social events. For hybrid or remote workers, social withdrawal can be harder to spot, but it never hurts to check in if communications have felt more strained or less easy to set up than normal.

Sickness or absence

Instances of sickness or absence that seem unusual or out of character could be a sign of employee burnout. Erratic or last-minute absences, as well as repeated sickness with vague symptoms should both be enquired about by managers with sensitivity and without judgment.

How to prevent burnout in the workplace

How to prevent burnout in the workplace

While stress in the workplace is sometimes unavoidable, there are some simple processes managers and leaders can put in place to help nip workplace stress in the bud and prevent it turning into burnout.

Here are 5 simple steps to help prevent burnout:

1. Manage workloads

According to HSE, workload pressures are the most common cause of work-related stress. But simple tools, like time tracking or electronic planning software, can easily help by creating greater visibility around workloads, and helping managers set clear priorities for jobs to be done.

It’s also important to recognize where more complicated tasks may take longer than initially planned for. Creating space for flexibility and regular breaks can help relieve the pressure of tight deadlines, and give employees the space they need to be at their most productive.

2. Encourage team relationships

It only makes sense that employees feel happier and more able to reach out for support when they have good working relationships with their colleagues and managers.

Making time in your employees’ weekly schedules for team building and collaborative working can be a great way to encourage a positive working culture, build trust and create an environment where problems can be communicated and solved quickly, rather than causing stress for team members.

3. Check in regularly

Providing employees with regular 121 meetings will help them feel supported, even if they don’t always have something to offload. Weekly or bi-weekly check-ins shouldn’t only be used to help managers keep a track of work in progress, but also to give employees a space where they can raise any concerns, including workload pressures or issues around conflict in the workplace.

Manager relationships should always be built on regular communication. This is especially important for managing remote or hybrid workers, who might not have other opportunities to raise issues or just offload.

4. Value employee opinions

Encouraging employee voice is a critical part of helping employees feel valued in the workplace. But the benefits don’t stop with the employee. As research by Salesforce shows, employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.

It’s also important to be transparent with employees when it comes to business changes, and provide opportunities for them to get involved with decision-making. This will encourage open and honest opinions, giving managers and leaders the insights they need to curate a positive culture that works for everyone.

5. Promote work-life balance

In today’s fast-paced working world, it’s more important than ever for businesses to prioritize employee wellbeing as a way of promoting work-life balance and preventing burnout. There’s no one-size-fits-all for this. It will look different depending on the nature of your business and the structure of your teams – whether they're office-based, hybrid or fully remote will play a huge role in the types of wellbeing programs you’re able to set up.

Examples of employee wellness programs might include introducing flexible working hours, financial education, reward schemes to celebrate employee successes, access to fitness facilities and monthly de-stress activities, like yoga retreats and team-building days. All these can help employees decompress as well as building your workplace community.

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