Exhaustion, employee burnout, and disengagement are workplace topics that are quickly gaining an outsize share of the headlines, and no wonder – they are very real workplace issues with which business leaders are grappling right now.

It’s worth spending time dissecting the similarities and differences between them: doing so will help leaders identify which are present within their organisations, so they can mitigate their effects.

How to recognise the difference between employee exhaustion, burnout, and disengagement

A simple way to think about the differences between exhaustion, employee burnout, and disengagement is whether someone feels enthusiasm or dread when thinking about returning to work after a holiday. Will they show up cheerful, energised, and in a positive frame of mind when they come back to work – or is their dread of returning to work hanging over their heads like a storm cloud?

Spotting the difference is crucial: people who are simply exhausted will be refreshed and recharged after spending time away. However, employees who are burnt out are likely to remain so, even with a welcome break, and could be on the path to total disengagement.

Understanding whether any of these forces are creeping within your organisation is vital for leaders, to best position the company for recovery.

Employee exhaustion at work

While this is the least serious and most easily remedied of the three, there’s more to employee exhaustion than simply being tired.

The exhaustion so many employees are feeling right now is the result of months of stress in all its forms: fear for the health of family, friends, and oneself; economic uncertainty; the isolation and lack of human interaction – just to name a few. The greater number of stressors we have been experiencing, and their seriousness, have exacted a mental toll that employers cannot overlook. And the result is deep exhaustion at the workplace.

“It feels like the whole world is tired. Even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to,” reads a recent Harvard Business Review article.

Without mitigation, exhaustion can turn into employee burnout. The above-referenced Harvard Business Review article offers detailed advice for addressing exhaustion within a team and posits that the right approach blends empathy and compassion, but also invites individuals to think about and embrace their personal resilience, in a true “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” moment.

Platitudes of “we’re in this together” may fall on deaf ears, however, and overindulging in the compassion side can quickly engender learned helplessness. The article cautions that leaders need to balance compassion with “containment,” which is defined as the ability to absorb what’s going on around oneself, while also providing a sense of stability. In the article, the authors suggest that stability can be maintained by setting limits while still raising the bar, and “helping each other snap out of self-pity and moodiness.”

“Yes, the current moment calls for compassion, but it also calls for a little more edge and collective defiance against the injustice of the virus. You want people to say “enough is enough” and rise to fight against the gloom.” says psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg.

Employee burnout

In 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, the World Health Organization added new detail to the description of employee burnout syndrome, which is classified in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, burnout is defined as follows:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by 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.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

However, as a leading researcher and expert on employee burnout, Christina Maslach noted, “Categorizing burnout as a disease was an attempt by the WHO to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies.

Indeed, the overlap between burnout and employee engagement is clear. As identified by Gallup, the top five reasons employees burn out include:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Fair treatment, role clarity, and clear communications and support from one’s manager are all drivers of employee engagement. However, when any of these are absent and are combined with an insurmountable workload and unreasonable expectations, it’s easy to see how an employee would quickly become not just exhausted but disheartened.

Additionally, the rapid shift to working from home in response to the pandemic may be creating new issues for employees, as managers struggle with the adjustment to remote leadership, and exhibit new behaviours that were not previously observed. Pitfalls we’re seeing remote leaders fall into include several behaviours that align with the burnout drivers listed above, including:

  • Becoming invisible to employees now that all are working remotely
  • Expecting employees to be “always-on” and immediately responsive to emails
  • Using technology to monitor employee activities
  • Over-reliance upon meetings, as a proxy for keeping tabs on productivity

How to prevent employee burnout

The remedies for burnout take aim at the five factors that contribute to employee burnout, and they start with the company’s leadership. Revising policies will not resolve underlying drivers such as an absent leader, one who treats employees unfairly, or a poor communicator.

