Employee burnout is an ‘occupational phenomenon’ that unfortunately is infiltrating its way into workplaces of all sizes and industries. It is the result of chronic occupational stress that has been left simmering and building over time.

Burnout is not something reserved for senior level positions or those who travel often. It has made its way across all levels of the business as each employee has a different capacity to cope with stress and rebalance the wellbeing scales. Many workers do not speak up for fear of negative ramifications, while others do not believe that their voice will be heard.

So what is employee burnout?

While ‘employee burnout’ is not considered a mental illness, there is no question that it is a mental health issue that can be crippling for both the employee and the organisation. Some employers are proactively adopting wellbeing strategies, educating leaders and offering support mechanisms that matter. Others are missing the spot fires and only jumping into action when the bushfire is raging.

Burnout can be identified or characterised by reduced productivity, emotional exhaustion, inability to perform the inherent requirements of the position, cynicism, and a level of negativity that is out of character.

The signs of burnout can vary but some key ones to look for are when employees:

  • struggle to feel that the work that they are doing is meeting standards
  • feel incompetent or not good enough for their job
  • do not feel valued by their employer for their hard work and value
  • expect too much of themselves
  • feel that there is too much work and struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel
  • cannot connect to their leaders and do not feel empowered to do the job
  • suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’
  • are in a job that is not a good fit.

Stressed or burnt out?

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of employees experiencing burnout will stay at work and try to weather the storm. The word ‘stress’ at work has been used so often that most employees accept it as ‘part of the job’. Arguably, some stress in a role is healthy as it can drive performance, innovation, and collaboration. But taken to the extreme, stress is dangerous to an employee’s mental health. It is common for leaders to misdiagnose burnout for stress yet they are quite different.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed and a diminished ability to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It is a feeling of emotional or physical tension that can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. Stress is your body's reaction to a challenge or demand. Stress commonly leaves you feeling a sense of urgency and anxiety.

According to the National Library of Medicine, burnout is a psychological syndrome that emerges as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The 3 key dimensions of this response are overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burnout is commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy.

What can a leader do to prevent burnout?

Employee burnout is a significant issue as first and foremost, it impacts an employee’s mental health and wellbeing. In addition, employers will experience an increase in absenteeism and turnover, a drop in productivity, and a negative impact on engagement.

Leaders can understandably struggle to identify the warning signs and may feel helpless in devising proactive prevention strategies. It may be easy to pick employees susceptible to burnout who have a major project, regular travel commitments, or a stressful workload but there are other tell-tale signs.

Recognising the signs and symptom of burnout

Not every employee suffering from burnout will present the same way, so it is important to keep an open mind when looking for the signs. For example, some workers will be triggered by putting in the hard yards and not feeling appreciated while others may enter burnout due to ongoing conflict, an overload of work, or unrealistic expectations.

Interestingly, some employees will not be aware that they have hit ‘burnout’ or that it has negatively impacted their work. This makes it even more important for leaders to watch carefully for signs, as if it is left unchecked, burnout can increase the chances of developing ongoing mental health conditions.

Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • increased errors or reduction in productivity
  • fatigue and lower motivation levels
  • irritability and negativity
  • increased frustration and a lack of trust in the business
  • ‘spinning the wheels’ behaviour where hours do not translate to output.

Left unchecked, burnout can result in:

  • ongoing negativity that impacts the company culture
  • alcohol and drug abuse to cope
  • increased risk of accidents and absenteeism
  • decreased productivity and job satisfaction
  • poor physical and mental health
  • debilitating self-doubt and a lack of ability to function in a team
  • clinical depression or anxiety.

5 prevention strategies for leaders

  1. Show employees their value by conducting regular 1 on 1’s and sharing specific examples of the value they bring to the organisation.
  2. Lead by example with reasonable work hours. Take your lunch break and call it a day after reasonable hours have been worked. Refrain from emailing employees after hours and use ‘staying back’ as an exception and not the rule.
  3. Set clear goalposts that are well communicated. Some employees end up in burnout because they are working so hard trying to figure out expectations. Be clear on what success looks like and share it with the team. Ensure workloads are reasonable.
  4. Develop employees and set them up for success. Ensure team members have the support and tools they need and make development part of your culture.
  5. Adopt psychologically safe leadership. Reflect on the role that leadership plays in burnout and tailor strategies to improve psychological health and safety.

Reducing burnout starts with leaders

Organisations have a vital role to invest in training and support employees to reduce workplace stressors and burnout. However, it is the frontline leader that can be the most influential in identifying the signs and adopting preventative strategies.

Hard work has long been celebrated as an admirable employee quality but there is a fine line between rolling up your sleeves and being emotionally and physically bankrupt. Given that burnout can spread like wildfire, and commonly impacts high performers, it is time to take a stand and focus on what really matters.

Further information

For assistance with workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.