Employee burnout is a psychological and emotional state in which an individual feels overwhelmed by workplace stresses. As a result, the employee can experience a decline in their physical and mental health, as well as a drop in productivity and a disengagement from their work. 

According to a study from Gallup, 23% of full-time employees reported feeling burned-out all of the time, while 44% experienced these symptoms sometimes.

Worryingly, the condition has become so common that is officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), which describes it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to the WHO’s definition, the term relates specifically to symptoms that are caused by a person’s occupation and should not be applied in other aspects of life.

In Japan, the situation has become such a concern that its language now includes the word “karoshi,” which translates to “overwork death.”

The causes of employee burnout

While every individual will have different issues that could cause chronic, overwhelming stress, common causes of employee burnout include the following.

Poor target-setting

It goes without saying that an employee who is expected to meet unrealistic expectations is more likely to suffer from burnout. However, unclear expectations can be equally damaging. A member of staff who is given a vague project brief or an unclear deadline may also experience feelings of stress and eventually burnout.

Dysfunctional relationships with superiors

An individual who feels unable to communicate with their direct superior or other members of your company’s leadership team may also be vulnerable to workplace stress. In this situation, a person may feel reluctant to speak up if they are feeling overworked.  

Micromanagement

If an employee believes that every aspect of their work is being closely monitored and criticized, they may begin to feel powerless, which can play a key role in emotional and psychological exhaustion.

Unfair working practices

When an employee feels that they have been mistreated in the workplace, this individual is likely to experience heightened stress levels. Practices that employees perceive as unfair could include long hours, favoritism of certain individuals, and, in more extreme cases, bullying. The effects of sexism, racism, ageism, and other identity-based discrimination can also contribute to burnout.

Inadequate compensation

For some employees, the feeling that they are putting in long hours or juggling difficult workloads for inadequate compensation or few benefits can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction, resentment, or burnout.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

Although every individual is different, an employee experiencing burnout may exhibit the following symptoms.

Increased sick days

When a person is burned out, they are likely to suffer physical, as well as physiological symptoms, which may result from insomnia, irregular eating habits, and a compromised immune system—all of which can result in increased workplace absence. In fact, research from Gallup has found that burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

Social isolation

A person who is feeling overwhelmed by workplace pressures may distance themselves from other members of their team. If you notice that a formerly sociable employee is withdrawing from their colleagues, you should consider employee burnout as a possible cause.

Negative behavior or cynicism

If an employee with a previously positive attitude suddenly begins to display reduced levels of enthusiasm, it could indicate that they are feeling overwhelmed by their working hours or do not have a strong relationship with your leadership team.

Poor concentration

Burned-out individuals may find it difficult to focus on everyday activities that they normally complete with ease. Any members of your team who suddenly appear distracted or unable to concentrate could be at risk of burnout.

Worsening performance

If a person is feeling physically and emotionally depleted, they are more likely to make mistakes when performing routine tasks. Although a certain level of human error is, of course, inevitable, a team member who frequently makes mistakes or whose performance is slipping despite putting in reasonable effort could be suffering from burnout.

While the symptoms above relate specifically to individuals, it may also be a sign of a wider problem surrounding burnout if your business has a particularly high turnover of employees. 

What is the cost of employee burnout?

When it comes to burnout, the implications for your bottom line are very real. If an employee is suffering from burnout, they are more likely to disengage from their work. According to research from Gallup, workers who are not engaged cost their company the equivalent of 18% of their annual salary. In a business of 10,000 employees with an average annual salary of $50,000, the cost of disengagement could be $60.3 million annually. 

These individuals are also 2.6 times more likely to be looking for another job, which can have serious financial implications in terms of recruitment and training costs.

As well as the financial cost, there’s also a high personal cost of employee burnout. Burned-out employees may feel a loss of identity Burned-out employees can feel a loss of identity and motivation and/or motivation. If sufferers experience a poor work-life balance, they may find themselves spending less time with their loved ones and even miss key events in their families’ lives. This can significantly affect people’s psychological well-being and have serious long-term consequences.

What can HR leaders do about employee burnout?

While a certain amount of stress in the workplace is inevitable, and can even be healthy, there are steps you can take to ensure your employees’ anxiety levels remain manageable.

Set well-defined goals

When assigning tasks, try to be clear about the desired outcome and your expectations of your employees. Remember to ensure that any goals you set for your team members can reasonably be achieved within their working hours. It may be helpful to schedule one-to-one meetings so employees can discuss their progress or raise any concerns.

Encourage breaks

One of the most effective ways to avoid burnout is to encourage employees to build wellness into their daily routine by reminding them to take regular breaks. This way, they can refocus, release stress, and rebuild their energy levels.

Create well-being programs

You can cultivate a healthier workplace culture by creating platforms through which employees can discuss their mental and physical health problems. You may, for example, offer courses on stress management or encourage exercise as a means of boosting wellness.

Establish clear distinctions between home and work life

If an employee feels that they are always on call, it can prevent them from fully relaxing when they are away from the office. Try to create a culture in which individuals are discouraged from checking emails or making calls outside of their normal working hours.

Praise employee achievements

When an individual has gone the extra mile on a project or surpassed expectations, ensure that they receive the recognition they deserve. 

Ask your employees’ opinions

By undertaking regular employee engagement surveys, you can ask your members of staff for their feelings on their current workload, work-life balance, levels of compensation, and their relationship with their manager.

Find solutions to workplace issues

Once you have feedback from your team about a problem, whether it be discrimination or unrealistic expectations, taking immediate steps to fix the issue shows employees you care and could avoid burnout issues before they begin. 

Use empathy and compassion

If an employee is struggling with burnout, try to understand their situation and see what support they need to feel better and return to peak performance. This can also help create a workplace culture where employees feel empowered to speak up about issues and find solutions together.    

Conclusion

Whatever your business, your employees are some of your most valuable assets. If they are experiencing emotional and physical exhaustion, they are not only putting their health in jeopardy, they could also be costing you money. Luckily, there are ways you can spot the signs of employee burnout before the damage is irreparable and actions you can take to create a productive, yet healthy, workplace culture.