Follow these four tips to help prevent employee burnout at your organisation:

  • Assess employees’ workloads, especially if you’re short-staffed. Make adjustments as necessary to ensure expectations align reasonably with capability. These adjustments may include prioritising projects, pausing some work, extending timings, and adjusting quotas. Realise that while people may be willing to put in extra effort in the short term, expecting employees to “go the extra mile” isn’t a long-term strategy.
  • Focus on outcomes, rather than inputs. For a call center, that means measuring reductions in call volume and customer satisfaction, rather than contacts per hour or time per call. Shifting the end goal to satisfied customers, rather than the speed with which reps can get clients off the phone – will create very different motivations for the team.
  • Set clear and realistic goals and priorities and communicate them with the team. Short-term, SMART goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) are especially useful in these conditions.
  • Coach the whole team – managers and employees alike – to be aware of when they feel the work is becoming unmanageable. Employees need to feel comfortable enough to speak up and be reassured that their managers will listen, be supportive, and help employees re-prioritise their work. In particular, managers should make a point of assessing how their people are doing against the revised goals.

Employee disengagement

Engaged employees bring their best selves to work, and are enthusiastic about and committed to their work and their employer. They relish playing an active role in the business and are willing to go the extra mile.

So, what is employee disengagement? A disengaged employee is the polar opposite, and no longer cares about the work they do or the company they work for. At their worst, actively disengaged employees are miserable and spread dissent and unhappiness to others on the team.

Disengagement is an increasingly prevalent issue as remaining employees are taking on the extra workload of those team members who left amid the Great Resignation.

A recent survey in the UK by outplacement firm Randstad Risesmart found that almost half of workers (42%) said their managers asked them to take on more work after the redundancies were made. The follow-on impact on employee morale is swift and negative, with 54% of employees surveyed saying they are disengaged and just going through the motions at work, up from 34%.

Employee disengagement can be extraordinarily costly to a company, stemming from increased absenteeism and higher rates of sick leave, lower productivity and quality of work, and ultimately, a higher rate of employee turnover.

While burnout and disengagement are different things, they are often found together, and without a doubt, burnout can lead to disengagement, if an employee sees no forthcoming improvements to their situation.

How to diagnose the issue and recover from employee burnout, exhaustion and/or disengagement

The most effective remedy is one that’s targeting the right issue. As they say, you don’t want to perform surgery with an ax.

The first task is taking a brave look within the organisation, and understanding how your people are doing. Are they exhausted, or do you have more serious, systemic problems that are leading to employee burnout, or worse, full disengagement?

These issues can be easily masked, and may not be evident at a glance. Depending upon the size of your organisation, there are various steps you can take to better understand if exhaustion or employee burnout are impacting your team, including

  • Talk to people, and not just your direct reports. Schedule skip-level meetings or small group discussions to hear directly from employees.
  • Assess your HR data for unusual patterns, such as a higher than normal number of absences, or increases in employees on leave.
  • Survey your employees. Without a doubt, this is the quickest and most accurate way to get a read on where the organisation stands. A well-constructed survey that guarantees employees full anonymity will enable leaders to gather frank feedback and provide a source of truth about the health of the company’s culture.

Recovery will start when one identifies core issues and acts upon the data and findings to begin resolution and improvement. The process can be aided significantly with healthy doses of transparency and clear communication. Here’s what we mean.

  • Share the findings with your team. In addition to building trust and credibility, being transparent in this way also creates shared context by defining the issues at hand, putting everyone on the same page. You may also find that sharing information in this way invites more feedback, motivating people to share more insights and feedback with leadership.
  • Communicate which issues you’ll be addressing first, along with any related plans and timelines. Be sure to communicate progress and outcomes along the way, to keep building credibility and make it clear to all that actions are being taken based upon employee feedback. The old credo of “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell ‘em what ya told ‘em” holds here. Repetition will make the message stick.
  • Re-survey your team (or go back for another round of skip-level and round table meetings) to gauge the impact of your actions, and gather reaction and feedback on your efforts.

Your efforts to diagnose and resolve issues within your team can be aided by an employee engagement survey platform like Engagement Multiplier. In addition to quickly gathering and tabulating results and data, our Secure Follow-Up and Suggestion Box tools make it easy for leaders to respond to individuals and solicit more input from teams.

Additionally, if you don’t have time to lose and need to get a handle on the health of your own team, you can use our Benchmark Assessment at no charge. There are no strings attached – the resulting data is yours to keep. Here are the details.