Know the signs and symptoms of burnout

The term "burnout" was originally coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to define the nervous breakdowns he and his colleagues experienced while working grueling hours in a substance abuse clinic in New York City. Freudenberger described burnout as when “people’s inner resources burn out, leaving a great emptiness inside, although their outer shells may be more or less unchanged.”3 Around that same time, Christina Maslach, Ph.D. developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a now widely used framework for identifying and measuring the risk of burnout. Understanding this system's three scales can help employers identify the signs and symptoms of possible employee burnout.4 

  • Exhaustion. Workers experiencing job burnout feel drained, overextended, emotionally exhausted, and unable to cope. This stress can sometimes include physical manifestations like lethargy. 
  • Cynicism.  People struggling with burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics cause them to disengage and distance themselves, becoming more cynical about their work conditions and their colleagues. Rather than putting forth their best effort, they’re trying to do the bare minimum and aren’t producing at their highest level.
  • Inefficacy. Burnout not only affects daily tasks but how someone feels about themselves. This manifests as the uncertainty of work quality, feelings of being stuck, and unable to control the future. People at this stage of burnout have difficulty concentrating and lack creativity, which usually leads to a noticeable decline in productivity and emotional exhaustion. 

Six workplace factors that make or break employee burnout

Certain elements of a workplace can contribute to employee burnout. It’s true that burnout can look different from person to person, but organization leaders are ultimately responsible for ensuring a healthy workplace for all. Here’s how to tell the difference between healthy and burnout-prone work environments.   

  Burnout-Prone Healthy workplace
Workload When there’s an imbalance between too many demands and too little resources (i.e. personal bandwidth, support staff, etc.) then workers are fighting a losing battle. Clear company values communicated from people leaders. 
Values The workplace is devoid of purpose and passion. Employees understand why their work matters and they feel it contributes positively to their own growth and society as a whole.
Reward No recognition for contributions beyond salary and benefits. Regular recognition for contributions.
Community The environment is dysfunctional, with office bullies, micromanagement, and rudeness allowed to rule. A supportive work community that’s committed to a culture of uplifting each other.
Fairness Unequal, preferential treatment, leads to disengagement. Recognition and reward. When other people notice and appreciate someone’s work and let them know, that’s meaningful.
Control No workplace autonomy. Workers are trusted to do their jobs, be creative, and express ideas.

Be mindful of how burnout can creep into the workplace

The effect of burnout extends beyond the office. Life is complex, and at one time or another, workers may need support to get through difficult times. Workers may have personal issues that are at the root of their burnout. Historically, companies have been inclined to treat these issues as personal problems rather than organizational challenges. But if you want employees to come to work thinking, feeling, and performing at their best, personal struggles are absolutely issues your organization must address. 

Steps employers can take to help prevent workplace burnout and improve mental health

Openly talk about well-being as a priority for your organization 

Reducing the stigma around mental wellness, employee well-being, and burnout is key to creating an environment in which employees can openly share with colleagues and managers. When organizations make well-being a cultural priority — a part of its “why we exist, what we believe in, and how we do things” — it’ll empower employees to discover a healthy, meaningful, and productive work life. Cultural changes can be driven from the top-down. Messaging from leadership that clearly communicates well-being as a priority can be the first step to normalizing colleagues supporting each other to work reasonable hours, taking personal time off, and finding a balanced lifestyle. 

Become aware of your employees’ preferences and empower them 

Burnout is unique because each employee will have their own motivators and preferences. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Learning what works for each individual employee will help effectively manage your workforce. 

Give employees permission to set emotional boundaries with their work to help find their “work stress sweet spot,” which balances acute stress (good) and chronic stress (bad). Help employees find their “sweet spot” of stress. Acute (good) stress keeps you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge. Chronic (bad) stress, and our response to bad stress, can lead to many health problems, both physical and mental.6 

Make sure you’re offering the right benefits and resources 

One of the most important ways that employees can start to prevent burnout is by taking scheduled time off.5 Flexible hours, mental health days off, and paid time off give workers the opportunity to recharge. 

Additionally, in a culture where well-being is a priority, workers will feel more comfortable asking for help. Offering access to benefits and resources specific to mental wellness is perfect for handling these requests. Opportunities such as in-person or virtual therapy, mental health assessments, and mindfulness exercises have all been clinically proven to drive faster recovery times, increase workplace attendance, and improve overall well-being.7 

Ensure managers model stress-reducing behaviors 

You can “talk the talk,” but your company leadership will need to “walk the walk.” Leadership can set the tone, but managers can become the true conduits of change since they interact closely with a wider range of employees. Observing healthy work practices like sending emails within work hours, practicing gratitude, offering support, being aware of an overwhelming workload, and encouraging time-off will reduce burnout, and help to keep employees engaged and work-life balance in check. 

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