Recent years have put a notable emphasis on employee mental health, employee burnout and work-life balance. Employers today are more focused on morale, the well-being of their teams, and maintaining sustainable workloads than ever before. They have to be— workers actively seek these things out.
In many ways, it’s a fantastic time to be an employee. Pre-pandemic, the prevalence of overwork made it an expectation. In some instances, workers even bragged about leaving the office last and wore their burnout as a badge of honor— a warped relationship to stress driven by employers who rewarded this behavior. I’m sure that some corporate leaders still look at exhaustion and employee burnout as signs of dedication, but I would venture to say that the stereotypical “top employee” is no longer the one who works the longest hours, but the one who adds the most value.
Thank goodness for the pandemic-driven paradigm shift that taught companies the number of hours people work is not what makes their work valuable. That time away from the job is necessary for sustained employee engagement. That being overworked is not the same as being honorable. That a person working in their own space, on their own clock can be just as productive as an in-office worker, if not more. And, that a repetitive cycle of commute-office-commute-sleep is not the solitary definition of building a great career.
Does this mean workers are relieved of chronic workplace stress and burnout? Unfortunately not. Not by a long shot.
According to recent data about workplace stress, 56% of US workers in a corporate or government position feel at least somewhat burned out. Even more distressing is that 43% of Millennials and 44% of Gen Z workers have recently left a job as a direct result of burnout. So, while employee burnout is still prevalent, employers are better equipped than ever to deal with it, because we know more.
We’re quick to blame the employer when we hear statistics like the ones above. The old churn-and-burn workplace culture that congratulated overtime and frowned upon healthy boundaries taught us that today’s burned-out employees are likely victims of toxic management or an overbearing work environment.
While we would be right in some cases, it’s not that clean-cut.
Employees, especially ambitious employees, tend to ignore signals that they are tired, stressed, or mentally strained. They may even go as far as consciously hiding these signals from superiors and human resources in an effort to look capable of dealing with heavy workloads and more responsibility (i.e. a good candidate for a promotion).
Especially when the reasons for stress are personal, not work-related. It’s difficult to quantify and relay a feeling of overwhelm at work. We’re taught to keep our private and professional lives separate, but stress doesn’t believe in these boundaries. Decades of corporate norms have also told us that taking time to “deal” with personal stresses can easily be labeled as poor work ethic and absenteeism. So why should workers risk an unflattering label when they can just “deal” at work? And what if the causes of employee burnout are work-related as well?
While work may or may not be the sole driver of an employee’s stress, it certainly adds to it. And work doesn’t stop when life becomes complicated. Instead of taking time away from work, stressed employees may continue with their normal time in office while a stressful event occurs in their private lives. Logically, a worker’s job is their income, their livelihood. It is the last thing they would let go of, and the last place they would admit feeling inadequate during a period of hardship. When it comes to work, people don’t always admit to emotional exhaustion and the strain they’re taking.
For this reason, it often falls on managers to notice early signs of employee burnout in team members and reach out to help.
Workplace burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. This can solely be workplace stress or the stress of work-related pressure on top of personal difficulties.
As levels of burnout become more severe, the symptoms become increasingly serious, and dangerous to the employee long term. Physical symptoms of full-on burnout are fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, and increased susceptibility to illness. Emotionally speaking, a person experiencing burnout would have feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, cynicism, irritability, anger, sadness, and anxiety.
To quote the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” From this we can derive that, if stress is well-managed (caught in time), burnout is preventable.
Naturally, no manager wants their employee to reach a state of burnout, but leaving it to employees to articulate that they’re overly stressed isn’t working. Stress itself can make it impossible for workers to see the early signs of burnout in themselves. Plus, who wants to admit to their boss that they’re not coping?
Here are some noticeable makers and early symptoms of burnout managers can look out for so that they may intervene before a worker reaches advanced burnout.
An employee may not say in so many words that they’re feeling overwhelmed, but there would be signs. A panicked demeanor over their workload, nervous fidgeting, visible deterioration of their physical health or self-care, and irritability are just some markers that a person is feeling overburdened.
