Understanding the Signs of Burnout at Work—and What to Do About Them

CoachHub · 5 September 2022 · 5 min read

It’s not often that an employee will flat-out tell a manager “I’m burnt out.” Too much is at stake—namely, the employee’s livelihood. Managers must become adept at recognizing the signs of burnout at work and coaching employees to support their wellbeing and ensure the health of the organization as a whole.

They have their work cut out for them. In its 2021 Work and Well-Being Survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 71% of employed Americans feel tense or stressed out at work. Lack of interest, motivation and energy ensue. So does difficulty focusing on work, reduced effort and lower productivity. And if that’s not alarming enough, almost 20% of stressed-out employees are ready to jump ship. The most affected are those in sales, entertainment, customer service or who perform manual labor, but people in administrative, managerial and professional roles aren’t far behind.

The Symptoms of Burnout

Recognizing the symptoms of burnout is the first step in solving for them. The World Health Organization uses three categories to capture the symptoms of workplace stress:

  1. Energy depletion and exhaustion – Low energy shows up in so many ways: tardiness, a drop in productivity, longer breaks, shorter tempers, shying away from opportunity, etc. Deploying surveys can help companies understand precisely what the stressors are so they can work on eliminating what’s causing energy to plummet.
  2. Feeling negative, cynical or disengaged from one’s job – Some people are quite verbal about what they do and don’t like about their company, their job or their boss. Others are much more reluctant to voice their opinion but may show their feelings via body language or the quality of their personal interactions. It’s difficult to ascertain truth from hyperbole or reticence, but companies should pay attention to deviations from the norm.
  3. Being less effective at work – Effectiveness is often conflated with productivity, though they’re not precisely the same. Productivity measures abound for just about everything. Effectiveness can be more nuanced and less prone to easily quantifiable evaluation. To combat it, companies must first define what they mean by “effective” in a way that can be objectively assessed.

Of course, there are any number of reasons people might lack energy, feel less than positive or struggle with productivity at work, and it can be uncomfortable to broach such an intimate conversation with a supervisor, coworker or direct report. Anonymized employee surveys enable organizations to spot trends and anomalies and establish programs aimed at increasing general wellbeing in the workplace. On a more personal level, establishing a cadence of regular one-on-one conversations builds rapport and helps managers spot signs of burnout that might otherwise go unnoticed. When done well, they create trust between manager and employee and provide a private space in which to explore solutions in a positive manner. Trend-spotting surveys applicable to the larger population and scheduled one-on-ones complement each other and can create a useful framework for spotting the symptoms of burnout early.

Employee well-being and burnout

The Top Causes of Burnout at Work

When employees reach a tipping point, signs of burnout begin to surface. But what’s triggering the stress in the first place? Those surveys and one-on-one conversations can help organizations pinpoint what’s happening so they can eradicate not just the symptoms, but the cause. Below is a snapshot of the burnout factors that topped the list in the APA’s survey. Not every organization will align precisely with this survey, but it provides a good place to start thinking about causation and what can be done about it.

It’s also worth noting that almost every category came in several percentage points higher than it did in the APA’s 2019 survey. For example, in 2021 low salaries were cited by 56% of respondents as having a very big or significant impact on their stress levels at work; that’s up from 49% in 2019.

How to Recover from Burnout: The Company Perspective

Identifying signs of burnout and understanding what causes it are one thing. Figuring out what to do about it is another. If the solution is perceived to be detrimental to profits, company leaders may end up kicking the can down the road. It can be tempting, but one of the worst things an organization can do when exploring how to recover from burnout (other than ignore the issue altogether) is to make it known that they are searching for a cause then doing nothing to address the problem. People have only so much patience, and they see through empty rhetoric.

Companies should approach burnout with the attitude of “there’s always something that can be done.” It needn’t be an all-or-nothing solution. And honesty just may be the policy. Embark on a well-publicized exploration of solutions to the problem, from the incremental to the all-encompassing. Talk about what you’re considering and why. Talk about what won’t work for the company and why. And by all means, include employees. As we pointed out a moment ago, lack of participation in decision making is a leading cause of workplace stress. When that’s one of the top issues a company faces, the simple act of including people in the solution can reduce workplace stress in and of itself.

Approaching solutions to burnout in a hopeful, positive manner won’t be enough for all employees. Some may still choose to leave if the solution simply doesn’t work for them, or if it takes too long to implement. Others, however, will choose to stay if they feel heard and note real change happening in the business.

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Coaching Employees Through Burnout

Supporting mental health in the workplace isn’t just a nice-to-have. As we’ve seen, there are real, dollars-and-cents consequences to job burnout. We’ve found that positive emotions bring about higher levels of engagement, productivity and growth. Coaching helps employees develop a positive outlook through self-reflection and mental health awareness, so they feel empowered, resilient and able to confidently navigate the ups and downs inherent in any industry. In fact, 8 out of 10 of the coachees who’ve participated in digital coaching through CoachHub Wellbeing™ report a significant reduction in their levels of stress. Being able to identify the signs of burnout, get to the root of what’s causing it and coach people to overcome it successfully can pay dividends for every organization.

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