Burnout at work remains top of mind for leaders, for several good reasons. First and foremost, it’s costly and can lead to real damage to the business. Secondly, burnout is a key catalyst of employee turnover – 95% of HR professionals said burnout is affecting retention in one report. Finally, as dire as its consequences can be, burnout is both preventable and resolvable – if leaders can identify and focus upon the root causes within their organisations.

Burnout at work is a real health condition:

While people may casually say they’re burned out when they simply need a break, burnout is a real health condition that is distinct from exhaustion and disengagement, its close cousins.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation added new detail to the description of burnout syndrome, which is classified in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, 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.”

Burnout, when it occurs, is more entrenched than exhaustion or overwork, and is difficult to rectify. One example of its persistence and effect on people is the simple fact that time off does very little to help employees who are burned out. While most employees return from a break rested and refreshed, those who are burned out face returning to work with nothing short of dread.

Recognising the signs of employee burnout

Leaders who keep their ears to the rail of their business can recognise the signs of employee burnout before it takes hold. An early warning sign is often one’s gut instinct telling them something’s not right, and it shows up in reduced work quality, declining enthusiasm for new initiatives, fewer people “going the extra mile” and worsening morale.

As burnout becomes more serious, it also becomes more measurable. Project deadlines slip, productivity declines, and absenteeism starts to increase. Leaders whose gut instincts are sounding an alarm should take a fresh look at their HR and employee engagement data, and look for trends in unscheduled absences, as well as downward shifts in engagement scores (or an uptick in negative feedback.)

At its most serious, employee burnout results in increases in paid leave and turnover – both of which are enormously costly to the business.

What to do about burnout at work: 

Put simply, burnout happens when employees feel powerless, such as when they are faced with unrelenting workloads or unreasonable deadlines, feel they are being treated unfairly, or don’t have the tools, information, or support they need to do their jobs.

Leaders faced with burnout within their organisations should meet the problem head-on, and assess which of these issues are present within the teams that are struggling.

Asking for employee feedback or surveying the affected team is an important early step in the process – people feel less powerless when they know they are heard, and in this case, the simple act of listening can act as a valve, releasing some of the pressure and buying leaders some time. In addition to providing employees with tangible evidence of management’s awareness of the issue, survey results and feedback can help leaders identify teams that are struggling. Ideally, the survey will be well crafted and, in addition to pinpointing where the problem is within the organisation, the data will also provide insight into the underlying causes, as well.

In many cases, the root cause of burnout is the manager. 

The number one reason why people leave their job is because of their manager. While we’re not trying to impugn managers, there is no escaping the fact that their influence upon employees and the employee experience is significant. According to a landmark study by Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units. The company also asserts that this variation is in turn responsible for severely low worldwide employee engagement

Outstanding managers are a rare breed. Coaching and upskilling your company leaders and helping them understand the impact of their behaviors on people is the first line of defense against burnout and creating a situation where a manager is compelling employees to leave.

When burnout is identified on a team, it’s often a sign that the manager is struggling.

To quickly understand where burnout could exist within your organisation – and what’s causing it – use our Leadership Perception Gap survey in conjunction with our comprehensive Benchmark Assessment employee engagement survey. Together, these surveys provide a clear view of which teams are thriving, where leaders are struggling, and what issues employees are facing. 

Remote working has created new challenges for managers that can contribute to burnout at work. 

The last year and a half threw challenge after challenge at leaders and required many to manage employees remotely — which requires a range of entirely new skills. As a result, pitfalls we’re seeing remote leaders fall into include several behaviors that align with the burnout drivers listed above, but in different ways, such as:

  • Becoming invisible to employees now that all are working remotely, with the result that employees feel less supported
  • 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

Combatting burnout starts with first understanding its root causes, and then identifying where those exist within your organisation. The next step is more complex – leaders need to understand the factors that contributed to the circumstances their people are facing. Did managers misinterpret priorities? Did the company fail to anticipate the unexpected consequences of new policies? Is a team dealing with a toxic workplace?

The point is this: the causes of burnout at work are unlikely to be remedied entirely by policy change: revising policies will not resolve underlying drivers such as an absent leader, one who treats employees unfairly, or a poor communicator. Durable remedies start with the company’s leadership, and the behaviors they both model and reward.