How to Prevent Employee Burnout

Worker dealing with employee burnout at her office desk

Long hours, 24/7 contact between managers and team members, vacation days that accumulate but never get used: These are all signs of poor management practices that are likely to lead to employee burnout.

Not so long ago many managers saw chronic overwork as a recipe for success. But today’s employers recognize that relentless workloads decrease employee productivity and satisfaction, endangering your bottom line. According to one survey, burnout was the number one reason why people want to quit their jobs.

Workplace burnout can lead to high rates of employee turnover, and even threaten your employees’ health. Understanding how to identify, address, and prevent toxic levels of stress in your workplace can help you create a healthier, more productive work environment.

What Is Employee Burnout?

Burnout is more than just a buzzword. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases defines it as a syndrome characterized by emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

In other words, it is not an employee issue—it is a management problem that can derail nearly any workplace in any sector. To prevent it, employers need to know how to recognize its signs, and effectively address and eliminate its causes.

Factors That Lead to Burnout

Success in business is often seen as numbers-driven, but your greatest asset is your workforce. Optimal performance requires a manager insightful enough to recognize when their employees are in danger of falling under unhealthy levels of pressure to perform due to the following:

  • Your company has a weak work-life balance policy—or none at all.
  • Your managers do not recognize boundaries between work and personal time, as evidenced by your workers completing tasks and communicating with supervisors at all hours.
  • Your employees are burdened by unrealistic or unclear performance goals.
  • Your work teams lack sufficient resources and/or staffing to reach their goals.
  • Interpersonal dynamics have become unpleasant, even unhealthy.
  • Your workplace has become chaotic with no clear organizational system.
  • Your employees are expressing frustration about micromanaging and lack of control over their work projects and professional development goals.

Employee Burnout Signs

Although employee surveys may help you identify and address some employee morale issues, they are not a reliable way to identify and address burnout. Surveys are point-in-time measurements, whereas burnout, by definition, is a persistent state that fluctuates in intensity across time.

Symptoms of burnout to watch out for in individual workers or teams, or across your entire organization, include:

  • Depleted energy levels and motivation.
  • Increased mental and emotional distancing from one’s job.
  • Reduced productivity, especially in employees who were previously good workers.
  • Frequent complaining and a cynical attitude.
  • Impatience, irritability, and a lack of civility toward co-workers, clients, vendors, and managers, especially in employees who previously excelled at forming positive relationships.
  • Increased frequency in work errors.
  • High rates of absenteeism.
  • Inability to make decisions and poor memory.
  • Failure to derive pleasure or take pride in work accomplishments.

Consequences of Unaddressed Burnout

Allowing toxic levels of stress and overwork to go unchecked can be disastrous, even dangerous, for the health of your business and employees. These dangers include:

  • Decreased productivity and employee engagement.
  • High rates of turnover, especially among your highest performing employees.
  • Increased disputes between workers and departments.
  • Stress-related illness, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Increased rates of mental illness, including anxiety and depression.
  • Higher rates of workplace bullying, including harassment and even violence.

Best Practices for Addressing Employee Burnout

The stakes are high. So, if you suspect your workplace is on a path toward pervasive employee burnout, what can you do about it?

  • Set up confidential, no-consequences conversations and ask employees to share what they think the cause of their stress is.
  • Encourage employees to use their PTO, especially mental health days. If you do not provide mental health days, add them to your benefits package.
  • Encourage employees to take short breaks throughout their workday, including consciously taking mental health breaks.
  • Leading by example, by making sure your employees see you coming into work and leaving at reasonable times and resisting the urge to communicate with your employees at all hours.
  • Directly express the importance of downtime as part of your company culture.
  • Provide benefits that help encourage mental health, such as generous health insurance with robust mental health benefits.
  • Offer your employees educational sessions on your site or via video on topics such as meditation, nutrition, and exercise.
  • Provide a package of free sessions with therapists, or even life or career coaches.
  • Consider bringing in outside mediators to help teams work through interpersonal issues that may be affecting productivity and leading to increased stress levels.
  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy on workplace bullying.
  • Ensure that workloads are evenly distributed.

Finally, if you do not already have one, establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to address catastrophic situations affecting employees (think family illness or natural disaster). Having an EAP shows you are invested in promoting a culture of community and caring. If you already have an EAP, you may need to do a better job of clearly communicating what benefits are offered and the confidential nature of your program.

Welcome Employee Input on Burnout

Perhaps the surest way to head off employee burnout before it becomes a problem is to establish a welcoming management style that encourages employees to express their work challenges to their managers. According to a survey of 1,500 U.S. adults, only 21 percent of employees have had open, productive conversations with HR about burnout, and 56 percent said their HR departments actually discouraged conversations about stress and workload.

Many managers still view legitimate feedback about workload as “complaining” rather than signs that there are management issues that need to be addressed.

Embrace a Culture of Emotion

In decades past, the only emotion permitted in the workplace was anger: Think of the stereotypical “tough boss” whose expressions of anger, even bullying, were often seen as evidence of strength and passion for the company mission. In contrast, tears in the workplace are still often seen as evidence of weakness and immaturity. Outmoded, often gender-coded attitudes toward “appropriate” emotional expression are a perfect recipe for a toxic work environment. Make sure your workplace is free of them.

But even a tendency to value logic over emotion can contribute to a toxic work environment. Embracing a culture of emotion where your employees feel they can safely express their feelings and concerns without fear of reprisal is the first step to heading off the factors that lead to burnout.

Workers aren’t robots, nor do you want them to be. On average, most of us spend more than one-third of our waking lives at work. Expecting your employees to leave their emotions at the office door is unrealistic and unhealthy. Besides, it prevents them from being their most honest, creative, and innovative selves on the job.

Go From Employee Burnout to a Thriving Workforce

When your employees are facing burnout, it can take a toll on everyone involved, in addition to your bottom line. The good news is that it is a fixable problem — if you have the right information and strategies in place. Stay connected with Monster for the latest hiring data and insights so you can recruit, and keep, the workforce you need.