How to Recognise The Signs of Employee Burnout – And What To Do About It

How to Recognise The Signs of Employee Burnout - And What To Do About It

As a leader in your organisation, how confident do you feel about being able to recognise and address the signs of burnout in your team? Do you feel equipped with the right knowledge, information, and tools to do everything possible to improve your employees’ well-being?

The great news is that when you catch burnout early, there are positive actions you can take to prevent it from getting any worse. So what can you do, as a leader, to recognise and address the early signs of employee burnout?

What is burnout and how does it affect your mental well-being?

Burnout is a “state of physical and emotional exhaustion”. If someone’s experiencing long-term stress in their job or their personal circumstances drain them physically or emotionally for a long period of time, they may be burnt out.

Signs include often feeling tired, drained, helpless, trapped, lonely, and overwhelmed. Someone’s outlook and mindset might become quite negative, and as a result, they could take longer to get things done due to a lack of drive and motivation.

It goes without saying that these feelings highly impact a person’s well-being, mood, personal life (including their relationships), and work. But burnout isn’t reserved for people in highly-stressful, busy jobs – it can affect anyone. And understandably, when the main cause or driver is work, the impact doesn’t stop there. It spills into every aspect of someone’s life.

A 2022 LumApps survey of more than 3,000 enterprise workers found that “88% of UK employees have experienced at least some level of burnout over the last two years, with one-third claiming to suffer from physical and mental exhaustion frequently due to pressures within the workplace.” (See more information here). And with statistics that high, chances are that someone in your company is impacted too.

So how would you, as a leader, look out for the early signs of burnout in your colleagues?

Common signs of burnout: what to look out for in employees

If you suspect that someone you work with may be struggling with feelings of burnout, here are some of the more obvious and outward signs you may start to notice.

  • Poor work performance. While there could be several reasons that could lead to lower-quality performance at work, suddenly getting behind on tasks, producing lower-quality outputs, or missing key information (i.e. simple and more frequent mistakes) could be tell-tale signs that someone is struggling.
  • Lack of enthusiasm. Have you noticed someone at work appears unmotivated? Do they show less enthusiasm not only for their daily tasks but also for their long-term goals and objectives? Do you feel they have no interest in being at work? And do they appear detached and disengaged?
  • Increased illness. Is someone in your team taking more time off sick from work than usual? This could be down to feelings of overwhelm, lack of motivation, stress, or even depression. But burnout also impacts our bodies and our physiology. It’s not uncommon for people who suffer from burnout to also experience headaches, stomach pains, and a weakened immune system, which may lead to frequent colds or flu-like symptoms.
  • Changed behaviour. Have you noticed a radical change in behaviour in someone? Perhaps they always came across as quite extroverted and social but now they’re more serious, withdrawn, and quiet. Do they seem to have lost their sense of humour or be less interested in engaging in conversation or contributing their ideas in meetings?
  • Increased irritability. Maybe someone’s change in behaviour is so noticeable that it’s starting to impact the dynamics at work with other team members or even stakeholders. Do they seem more snappy or irritable than usual?

A stressed team in a work meeting

Further signs of burnout

Depending on how much time you spend with your employees during the working day or how well you know them (in and outside of work), you and your team may also notice the following signs.

  • A changed appetite. Did you notice someone is perhaps no longer taking their lunch break or eating with colleagues? Maybe they’ve stopped some of the eating habits you’ve always known them for, such as having a healthy snack mid-morning. Are they swapping their usual homemade lunch for takeaway food, or they’re consuming more caffeine and sugar than normal? If the change is significant for you or someone else in the office to notice, there’s a chance that someone may be experiencing a reduced appetite.
  • Chronic fatigue. Does someone appear tired? Do they often complain of being exhausted, both mentally and physically? It’s not uncommon for burnout to affect sleep. So they could be struggling to fall asleep at night or stay asleep and often wake with racing thoughts and worry. You may not know that unless they share it with you, but naturally, that would have an impact on their energy levels during the day.

What to do if you see signs of burnout in employees

If you noticed any signs of burnout in someone at work, the best course of action is to act quickly. Catching burnout early before symptoms become chronic can lead to a faster and easier recovery. This is important because in extreme cases, it could take months or even years and a lot of intentional work to fully heal from burnout. So early intervention could be crucial and make all the difference to someone’s experience.

To start with, have an open and honest conversation with your staff. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Ask them if there’s anything you could do to help. Can you reduce the pressure at work in any way? Could you perhaps review their workload, give them additional support, or even move them to another project, at least temporarily?
  • Encourage the person to take time off to rest and recover if they feel the need to.
  • If you have a dedicated person, department, or service they could go to for help, signpost them to it and encourage them to seek support if needed.

Of course, this is a sensitive and highly personal topic. So while having this conversation, make sure you show empathy, understanding, and compassion.

