How to identify signs of burnout at work (and what to do about it)

Multiple lighters on a purple background, one of which appears to be lit.

One of the greatest threats to efficacy and engagement in the workplace is team members showing signs of burnout at work.

Global studies of the modern workforce indicate that occupational burnout is on the rise with recent Gallup research showing that 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28% say they are burned out ‘very often’ or ‘always’ at work.

The consequences of burnout in the workplace are significant for employers, with the same study showing that employees who frequently experience work burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and almost three times more likely to actively seek a different job.

Whether looking at burnout purely from an economic perspective – considering the losses associated with high staff turnover and low productivity – or through a lens of empathy, it’s clear that mitigating the risk of burnout is beneficial for organisations and individuals alike.

A Medibank study showed that burnout in Australia costs the economy around 14 billion dollars annually. Whilst the Australian Journal of Pharmacy reported that burnout resulted in ‘37% more absenteeism, 49% more workplace accidents, and 60% more issues with accuracy and defects’ — having a direct impact on the bottom line (in addition to employee health and wellbeing being affected).

What is work burnout?

Coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, the term ‘burnout’ was used to describe the effect of severe stress and strong work ethic in ‘helping’ professions — such as healthcare workers sacrificing their own wellbeing for the betterment of their patients.

Whilst burnout may have its origins in ‘helping’ professions, in the modern-day workforce the experience of burnout applies to a broader scope of individuals. And it’s not just a term to be loosely used when referring to feeling tired or busy at work.

In a landmark move, the World Health Organisation (WHO) made headlines when it officially added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. Burnout, according to the WHO, is defined as a ‘syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

People with burnout experience severe emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion which leads to reduced productivity and lethargy, leaving sufferers feeling increasingly helpless and hopeless, even cynical and resentful.

Mental stress, exhaustion, burnout symptoms, or depression?

In the field of psychology, the mental health continuum is used to place people on a spectrum from mental health to mental illness — or from flourishing to severely struggling to complete everyday activities at home and at work.

When it comes to determining if an individual is experiencing burnout there are three main areas of burnout symptoms: exhaustion, alienation from work, and reduced performance.

Feelings of exhaustion, apathy, lethargy, and detachment overlap with symptoms of depression which leaves room for misdiagnosis especially when individuals self-diagnose their mental health.

As a guide, when these feelings are experienced specifically in relation to work it’s likely that occupational burnout is the cause. If experienced holistically in all aspects of life the symptoms may be an indication of other health issues to be addressed, such as depression.

When to seek medical help and services

Consider getting an evaluation if you experience any of the following for a prolonged period:

  • feel excessively sad or low
  • not able to function normally due to mental health issues
  • experience sudden changes in your eating or sleeping habits
  • have severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Learning the distinction between signs of severe stress compared to serious mental health is crucial and there are options if you feel like you may need help. Mayo Clinic research suggests its common for people to ignore symptoms and not utilise the services available. If you’re concerned about your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice from your doctor or a specialist clinic, seek hospital services if necessary or utilise online services offering mental health support and information.

Utrecht Work Engagement Scale

Making sense of these feelings and differentiating them can be difficult sometimes. The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) is a questionnaire with 17 items that assess engagement at work. The scale has three dimensions: vigour, dedication and absorption.

Vigour means having high levels of energy and resilience while at work. Dedication means a sense of significance, inspiration, pride and challenge at work. Lastly, absorption means the ability to be fully concentrated and deeply engrossed in work, whereby time passes quickly and this person has difficulties with detaching from work.

The UWES can help you understand your feelings towards your job and alleviate the confusion between burnout, stress and mental health issues, give information about burnout at work and assist people to manage their symptoms and get control.

What are the causes of burnout?

It’s a common misconception that working too long or too hard is the primary cause of burnout. Often, this misconception sees managers directing employees to take a few hours or a day off in order to remedy feelings of stress and fatigue at work — which doesn’t address the underlying problem.

Whilst the number of hours people work each week does influence burnout – burnout risk increases significantly when employees work more than 50 hours per week – it’s not the sole contributor to the phenomenon.

Research suggests that burnout is caused by an accumulation of stress that has become chronic over time and hasn’t been mitigated by either resources, external support, or coping strategies. In the workplace context, burnout emerges when the requirements of a job exceed a person’s ability to cope with the stress associated with the demands.

