Have you noticed a shift in the workplace? Are employees starting to look physically and emotionally drained? Should you have capped that meeting last Thursday at 5:30pm instead of letting it run until 6:45pm? Your team might be experiencing job burnout, and it’s not stemming from any one incident: burnout is a reaction to prolonged job stress. A Gallup study found that 23% of people in the workforce experience burnout very often or always, and an additional 44% feel burnt out sometimes. And as of October 2022, the average burnout rate hit an alarming 60.2%. This means that over half of employees have felt job burnout somewhat recently, which is a dangerous balance for the health of any team.
With burnout so prevalent in the workplace, it is essential that management is able to spot and help correct burnout at its very early signs. If you have overlooked or are simply unsure of the symptoms of workplace burnout, we have crafted a guide for managers and leadership to detect burnout, understand the causes, and learn how to prevent it in your employees.
Burnout signs & symptoms
HR experts report that burnout is responsible for over 50% of annual employee turnover, and it can cost more than 200% of a trained employee’s salary to replace them. With the high impact of burnout on the workplace, it is important to take notice of the signs and symptoms before they impact your employees’ future at the organization.
Here are some key symptoms to look out for:
- Workplace detachment: Has a team member seemed distant during meetings, and not as willing to participate in discussions?
- Exhaustion: While everyone has an occasional week lacking in sleep, is someone consistently showing up to work visibly tired?
- Angry outburst: Is someone on the team starting to display anger and short patience with other members of the team?
- Unexpected absences: Is a team member starting to have more frequent absences unexpectedly?
- Losing passion for their work: Is a team member performing their job duties without a lot of care, or appear to be losing enthusiasm around their work?
- Work-life balance: Have you noticed or heard that work is starting to negatively impact a team member's personal life?
While the expression of workplace burnout signs vary for each employee, it is important to be on the lookout for any resemblance to these key symptoms. By being more observant and developing a professional relationship with your team, you’ll be more familiar with your team's patterns and mannerisms in the workplace which will allow you to catch any red flags before a team member decides to make a career change.
What causes workplace burnout?
A lot of the time, people think of burnout as a state where you’re just working long hours. Certainly, long hours can be a sign of burnout, but here’s a different perspective you probably haven’t heard before: burnout doesn't just come from long hours. It comes from long hours working on stuff that just isn't going anywhere fast. If employees are averaging 4.3 hours/day in meetings, and 1.96 hours/day on unproductive task work, that's not particularly exciting or invigorating. It's just busy work, and it's the equivalent of banging your head against the wall. Similarly, if the company imposes way too much bureaucracy and process around getting stuff done (e.g., shipping a new feature takes several dozen approvals and hours upon hours of meetings) that can also be the kind of work that burns people out.
Working long hours, or even just your standard 40, in service of something that is truly exciting can actually have the opposite effect of burnout: it can be a huge motivator to stay at the company you're at. Seeing progress on something that you love working on is really why we get up in the morning, after all.
Here are the main causes of workplace burnout:
- Lack of connection with mission: Every company starts with a mission, but if it is not properly communicated and upheld internally, employees can become disconnected. Your team will be more passionate, engaged, and work harder when aligned with your mission.
- Too much time in meetings: Employees spend too much time in long, redundant, and unnecessary meetings, leaving them exhausted from non-stop discussions with insufficient time to complete their work.
- Uninspired work: Employees are losing motivation because their work is monotonous and does not feel meaningful, so they’re uninspired and leave most days without a great sense of accomplishment.
- Blocked by bureaucracy: Employees may also be losing motivation because they are trying to make real progress, but are continuously blocked, redirected, and sent backwards by internal bureaucracy, which leaves them feeling defeated and inadequate in their role.
- Unrealistic goals: Employees are simply burdened with a workload that is far beyond their capacity due to poor time planning internally, which makes them feel like they’re stretched too thin and a failure for continuously falling short of the unrealistic goals.
- Lack of direction or engagement: If employees are working towards unclear goals, have insufficient direction, feedback or training from above, or are just plain unsure of what you expect from them, it can cause great frustration at work and stress around their own job performance.
To be clear, if your team is not getting sufficient time for a personal life and aren't getting downtime to reset their brains, that can absolutely be a cause of burnout. But burnout is a much more complex issue than giving everyone a day off. It’s also imperative that you can answer the question of "Are you giving employees an exciting reason to get out of bed every morning and come to work?" If not, you'll find people burning out very quickly.
How can companies prevent employee burnout?
The biggest challenge companies have in addressing burnout is misunderstanding its root cause. With only 43% of US employees thinking that employers care about their work-life balance, your company may do things like "no meeting Wednesdays" or "take Friday off for the next month", which are absolutely helpful in terms of giving people the space they need to focus on their lives, but often don't address the core issue: that people simply aren't motivated by what they're doing and are finding it too hard to just get the simple things done.
If an employee is given a day off, that's a great thing for their mental and emotional health. But if the moment they return to the office, they're met with the same old problems and lack of excitement, they'll soon return to a state of burnout. In other words, it's like plugging a gushing leak with a flimsy bandaid. It might deter it for a moment, but not much longer than that.
If you’re looking to make a real change preventing burnout at your company, start at the top, with leadership. Ask questions like:
- Are we focused on stuff that is truly moving the business forward, and do employees share the belief that we are?
- Are we spending too much time doing busy work instead of the work that moves our strategy forward?
- Are people getting distracted by meetings, emails, and other kinds of shallow work -- and is that preventing them from working on our key priorities?
- Are people excited by the work they do here?
These questions will lead to very different solutions around burnout, many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the hours people work or their work-life balance. It's about addressing company culture and direction.
What’s the cost of burnout?
The effect may actually be more topline than bottom! A lot of the workplace burnout that employees may be facing is causing companies to lose money as opposed to retaining money. Not only is burnout costing in actual funds, burnout is also coming at the cost of top tier talent. If you can't attract and retain employees who are excited by your vision and your strategy, you'll end up burning out a lot of folks, and over time, you won't be able to attract great talent. 65% of employees feel they could find a better position somewhere else according to Legal Jobs, but highly engaged employees are 75% less likely to look for a new job. Yes, people need to be compensated well. Yes, they need balance between their work and life. Yes, they need to not be online 60+ hours a week.
But ultimately, working a full-time job, even with the occasional long hours, on something you find exciting -- because you want to work those hours, because you're motivated to do so -- can be rewarding. It's not a habit that your company should force or embed in your culture, and you certainly don't want employees to feel they have to work long hours to get ahead, but it's also imperative to understand that many people want to wake up every day feeling excited about what they do. And fixing that will often fix your burnout problem faster than you think.