Workplace Burnout: What Is It and How to Spot It

What is burnout? Are you searching because you are concerned that members of your team are at risk of burnout? Or, are you looking for tangible ways of preventing burnout?

Either way, we’re here to help. We were shocked when a study of 400,000 work reviews by Glassdoor Economic Research indicated a steep rise in reference to  burnout in employee reviews between 2019 and 2022, with mentions soaring by a huge 86%.

Considering the majority of Collection Pot customers are making collections for the workplace, we know that it’s not uncommon for people to leave messages wishing fellow employees a period of rest, the break they deserve, or a fresh start. But what is the difference between stress and the burnout that causes them to leave? Are there ways of avoiding burnout in the workplace before it causes real problems? 

Let’s dive in. 

What is burnout? 

Burnout is the feeling following prolonged stress at work. It has been called an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organisation, which defines burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

While burnout has many causes, by definition the causes must be occupational. So, while stress, anxiety or depression could be down to your finances or relationship with your partner, the NHS recognises burnout factors are workplace related. 

Here are the official causes of burnout.

What are the signs of burnout? 

The NHS lists the specific signs of burnout as the following: 

Nowadays, businesses have a far greater awareness of mental health and the effect it can have on their employees. Whether that is from the rise in profile of mental health, world mental health day, or from the ever-increasing dialogue from celebrities – it is clear that we are thinking more about stress and anxiety. This is a good start – but the next step is about identifying burnout symptoms and eliminating chronic work stress before the burnout occurs. 

Feeling burned out at work is a build-up of many factors on top of each other, which is why understanding how your workplace is doing is key.

Preventing burnout: How to spot burnout before the effects take hold

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

How can you tell if your employees are burned out at work? Talk to them! You need to keep an open dialogue with your team and actually ask them how they are doing. Not only does this help breakdown the stigma around mental health but allows for a more inclusive environment to flourish. 

The tricky part is early burnout indicators will be different for everyone, and each situation will be handled in a unique way. An increased workload could cause significant stress for one person and yet be an enjoyably challenging task for another. This disparity is partially why it’s so hard for managers to get in front of burnout. 

Thankfully, however, The World Health Organization has laid out the many possible signs of burnout, making it possible to diagnose before it has a chance to take full effect.

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

Tired young man sleeping on bed near laptop.

Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job

Losing pleasure in everyday things

Sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Remember – burnout does not discriminate 

Do not make the mistake in thinking that burnout can be limited to a certain demographic. Burnout can affect anyone, regardless of tenure or seniority. 

According to the ‘Women in the Workplace study’ 43% of women leaders say they are burnt out. In a study by Revelio Labs, 60% of leaders state “they still feel anxious about job security or that the fear of being laid off is often in the back of their minds”.

However, it is not only leaders that are struggling. The salary benchmarking site, Emolument found that 92% of those in the lowest wage bracket had experienced burnout too. 

Burnout shows no mercy towards gender either. Studies have shown that only 35% of men report feeling burned out in comparison to 42% of women (McKinsey & Co). Whilst there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support why women are disproportionately affected by burnout, this is not to say that men are suffering less. Some researchers have suggested that men are typically less likely to open up about their own mental health thereby making the statistics inaccurate and unrepresentative. 

This further demonstrates the power of talking and how building an inclusive company environment can help benefit an individual. However, if starting a conversation with colleagues makes you feel uneasy, why not look up workshops you can attend as a company to help break the ice. Providing information and encouraging attendance to events such as Men’s Mental Health Week (13th – 19th June) aids the boosting conversation and relationships between colleagues. 

How employers can prevent burnout

Have you seen the signs? That’s not uncommon. The next step is to ask ‘what is burnout at work indicating?’

To get ahead of critical burnout symptoms, especially if any employees are already showing preliminary signs, it is likely that you need a culture shift. It’s impossible to define what that looks like for every workplace, but there a few fundamental features you’ll need to embrace to tackle any burnout. That starts with being fighting fit both mentally and physically so that you are feeling primed and ready to deal with anything. 

We love this quote that shows how it’s all about looking at life as a whole. 

“We no longer believe in work/life balance: It’s all just life. And we need to know it’s a life that we want to live, filled with security, confidence, love, and meaning. The idea that we turn “off” life when we turn “on” work is outmoded. What happens to us at work, the choices we make at work, how we lead at work—all of this impacts our macro and micro quality of life, and the nature of the world we live in.”

― Janice Fraser, Farther, Faster, and Far Less Drama: How to Reduce Stress and Make Extraordinary Progress Wherever You Lead

Here are some ways to ensure you are preventing burnout.

Do you encourage holidays?

In 2018, the Japanese government introduced Premium Fridays, encouraging firms to let their employees go at 3pm on the last Friday of each month. They are also desperate for workers to use their holiday. Employees get 20 days a year, but around 35% don’t take any of it. In this country, death from overwork is a genuine and pressing issue. 

Not taking holiday or using annual leave effectively (turning off devices, having downtime away from emails) is a bad sign. It’s also ineffective, as desmonstarted with with Japan being one of the least productive G7 countries despite the overworking culture. 

Is your team overworked? 

Recent UK analysis shows that 50% of full-time employees work over 40 hours per week. There is a growing trend towards zero hours contracts (stats indicate they may be up by 75% in the last decade) and there are also trends towards working later and longer. 

Even Twitter in the back end of 2022 was struggling to retain workers after owner Elon Musk demanded employees sign a pledge to work ‘long hours at high intensity’. Check your HR stats and see how hard and long your team is working. What are the expectations? 

Is your team in the best working environment?

Is your workplace conducive to success? Could it be time to reassess how things are done at work and where they are done too?  Do your people have the necessary support and tools to do their jobs? Is the environment inclusive for all personalities and sensitivities? Consider such disruptors as other colleagues, noises, the commute, ability to see nature and walk, to take breaks and find peace. 

Do people have the freedom to gain pleasure in everyday things from where they work? If not – this may be an area to consider. 

Group of people doing yoga in the park.

Are managers trained to pick up on early signs of burnout?

The early signs of burnout could be simple things such as losing belongings, double booking meetings, showing signs of being troubled by office noises, as well as some of the symptoms found in other extreme generalized stress or even falling asleep in the office? Are there times to open up to a manager about this, or is it all work chat? 

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

Do managers have a budget (and autonomy) for steps towards burnout 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. Can your business offer funding and support for managers who identify weaknesses in employee well-being? Is there the scope for time off, more rest periods, a different working pattern, or a 4 day week? How are managers managed in this regard? 

Is there a top down culture of acceptance or of overwork?

Employees who are trusted, recognised, and not overworked perform better, stay longer and respond to peak periods of stress in a more resilient fashion. Is your culture promoting bad habits from the top downwards? Only the leaders can set the standard of what a great business looks like and if there is a problem here, this may need to be addressed. 

Preventing burnout means being on the lookout for the signs of stress, and having a process to overcome issues before they escalate. It’s not a one off job, but instead, a culture change. To support you, why not explore some of our other articles for creating a great inclusive office culture, or set up a Pot for your workplace today? 

Whether it’s for a collection for a team, an individual or as a shared collective fund for a well-earned getaway, there’s a Collection Pot for every workplace. 

Elaine Keep

Elaine Keep is an accomplished content writer with over 15 years of experience in the field of marketing and content creation for many leading brands, where she shares her passion for research and helping others through her articles. You can also find her in 'mum mode', walking in the countryside or enjoying the dreamy combo of a new non-fiction book with a tea and chocolate bar to hand.

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