It’s More Than Just Fatigue: We Need to Address Employee Burnout

Let’s face it — the past year has all of us feeling some level of fatigue. Even under normal circumstances, fatigue, stress, and overwhelm are common; we’re only human. Though it’s a shared experience, we often underplay the level of fatigue or overwhelm we’re experiencing, which can not only further our fatigue but can create feelings of isolation.

Feeling “burnt out” has become a common phrase amongst tired people, so it’s not unusual to hear this around the office. The issue with normalizing the phrase is that when people are actually burnt out, they aren’t taken seriously as it’s typical to just shrug it off. 

Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress”, even being included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition, rather, WHO recognized burnout as a syndrome — “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

To be considered “burnout,” one must exhibit three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Stress vs. Burnout

Stress is normal, whether it’s having a work deadline or running late to an appointment because of traffic. In some cases, the feeling of overwhelm and stress are productivity inspirations — like that burst of adrenaline that helps you power through. While everyone gets overwhelmed or stressed, it should go away once the stressful situation is over or you’ve had time to process it. For example, after the deadline has passed, you should notice yourself going back to your normal state. 

Burnout on the other hand, builds upon itself. So, that missed deadline last week combines with the missed deadline this week, creating an overwhelmed feeling that does not generate productive results. There are other differences to note as well such as: 

Overwhelmed/stressed: Usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency to “fix” the issue. 

Burnt out: Feeling helplessness, hopelessness, or having no urgency as “what’s the point.” 

Often, anxiety or depression can be comorbidities of burnout, but, having one condition doesn’t mean you’re bound for burnout. 

Overwhelmed/stressed: You are able to focus on your work and achieving the task.

Burnt out: You won’t be able to put forth your best effort, or you may not even be able to engage at all. 

Noticing Burnout in Your Employees 

Overwhelm can be an early sign of burnout. Sometimes, once you reach burnout, it can be hard to come back from unless substantive changes are made. “As stress continues, you will begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.” source

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It’s subtle at first, but it can be seen and hopefully prevented. Some early signs of burnout can include: 

  • Missing deadlines, procrastinating on projects, having no sense of urgency to complete tasks
  • Getting lost in emails or phone calls or constantly running late to meetings
  • Not engaging in conversations, isolating from coworkers, increasingly cynical/negative attitude
  • Staying late, overworking, not respecting working boundaries
  • Irritability, uncharacterized outbursts, or, having little to no reactions or feelings

Some signs to spot burnout in yourself include: 

Physical: fatigue, frequent headaches, illness, change in eating habits. 

Emotional: sense of failure and self-doubt, detachment, loss of motivation, decreased satisfaction.

Behavioral: isolating from others, withdrawing from responsibilities, procrastination, skipping work or coming in late. 

How Managers Can Help Avoid and Come Back From Overwhelm and Burnout

When someone is burnt out, they typically have given up and cannot care enough to worry about work. It’s as if at some point, they’ve lost interest in juggling things. 

Burnout can stem from an employee feeling underappreciated or inadequate, perhaps from being in roles that aren’t the right fit for them or feeling that they’re not making a difference in the company through their contributions. This can result in increased errors, lower productivity, increased turnover, communication breakdown, and an overall lack of team morale. If someone was once happy in their position, I do think it’s possible to come back from burnout, though significant changes must be made. 

These changes need to come from leaders, so, whether you’re a manager or you’re looking for suggestions to bring up to your manager, here are some steps to take to combat burnout: 

  1. Encourage using PTO. 
    • As I wrote about in the past, employees often have guilt when taking PTO, and it’s the manager’s job to help eliminate this. If someone taking a few days off causes chaos in the office, that’s a huge sign that you’re putting employees in a high-pressure environment, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s burnout. 
  2. Dive into responsibilities. 
    • Over time, work duties can change, with some people completely moving into different roles after years of employment. Check in to ensure that the work being done that’s been “added” still aligns with their responsibilities. Ask employees their favorite parts of their job, and make sure they have time to do that. 
    • Rearrange work without needing them to ask ensures that everyone has the opportunity to contribute at their maximum capacity. 
  3. Think outside the box. 
    • Perhaps instead of PTO, implement a monthly stipend for “wellness” that can be used for a gym membership, therapy, or a treat on themselves. Something as small as $25 a month can be a huge difference. 
  4. Encourage regular breaks, whether it’s for a coffee run or a short walk around the block. 
    • This is especially important when working in an office setting where most of the day is spent sitting in the same spot. 
  5. Provide healthy snack options and a filtered water station. 
  6. Ask your employees what they like so you can keep that in mind when the company provides lunch or takes everyone out for happy hour. 
  7. Prioritize check-ins that are about more than just company updates or performance reviews. 

Coming Back From Burnout

The best route for change is to ask your employees what they need. If they want to get past the burnout, they’ll likely be able to think of ways in which you can support them. For instance, “I just need a long weekend,” or “I just need to not work with X”. You’d be surprised at the difference seemingly “small” things can do. At the base level, your effort of acknowledging their struggle and making any change will be noticed. If you or someone you work with is feeling burnt out, HelpGuide offers some great ways to personally make changes. Above all, avoiding burnout is about making sure you’re valuing your employees and giving them credit for all that they do. Remember — great managers will not just accept the work from employees but will care about their wellbeing.