· Eve Church  · 8 min read

How You (& Your Employees) Can Avoid Burnout

Learn to spot the signs so you can step in & help employees who're struggling. But do your best to avoid burnout in the first place. Here's how.

Whether you have the sneaking suspicion that you may be suffering from the tell-tale signs of burnout, or you’ve noticed that one or more of your employees’ performance is suffering, particularly after a busy spell, it’s time to take steps to address the issue.

You might have tried to convince yourself that ‘things have just been a bit manic lately’ and that work will return to a steadier pace soon, or that your weariness is temporary. But ignoring the signs of potential burnout rarely works out well.

No one is immune to burnout at work. From your 20 year old administrator to C-suite managers and executives - and everyone in between. But how can you tell if you (or one of your employees) are suffering from burnout? How do you address it?

And, crucially, how do you avoid it moving forward?

What exactly is employee burnout?

Burnout isn’t just about feeling a bit under the weather or being tired. It’s a serious condition that is more akin to physical and mental exhaustion.

It can take on different forms in different people, but generally, employees will become demotivated and disengaged at work. Their performance and productivity will drop as a result and they’ll be more prone to making mistakes and missing deadlines.

And this feeling of extreme tiredness doesn’t magically disappear come 5pm. Burnout infiltrates every aspect of the sufferer’s life - they simply won’t have the energy to live life outside of work to the fullest either.

The World Health Organization defines burnout (or occupational burnout) as:

  1. Reduced professional efficacy
  2. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  3. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

What are the symptoms of burnout?

As mentioned, burnout can manifest itself in different ways in different people, but signs to look out for - both personally and in your organization’s staff include:

  • Higher than normal anxiety
  • Depression
  • Becoming distant - both from coworkers and in personal relationships
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Procrastination
  • Lack of concentration

Clearly this is a mental issue, but burnout take a physical toll on the body too and sufferers may experience:

  • Insomnia or trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Intense fatigue
  • Migraines or headaches
  • Physical pain including back pain, strains, sprains, and hernia
  • Respiratory issues
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Someone suffering from burnout may exhibit one or more of the above, however, it’s important to note that someone could easily have a back ache or headache and not necessarily be suffering from occupational burnout.

Similarly, an employee may be checked out and disengaged or unfocused but you’ll need to get to the root of this before labeling it burnout.

They might be finding it hard to focus because they’re running a side hustle, for example. Or they could be disengaged because they’re just not happy working for your company anymore and have ‘quietly quit’.

What causes employee burnout?

Burnout isn’t usually triggered by a short busy spell - such as a period of a few weeks while you’re looking to hire a replacement for an employee who left, or a seasonal rush.

Burnout is caused by ongoing constant stress which accumulates to bring people to their knees and push them to their absolute limits. This stress can be caused by:

  • Not taking their allocated annual leave
  • Trying to fit in an excessive amount of working hours in a week
  • A stressful position with many responsibilities
  • Taking work home to do in their supposed leisure time

These can be exacerbated by other issues too, such as the work being dull and the same day in, day out and a lack of self care - no time off, a poor diet, lack of exercise, a reliance on alcohol or drugs etc.

One of the big problems with employee burnout is that it can be insidious, creeping up on its victim when they least expect it.

For example, if you have a hectic, yet fulfilling, project on the go or you’re constantly under pressure, it’s all too easy to rely on quick fix solutions to power you through.

Take out or junk food in the evenings - so you can get straight back to work or a few glasses of wine or bottles of beer to relax at the end of another manic day. These things can rapidly become habitual and unhealthy and will not only mask burnout, but worsen it too.

The other thing is that when you’re in the middle of an intense period of work, your adrenaline will be powering you through. Once the intensity dies down and things return to normal, your adrenaline will subside - and burnout can strike.

Ways to deal with burnout

So how can you (and your employees) deal with burnout? Ideally you would be able to get away from it all and reclaim some of that work-life balance that you’ve been so sorely lacking of late.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking a day off or a weekend away will suffice. You need to remove yourself from the source of the stress for a significant amount of time. Whether this is by booking a vacation, taking a sabbatical or even changing jobs.

Here are some more tips for dealing with burnout:

  • Limit your screen time - especially when you’re at home
  • Take regular breaks when working - get up and walk around the office or around the block
  • Spend your downtime with family or friends - laughter is the best medicine after all
  • Get out into nature and forget about deadlines and work for an hour or two
  • Chill out and do absolutely nothing - or meditate if that’s your thing
  • Exercise - even if you don’t feel like it, you WILL feel better afterwards

But of course, avoiding burnout altogether is far better than dealing with it in the first place. So how can you prevent burnout, both for yourself and your organization’s employees?

How can you, and your employees, avoid burnout?

As HR, you have a responsibility to make sure that your company culture is one that encourages work-life balance and not a culture of hustle.

Here’s how you can help your employees avoid burnout:

  • Encourage employees to use their full vacation allowance. Remind them to spread it out throughout the year rather than leaving it all until December.
  • Ensure employees know that if they’re feeling overwhelmed they can talk to HR or their manager. Creating an environment in which people feel safe to speak up is crucial.
  • Take a look at your policies surrounding leave. Could they be better? Should you offer duvet days or a better vacation allowance?
  • Managers should know not to call or email employees in their downtime, whether that’s in the evenings or at weekends. And especially not when people are on vacation!
  • Make sure you’re adequately staffed. If one person is trying to do the job of two, or even three, of course they’re going to hit their limits pretty quickly.
  • Check in with remote employees as well as office-based people on a regular basis. Make sure everyone is coping - especially those who you can’t see.
  • Ensure managers are giving employees sensible workloads that are as varied as possible.
  • Create a culture of recognition and rewards - it’s easy to do and can help with employee satisfaction (and retention) too.
  • Let employees know that they will not be penalized for speaking out and/or booking time off.
  • If an employee is considering taking a sabbatical, they should know that you would welcome their return. (Providing the circumstances are right, of course.)
  • Work on removing the stigma surrounding mental health and talking about it.
  • Inject an element of fun into the workday. Plan monthly team lunches or happy hour drinks. Make time for some fun team building exercises (that don’t eat into people’s own time.)

As Human Resources or a business leader, you owe it to your people to  create a happy, inclusive and healthy working environment.

Learn to spot the signs of burnout so you can step in immediately and help someone who is struggling - but do your utmost to avoid occupational burnout in the first place.

Why avoiding burnout is crucial for your company

If your workplace is one that very much embraces the round the clock, hustle ethic, it’s not going to be easy to dismantle that. And it won’t happen overnight.

If your business leaders are resistant to change, you need to let them know, in no uncertain terms, what the impact on your company will be if employees are burnt out.

It only takes a few people to get burnout for the knock-on effect to be real.

You can expect a decrease in performance, a drop in productivity, output and morale and a higher number of mistakes.

Your sickness and unauthorized absence rates will shoot up and, eventually, your retention rates will plummet as employees start to look elsewhere for work. And with the loss of people comes the decline of your brand and company reputation.

Think it’s all about the hustle? Think again. After all, wouldn’t you rather be known as a great place to work than a glorified hamster wheel that works its employees to the point of collapse?

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