Workplace burnout: How to spot and prevent it 

Black and white image of commuters rushing in Shinagawa Station, Japan.

Did you know you can’t be burnt out by your family, friends or hobbies – only by work? The ICD11 from the World Health Organisation defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Many companies have far more awareness of mental health and its effects on employees, whether that’s from the rise in the profile of mental health awareness week, World Mental Health Day, or an overall focus on improving mental health in our general lives.

It’s not uncommon to be concerned that your people are burned out at work – and at Collection Pot, we see messages to colleagues who are leaving sooner than they may have intended, messages to teammates that are celebrating their slower way of working to combat burnout, as well as notes on fund collections celebrating employees who are taking more time for their passions.  Many businesses really do care. 

But what is burnout at work? How can burnout be identified and how can we help as people managers by avoiding burnout in the workplace before it starts?

We take a look.

What are the signs of burnout – could you be suffering?

Now we understand that burnout isn’t just general stress – which can also include family and personal issues as its cause; we know it is all down to chronic workplace stressors. Do you yourself feel burned out at work, or have you ever done?

Burnout indicators will be different for everyone. A period of significant stress for one person will be a challenging but achievable work situation for another.

However, identifying burnout is universal. The World Health Organization indicates that it is burnout when there are:

1) Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion – no time or energy to connect with others.

2) Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.

3) Losing pleasure in everyday things.

4) A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Burnout isn’t built in a day. A typical stressful day may make us depleted or exhausted, but a good night’s rest cures all. The difference between burnout and stress is its chronic nature.

What could be the cause of workplace burnout?

How to prevent burnout in the workplace? Start with looking at the potential causes – and these can be tiny things.

The cause of burnout could be a mix of factors that create a strain on an employee. These could be things such as:

·  Excessively hard to achieve targets

·  Lack of work-life balance

·  Negative self-talk

·  Poor sleep hygiene

·  Pressure from managers or external parties (family and friends)

·  Lack of breaks

·  Lack of enjoyment sources (exercise, sunlight, movement, connection with others.)

·  Tension

Feeling burned out at work is a build-up of many factors on top of each other.

“A lot of people don’t realise they are going through burnout until it gets really bad.” – Dr Rangan Chaterjee.

Why is burnout at work so prevalent?

Burnout is more comprehensive than one kind of sector, industry, or even one country, but some have fewer instances. There are undeniable social and cultural norms about an acceptable work-life balance, which is often reflected in how people work.

Take Japan. In 2018, the government introduced Premium Fridays, encouraging firms to let their employees go at 3 pm on the last Friday of each month. They are also desperate for workers to use their holiday – they get 20 days a year, but around 35% don’t take any of it. (Read that again – ANY of it.) Here, death from overwork is a genuine and pressing issue.

We might suggest this down to Eastern culture, but a study based on 400,000 work reviews by Glassdoor Economic Research indicated a steep increase in mentions of burnout, overwork, and mental health in employee reviews between 2019 and 2022. Burnout saw the most significant growth, soaring 86%, while mental health mentions climbed 21% and overwork 15%, indicating a real problem.

The pandemic and blurred boundaries between work and home hasn’t helped.

What is burnout at work indicating? That we aren’t taking care of our people.

Burnout is a problem for employers

Think that burnout could be a good sign – that employees are giving their all? Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Burnout doesn’t equate to better work outcomes.

While Japan has issues with overwork as mentioned, and some of the most extended working hours, it is the least productive of the G7 group of developed economies.  Burnout also means more time off sick, which affects both company and customers.

People who are burned out are also leaving – and these are leaders. According to the women in the workplace E study with over 20 million people, two women directors are choosing to leave their company for every woman who gets promoted to the next level. The reason? 43% of women leaders say they are burned out. Ignore burnout at your peril.

Burnout isn’t just about setting working time limits

How to prevent burnout in the workplace? It’s not just a policy change.

Combatting burnout is more complex than turning out the office lights at 5 pm and banning devices. It involves creating a culture of acceptance, calm and security

And note that burnout due to insecurity concerns isn’t exclusive to team members on zero-hours contracts. Burnout can be felt at any level – from senior leaders to millennials entering senior positions. In a study by Revelio Labs, 60% say “they still feel anxious about job security or say the fear of being laid off is often in the back of their minds.”

Avoiding burnout in the workplace is about addressing fundamental issues

1. The working environment

What is burnout at work good for? If only one thing it’s for allowing is to re-assess how things are done, as shown in the move to a home-based workplace in 2020. Is your workplace conducive to success? Do your people have the necessary support and tools to do their jobs? Is the environment inclusive of all personalities and sensitivities (noise, sounds etc.) Do people have the freedom to gain pleasure in everyday things?

2. How are KPIs selected and measured?

Most times, the top administration only emphasises key performance index (KPI) measures but sidesteps the questions of how to achieve them. If there is an increasing workload and administrative burden, plus increased KPIs to hit, this doesn’t create a culture where workers can respond to their needs on that day which may fluctuate due to personal issues, hormones and many other reasons.

3. Are managers trained to pick up on early signs?

The early signs of burnout are things such as losing belongings, double booking meetings, showing signs of being troubled by noises, as well as some of the symptoms found in other extreme generalised stress, anxiety and depression – such as difficulty sleeping or falling asleep, extremes in behaviour.

Managers can be primed to have more personal conversations about reaching team members’ circumstances to show care. Training should be available to all levels.

4. Are managers able to portion the budget into prevention?

Prevention is better than cure, but the best-meaning manager who wants to start avoiding burnout in the workplace is limited by their budget and the culture above them. Suppose a business can offer funding and support for managers who identify weaknesses in employee well-being. In that case, they will be more empowered to contribute unique solutions to help their team members find balance before burnout can escalate from ‘typical’ stress.

5. Schedule moments to open up

When is men’s mental health week – and what does it mean for you?

Men’s mental health week takes place between the 13th – 19th June, and this is just one time to talk about balance, reconnection, calm and acceptance, especially with men who are often less likely to open up.  You can also look at moments such as World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October – or make a day for your own workforce.

Burnout isn’t a buzzword – it’s a growing problem. By being on the lookout for the signs and having a process to overcome issues before they escalate, you can help your employees feel supported and avoid the negative impacts of burnout.