5 Ways to recognise employee burnout

Meghan Taylor, The Writers' Guild · 21 July 2021

Tired Businesswoman Character Lying on Huge Battery with Low Red Charging Level.

Employee burnout is a state of chronic stress that results in exhaustion, frustration and fatigue and impaired performance at work.

Often happening because of unclear or over-demanding work expectations, a draining environment or work that is monotonous and boring, the pressures of recent months has caused burnout to reach epidemic levels.

According to a recent report by employee recognition company, OC Tanner, burnout has increased by as much as 15% globally since the COVID-19 pandemic, causing widespread problems for organisations.

When employees reach burnout, they’re unable to perform at their best. They are distracted, less creative and more likely to make mistakes or be involved in workplace conflict.

Employers cannot ignore this worrying statistic if they want to support their teams and accelerate performance. Here are some of the warning signs that point to a potential problem.

1. Disengagement

When employees feel burnt out, they have gone beyond the point of caring. They simply don’t have the mental, physical or emotional energy to engage as they previously would and so stop participating in meetings, replying to emails or answering phone calls. Creative ideas and innovation come to a grinding halt, and they simply function on a superficial level.

Often this happens when employees feel like they don’t play an important role in the organisation and are disconnected from their environment. If this happens, it’s vital to gain insight into the behaviour of these employees so you can take steps to get them reengaged and fulfil their potential.

Data-driven psychometric tests can often be the most efficient and effective way to do this. According to global providers of behaviour-based psychometrics, Arctic Shores, you can use this insight to “keep incredible people excited to work for you.”

2. Irritability and high sensitivity

Most employees can deal with challenges and difficult situations in the workplace without it impacting their work performance too much. Yet if they are feeling burnt out, they are likely to react more intensely than usual.

They could appear more irritable or sensitive than usual and react with anger or sadness when put under pressure. Depending on their personality, they may take criticism personally, even if it has been given constructively and feel that they can’t do anything right.

Worse still, they could snap at colleagues and customers and contribute to a tense and uncomfortable situation in the workplace.

If this is the case, it’s tempting to enforce standard workplace disciplinary procedures, although this might not always be the best step. It can be more effective to address the underlying cause of this anger to repair broken relationships and support your team.

3. Absenteeism

Frequent sick days or long-term absence is commonly seen with employee burnout. Staff members may feel so exhausted that they cannot get out of bed or even anxious or fearful about what they could face in the workplace.

They come in late and leave early to avoid certain projects or interactions with co-workers that cause them stress or even appear physically but not mentally.

Often, they are unwilling to admit that burnout is the root cause of their issue as they see it as a weakness and will instead make excuses for their poor performance.

If this is the case, you should provide support to your employees and encourage them to open up about how they’re feeling. Put strategies in place that help support employee wellness or follow the steps of companies such as dating app Bumble and social media company Hootsuite and consider if paid time off to recover would be the best solution.

4. Physical symptoms

Physical manifestations of burnout in employees can be more challenging to identify than behavioural changes. But if you are able to do so, you could address problems earlier before the problem accelerates.

“A number of possible physiological and psychological symptoms may develop, and these will significantly affect their overall quality of life,” says global health company, Ada. This can include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Chest pains
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues

Your employee might also adopt bad habits such as smoking, drinking or neglecting their diet- all factors that will affect their health and their ability to perform at their best.

If you notice these signs and suspect that stress may be a factor, approach your employee and ask them how they feel about their current work-life balance. Depending on the level of trust you have fostered in the workplace, they may feel comfortable enough to open up so you can address any issues they raise.

5. Accidents and mistakes

Accidents and mistakes are common when an employee is under pressure or distracted. With less ‘head space’ available, they can’t concentrate effectively and are more likely to put customers and colleagues at risk. If driving or operating machinery, this can become a serious problem for the wider community and should be addressed immediately.

Employers should be aware of what is happening and help employees develop effective coping mechanisms to deal with their stress and focus more effectively.

Burnout isn’t inevitable. By watching for the warning signs and using data-driven technological tools, employers can reduce stress levels, create a more rewarding work environment and support their team to achieve their best.

By Meghan Taylor, The Writers’ Guild

Mental health at work

Campaigning for workers' mental health to become a key priority for government and employers