Burnout at Work: Warning Signs and Solutions

Burnout in the workplace
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How to identify burnout at work (and what to do about it)

One of the greatest threats to efficacy and engagement in the workplace is team members experiencing burnout.

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 wellbeing).

What is 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 experiencing 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.

Exhaustion, burnout, 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.

When it comes to determining if an individual is experiencing burnout there are three main areas of symptoms that are considered signs of burnout: 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.

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.

What causes 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 exhaustion — 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 stressors coupled with the organisation’s ability to address stressors will either create or alleviate burnout.

Published by the World Health Organisation, the WHO Healthy Workplace Framework and Model indicates that ‘high job demands, low control, and effort-reward imbalance are risk factors for mental and physical health problems.’

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 wellbeing.

We spoke to Gagan Mudhar, Senior Manager, Client Delivery and Inkling’s internal expert on burnout, mental health and well-being. Gagan is 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, the impact it has on organisational leaders and refined her observations to key signs to look for.

Signs that your team may be experiencing burnout

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

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental 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 performance and engagement can help managers spot the early signs of burnout and take steps to prevent or remedy them.”

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

Physical signs of burnout

When people are experiencing burnout, on a physical level they may experience:

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

Emotional signs of burnout

On an emotional level, people experiencing burnout may feel:

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

Behaviour signs of burnout

As employees may be inclined to be more guarded when it comes to physical and emotional symptoms, behavioural signs of burnout 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 burnout

Burnout comes with a hefty price tag for individuals and organisations alike. As such, creating a high-performance work environment that supports employee well-being and prevents (or mitigates the risk of) burnout should be a key objective for leaders.

Here are eight things managers and leaders can do in order to prevent occupational burnout and create a supportive work environment 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 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 sport 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 reducing 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.
  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 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 workload is manageable, if the employee doesn’t feel equipped with the skills to manage the workload 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 wellbeing, too. Regular check-ins with team members create space for open and honest conversation and sometimes the best thing managers can do is actively listen to their team.Tip for leaders: Create consistency and trust with your team members by scheduling regular catch-ups.
  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 — 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 and equip employees to manage the 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.

Managing 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 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.

Organisations and leaders have an opportunity to support their teams to navigate the pandemic, 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 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.

Get in touch with the Inkling team for a Discovery Chat l if you would like to find out more about resilience training and preventing workplace burnout and how our programs will benefit your team.

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Don’t forget to connect on LinkedIn with Gagan Mudhar – Inkling’s resident expert on ‘burnout, mental health and well-being’. She would love to hear your thoughts on the article and is passionate about sharing research, articles and insights with our leadership community.