At its core, the causes of the stress that leads to burnout will fall into two categories: individual and organisational — meaning that the individual’s ability to manage stress at their job coupled with the organisation’s ability to address stressors at work will either create or alleviate burnout on the job and in their personal life.

Published by the WHO, the Healthy Workplace Framework and Model indicates that “high job demands, low control, and effort-reward imbalance are risk factors for physical and mental health problems” and job-related burnout might be the cause.

Put simply, it’s not about how many hours employees work. It’s about their experience with work in those hours. When people feel inspired, empowered, and supported they work with a higher degree of efficacy and with less stress on their overall health and well-being.

We spoke to Gagan Mudhar, a registered Psychologist with close to a decade’s worth of experience applying her skills in clinical and organisational psychology in not-for-profit, private, and public organisations. She has seen numerous cases of burnout, and the impact it has on organisational leaders and refined her observations to key signs to look for.

Risk factors and signs of burnout at work: Symptoms of burnout leaders need to watch for

According to the World Health Organisation’s medical definition of burnout, “the experience is characterised by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or extreme fatigue;
  • increased cognitive distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

Gagan believes as we all do at Inkling, that organisations have a significant role to play and a responsibility to provide a physically and psychologically safe working environment:

“Managers and leaders have a responsibility to ensure the team is supported and empowered in order to mitigate the risk of experiencing occupational burnout. Regularly checking in with the team and monitoring for changes in work performance and engagement can help managers spot the early signs of burnout at work and take steps to prevent or remedy them.”

So what are the signs of burnout leaders should be watching for to identify burnout in their teams?

Physical symptoms and signs of burnout

When people are burnt out, on a physical level they might be experiencing:

  • Feeling tired, emotional exhaustion and drained regularly;
  • Decreased immunity resulting in frequent illness;
  • Regular headaches or muscle pains;
  • Changes in appetite or sleep habits.

Emotional indicators of burnout

On an emotional level, people that are burnt out may feel:

  • Increased levels of self-doubt;
  • Disconnect and a sense of detachment from work;
  • Helpless, trapped, or stuck;
  • Increasingly cynical or resentful;
  • Chronic stress;
  • A sense of failure or lack of accomplishment or achievement.

Behavioural symptoms of burnout

As employees may be inclined to be more guarded when it comes to physical and emotional symptoms, behavioural signs of burnout at work may be the most accessible for managers wanting to check-in. Gagan highlighted the below behaviours as warning signs to look for:

  • Withdrawal from responsibilities;
  • Lack of engagement in work;
  • Reduced productivity, and increased procrastination;
  • Easily irritated and frustrated;
  • Using substances, drugs, or alcohol to cope.

How leaders can prevent their teams from falling into work-related burnout

Burnout comes with a hefty price tag for employees and organisations alike. As such, creating a high-performance organisation that supports employee well-being and helps prevent (or mitigates the risk of) and addresses burnout on the job should be a key objective for leaders.

Here are eight things managers and leaders can do in order to help prevent occupational burnout and create a supportive work environment feeling where their teams can flourish and thrive:

1. Practice a culture of inclusivity and support

Workplace culture goes a long way when it comes to preventing work burnout. As the old adage goes ‘actions speak louder than words’. Essentially, if employees are hearing about a culture of inclusivity and support but not seeing that in practice it will appear to be lip service. In order to prevent burnout, a culture of inclusivity and support must be established on an organisational level.

2. Encourage teamwork

In sports and the military, high-performance teams are those that work cohesively together (without ego) to achieve a common goal. Whilst workplaces are neither a playing field nor a battlefield, encouraging teamwork remains an effective approach to help reduce individual burnout. When team members are working together, they lift each other up and share the load.

Tip for leaders: Engage your team for feedback and invite them to reflect on what worked and what didn’t to understand a different point of view.

3. Clearly communicate expectations

Confusion and frustration arise when leaders fail to provide clear information and don’t set expectations. On the flip side, when expectations are clearly communicated and employees are empowered with the knowledge and skills to meet expectations a sense of accomplishment is achieved and confidence builds.

4. Set manageable workloads

When work feels endless or difficult to do, employees can feel trapped or lacking in ability. This sensation of disempowerment can result in disengagement and a reduction in performance. Setting manageable workloads and encouraging teamwork can help support improved performance and higher levels of engagement whilst minimising the risk of burnout.