Occasionally working late to meet a deadline is perfectly normal behavior for a dedicated employee, but it shouldn’t be an everyday thing. If an employee needs to work overtime to get through their regular responsibilities, they are likely over capacity. It may be necessary to support them with more resources, more training, or an alleviated workload.
If they were previously able to meet their KPIs within a normal work schedule, look for the root causes of what’s slowing them down. A lack of support from colleagues, or other forms of unfair treatment, can make work responsibilities extend beyond office hours where it could easily fit before.
It is essential for managers to have context of what’s happening in employees’ lives outside of work. Big life changes such as moving houses, getting hurt, or the loss of a relationship are immense stressors. There could also be ongoing demands on their time and finances that stem from these big life changes.
It is only fair that trauma and change will affect a person’s performance at work. If the expectation is that it won’t, the worker will likely overextend themselves and may be at risk of burnout.
Bear in mind that change within the workplace may have a similar effect. Significant restructuring in the company’s operations or personnel would certainly impact the way employees feel about work. For example, we can look at the effect a layoff has on morale to understand the emotional impact of workplace change. Reportedly, productivity and job satisfaction amongst layoff survivors drop by an average of 12%.
An employee who is overwhelmed by work or their personal lives will likely struggle to focus.
If a person’s output is abnormally low, or they make more than a reasonable amount of errors, it is necessary for a manager to step in. Not to reprimand them, but to offer support in addressing the stressors hindering their focus.
An employee feeling strained at work will want to avoid learning new processes or doing things a new way. There’s sound logic to this. Trying something new means taking the time to learn a new skill, tool, or process. There is also the possibility that it won’t work and they’ll have to go back and start again.
If a manager suggests a change in work processes, or even something small such as presenting the monthly report in a new format, an employee who is at capacity will likely respond with reluctance. It’s good to ask them outright whether the suggested change is really an obstacle, or whether they are reluctant because they don’t have the capacity for change at the moment.
An employee who is generally excited about advancements in their field, learning new techniques, and sharing breakthroughs is a great asset to any organization. If a person like this loses their passion, it could be due to personal or work-related stress taking its toll.
High levels of employee stress can make even the sunniest disposition act in a grim manner. If a worker who generally sees the silver lining is being unusually negative, it is useful for their manager to check in on their well-being and workload.
People vary greatly in their relationship to work. For some, the boundaries between themselves and their work are very clear, for others, it’s all personal. Managers should be mindful of an employee’s reaction when giving feedback.
Even a person who is deeply connected to their work should feel strong enough to receive constructive criticism, providing they are not overly stressed. If their reaction to criticisms, encouragement, or inquiry is disproportionately emotional, they are likely overwhelmed and may be feeling some job burnout.
An employee who starts keeping to themselves more than usual may be (consciously or subconsciously) isolating from others. This is normal behavior when a person is feeling anxious or overwhelmed. A manager can make a point of checking in to see what is causing their withdrawal.
If the employee needs some time alone or with their family, it would be good to suggest taking a mental health day or a sick day. Alternatively, if it is possible, offering a flexible work arrangement until the employee feels better might help. Consciously giving workers space to take care of their mental health helps to prevent employee burnout, absenteeism, and unnecessary employee turnover.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends having occasional company-wide mental health days as part of company culture. On these paid days all employees may unplug from workplace demands to focus on their emotional and mental well-being.
Ironically, it is often the case that the more a person has to do, the less they accomplish. An employee with too many responsibilities on their plate may struggle to focus and complete a particular piece of work.
A manager who notices this may need to support the employee by reducing the number of projects and initiatives they are involved with or by helping them improve their time management.
An overarching requirement of recognizing these markers is that managers need to be acutely aware of how their employees are faring in and outside of the workplace.
This is a difficult feat to accomplish, especially with remote teams. Regular check-ins, an open-door policy, and keen observation of employee well-being are all necessary to build the type of relationship where a manager can foresee the signs of burnout that employees may miss in themselves.
However, it is worth the effort. Making these observations and intervening with support and good employee wellness programs can go a long way in preserving the health, well-being, and effectiveness of your workforce.