It’s also important to stay curious and not to assume you know what’s going on for them or why – even if you feel you do know! Everyone experiences stress differently, and what works for one person may not work for another. Keep an open mind, actively listen, refrain from judgemental language, and give the person the chance to open up and talk freely.

After the initial conversation, check in with your team regularly. You’ll want to make sure you’re able to identify any issues as soon as they arise, meet everyone’s needs, and listen to your employees. When they come to you with a problem or concern, show them that you’re always willing to do what you can and act on it quickly.

Steps to help you avoid burnout in your workplace

We know that burnout isn’t reserved for the workplace. Stress and pressure at work can compound into challenging situations at home and in someone’s personal life and make things worse. So, in a way, burnout may be inevitable. However, as a leader, there are things you can do to promote well-being and reduce workplace stress to either prevent the onset of burnout in your employees or alleviate its symptoms.

Promote a healthy work/life balance

Having a healthy work/life balance is an essential step for reducing stress and avoiding burnout.

Encourage your staff to:

  • Take regular breaks during the day. Do people take their lunch breaks away from their desks? Are they able to walk away from their desks and stretch their legs between meetings?
  • Take holidays. It’s not uncommon for people to still be entitled to a lot of days off by the time end of the year rolls around. Encourage your staff to take a mixture of longer and shorter breaks (such as long weekends) to disconnect from work.
  • Stay off their laptops and phones when they’re not at work. During evenings, weekends, and holidays don’t expect your team to answer work emails or phone/video calls.
  • Pursue hobbies outside of work and do things they enjoy. You can always make a few minutes on a Monday to ask your staff what they did on the weekend to decompress. And maybe share your own hobbies too to inspire them to do something for themselves?

Set clear boundaries and expectations

Setting clear boundaries and expectations reduces the chance of burnout. It means that your team will know how to measure success, what their objectives and goalposts are, and what they’re expected to achieve.

In order to do this:

  • Have regular meetings and checkpoints with your staff.
  • Review workloads often against people’s personal objectives. Is what you set out for them still achievable? Has anything changed or got in the way of success?
  • Regularly and openly ask your team for feedback.
  • Always ensure someone’s workload isn’t excessive or beyond their capabilities, giving them support if and where needed.

Two people having a friendly conversation in a relaxed, modern office.

Create a positive workplace culture

To have open and honest conversations with your staff where they feel they can come to you with any struggles (including the more personal ones, such as talking about the way they’re feeling), you need to first create a culture that welcomes transparency and communication.

To foster a positive workplace culture, you can:

  • Encourage open communication where no topic is off-limits (to an extent!). This isn’t about encouraging airiring a load of dirty laundry at work, but it is about recognising that we are three-dimensional human beings, even at work. Make people feel safe and respected by letting them know they can come to you with any obstacles they might be facing.
  • Always give good feedback and recognition for a job well done.
  • Inform your employees about your overall business goals and progress towards them. This will help with their motivation, engagement, and productivity.
  • Offer support by giving your time and attention but also by providing helpful and relevant resources where relevant.

Offer flexibility and don’t micro-manage

Another fantastic way to boost your team’s engagement is to give them freedom and flexibility in their role and the way they work – wherever possible. This could include introducing flexible working hours, but also other provisions that allow people to carry out tasks in the way that best suits them.

These strategies show trust in your team’s ability to make decisions about how they work, and trust in their competence in managing their own time. It invites and breeds responsibility. It’s also why micro-managing your team can prove counterproductive. Instead, allow people to control their own workload and only offer your support when requested, while always making it clear that you are 100% available should any problems arise.

Encourage career progression

In order to make your staff feel appreciated and valued, make sure you hold regular review meetings with your employees to listen to their career progression requests. Do they need any additional training or development? Is there anything you can offer them?

Career development and progression are important factors that are linked with employee motivation, productivity, and satisfaction. By paying specific attention to this, you won’t only attract top talent but also retain your most valued employees. Working towards specific goals and a purpose that matters to them will also directly contribute to your staff’s mental and emotional well-being.

Lead by example

And last but not least, lead by example. As a manager, it’s important you embody the values and behaviours you want to promote in your staff. By practising what you preach, your employees will follow suit!

So, for example, choose not to answer emails or phone calls during your holidays. When your team see that you protect your work/life balance, they’ll do the same. Another thing you can do is to often start open and honest conversations about well-being. Ask people at work how they are feeling and share as much as you’re comfortable about how you feel. Can you offer any support? Is there anything you should know to help?

By creating genuine relationships with the people who work for you (rather than seeing them for the role they fulfill in the company), you’re more likely to be able to spot the early signs of burnout and support your employees through it, but also to stop workplace burnout in the first place.

Need help avoiding burnout in your workplace?

If the points in this article struck a chord, and you think you could do with some additional resources and hands-on coaching to support your teams through burnout, check out my services or drop me a line and let’s chat some more.

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