5. Empower employees with the skills and tools they need to work effectively

Having ‘too much to do’ can take many forms. Whilst some see substantial pieces of work as overwhelming others find high volumes of smaller tasks impossible to manage. Even if the amount of work is manageable, if the employee doesn’t feel equipped with the skills to manage the load it will result in increased levels of stress.

Tip for leaders: Take care to assign the right work to the right employee. Provide opportunities for praise and encouragement to support job satisfaction.

6. Listen to team members

Managers bear the responsibility of supporting and directing team members, but that doesn’t mean that they’re wholly responsible for taking action — employees are accountable for their health and wellbeing, too. Regular check-ins with team members create space for open and honest conversation and sometimes the best thing managers can do to help employees is actively listen to their team.

Tip for leaders: Help create consistency and trust with your team members by scheduling regular catch-ups.

Further reading: How to improve leadership skills in the workplace

7. Build resilience

One of the best ways leaders can safeguard their team members from burnout is to build a resilient team. Some measures leaders can introduce to build resilience include providing checklists and guides for common obstacles, post-challenge debriefs and team resilience training, just to name a few.

8. Encourage healthy practices outside of work

Influencing how people spend their time outside of work is beyond the remit of managers. However, managers can guide employees to set healthy boundaries for work-life balance — such as not taking work home and finishing on time – as well as setting a culture that supports these boundaries by making it clear emails don’t need to be checked outside of work hours or that working overtime is not a requirement.

Tip for leaders: Lead by example by setting boundaries and sticking to them — such as not emailing after hours.

It’s important to remember the causes of the stress that leads to burnout will fall into two categories: individual and organisational. Leaders and managers have a responsibility to address the organisational stressors and also empower, help and equip employees to manage their individual stressors.

This might mean helping individuals find pathways to find a sense of accomplishment in their work without it being detrimental to their wellbeing. Or providing guidance to an individual in recognising the difference between healthy striving and unhealthy striving.

In other instances, a manager might help coach the employee on how to actually structure and work through the problem — building that resilience toolkit. Outside of supporting employees in building their skills, managers might even provide support by equipping employees with the right technology and systems and processes to get their job done more efficiently.

Inkling Insight: Leaders we interviewed found creative ways to help implement a coaching culture among their teams to reduce stress and improve communication and support high productivity without job burnout. Strong leaders take an interest in seeking feedback that ensures they are not only communicating effectively but are also implementing effective strategies for the team. They view feedback as an opportunity for professional growth for both team members and themselves – and implementing leadership techniques may ease the feeling of job burnout in the workplace.

Managing job burnout during times of crisis

A New York Times article penned by Adam Grant explored the state of languish as the midway point between flourishing and depression. That ‘blah’ feeling that leads to a sense of stagnation and emptiness. And a suitable term to describe how many individuals are feeling as the Covid-19 global pandemic stretches into its second year.

When the pandemic first hit, the amygdala – our brain’s threat detection system – was on high alert resulting in a fight, flight or freeze instinct being activated. But now, we’re living in long-term uncertainty and it can result in the absence of flourishing — a cause for concern for leaders.

Research suggests that those experiencing a sense of languishing now are more likely to experience mental illness and get anxiety in the future. This suggests that a tidal wave of mental health challenges is on its way in the future which is likely to have a dramatic impact on the performance of team members.

Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another. Research also shows that with everything going on in the world today – it’s not surprising the effects of burnout and severe stress are more prevalent and it’s important to realise you’re not alone.

Organisations and leaders have an opportunity to support their teams to navigate the pandemic, help mitigate the risk of burnout, and move away from languishing and toward flourishing. In doing this, leaders will avoid the damaging impacts of burnout on their teams and their bottom line, and instead get to enjoy the long-term economic benefits of a happy, healthy, and high-functioning team.

By creating a culture of connection and inclusion, building resilience and empowering team members to achieve a sense of accomplishment, leaders can reap the rewards on an organisational and individual level.

Contact us to find out how we can assist you in creating a resilient team and high-performance culture via our workplace culture training and capability development experiences.

Subscribe for the latest ideas, insights and resources from Inkling. Delivered to your inbox monthly.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Share article