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5-Alarm Fire: What Happens When Your Employees Burn Out

Jennifer Dublino
Jennifer Dublino
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 14, 2022

Employee burnout is a serious problem for both the employee and the company.

You may have heard one of your employees say they felt “burned out,” or you might have even felt that way yourself. While you may be tempted to dismiss employees who complain about burnout as whiners or not being tough enough, burnout is a legitimate problem that has lasting repercussions for both the individual employee and the company. When an employee experiences burnout, it is a red flag that something in the company needs to be addressed. 

Here’s how to spot this phenomenon in your company and what to do about it when it occurs.

What is burnout?

Employee burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. In other words, although it does have potentially serious physical and mental health implications, it is brought on by the work environment. 

Specifically, burnout is created by chronic workplace stress that the employee cannot manage successfully. All of the following characterize workplace burnout: 

  • Feeling exhausted and having low energy
  • Feeling mentally disengaged 
  • Having negative feelings toward your job and/or employer
  • Being less productive in your work 

All jobs are stressful at times, and not everyone who feels stress at work is experiencing burnout. Burnout occurs when workplace stress is long-lasting — not a temporary situation — with little relief, and when it causes a mental separation between the employee and the job. 

Burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, including a demanding and non-empathetic boss, lack of recognition at work, feeling as if your work and efforts do not make a difference and long hours with high stress. 

Workplace burnout was prevalent during the pandemic, especially among healthcare professionals who felt helpless in the face of overwhelming tasks, short staffing, limited medical supplies and long hours, and a situation in which many patients died despite their best efforts. However, burnout in the past several years is not just limited to the healthcare field. According to the American Psychological Association, almost three in five employees reported negative consequences of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). 

Did you know?Did you know? A Gallup-Workhumanreport found that 25% of employees say they are burned out at work “very often” or “always.”

What are the business consequences of employee burnout?

Employee burnout has a range of negative consequences for businesses. 

Decline in productivity

As you can imagine, if up to a quarter of your workforce is feeling burned out, productivity will suffer. These employees work well below their capacity, causing delays, errors and cost overruns. Even a single burnt-out employee can cause real disruption in your business. These employees often cannot be counted on to complete their assigned tasks, and others in the company may be forced to take up the slack, causing more dissatisfaction as their workloads increase. 

Health problems and increased absenteeism

According to the Mayo Clinic, burned-out employees are prone to medical and psychological symptoms such as insomnia, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, a higher vulnerability to illnesses, alcohol or substance abuse, sadness, anger and irritability. Burned-out employees take more sick days, reducing overall productivity and increasing healthcare insurance costs. And, of course, there is the physical and psychological toll on the burned-out employee. [Read related article: How to Stop Absenteeism in the Workplace.]

Dissatisfaction and poor morale

Employees who are feeling burned out have low morale, which can quickly spread throughout your organization. They may complain about the company or management to their peers, spreading discontent. Those with a very negative attitude toward the company may even engage in sabotage or theft. Employees experiencing burnout will likely be looking for a new job, increasing turnover and its associated costs.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

How can you tell if an employee is burned out? Ideally, an employee who feels burned out would report to management what’s causing them to feel this way so they can take the appropriate action. However, since one of the symptoms is a feeling of disengagement, this may not happen. So you should be proactive in trying to detect burnout. Look for these signs.

  • Markedly lower productivity
  • An increase in errors 
  • Increased cynicism 
  • Complaints from other employees
  • An increase in sick days taken
  • Frequent and uncharacteristic tardiness
  • Looking tired, even early in the workday
  • Hearing that the employee has been complaining a lot about the company, manager or job
  • Discovering that the employee is looking for another job
  • Hearing the employee say things like “whatever,” “who cares,” or “what’s the point?”

FYIFYI: According to a Deloitte survey of professionals on burnout, the biggest causes of burnout are lack of support or recognition from leadership (31%), having unrealistic deadlines or expectations (30%) and consistently having to work long hours or on weekends (29%).

How can you prevent and manage employee burnout?

Although employees will have a different sensitivity to the dysfunctional factors that lead to burnout, they can contribute to an unpleasant and unproductive work environment for everyone. It, therefore, makes sense to create a more positive work environment in the following ways. 

Recognize employee efforts and achievements regularly 

One of the most significant factors leading to burnout is feeling unappreciated. If an employee is putting in the effort, managers should recognize that effort regularly. This makes the employee feel valued and reinforces the idea that their work matters. 

How often should you recognize employees? Employees surveyed by Gallup/Workhuman said the frequency should be a few times a month (28%), or a week (24%), or daily (17%). Sadly, 29% get recognized only a few times a year, 11% get recognized less than once a year and 8% of employees surveyed said they never receive recognition.

TipTip:When managers recognize employee contributions a few times a month or more, the company experiences positive effects on engagement, culture, well-being and turnover intention.

Set clear job expectations

If employees are unclear about their responsibilities and authority, they won’t be comfortable in their jobs and won’t be able to perform their duties confidently. Have written job descriptions and relevant job training. Let employees know upfront what they have the authority to do and what tasks fall within their job. If they are expected to interact with other employees to get or hand off work products, let them know who these individuals are and what to do if there is a problem.

Give agency

While not all employees can be the manager, it is important to give employees some authority to solve problems, especially once they have experience in their position. Trusting employees to handle problems not only improves their job satisfaction, but can also have positive customer outcomes. Be sure to let them know the limits of their authority and what to do when the problem exceeds these limits. When an employee solves a thorny issue, be sure to give them recognition.

Keep an eye on the workplace dynamics

Sometimes, burnout is caused by dysfunctional workplace dynamics, where a manager is abrasive, unreasonable or plays favorites. Or there could be one or more employees who are rude, discriminatory or abusive. Visit each department to see and assess the workplace dynamics for yourself. Allow employees to report sensitive problems to someone other than their direct report. If you find that a manager or employee is not acting acceptably, take action by discussing the problem with them, enforcing disciplinary action or firing them. When you hire managers, tell them about your expectations for proper workplace behavior and management style.

Mix it up 

Employees will get bored and begin to disengage if a job is too monotonous. Likewise, jobs that are too chaotic will be overwhelming to employees. When possible, give employees a variety of tasks or rotate them into different responsibilities.

Have reasonable workload and hours

Each employee should only have as much work as one person can reasonably handle. Although you may have busier times when employees may be required to work more, these should be relatively short periods. Otherwise, you should hire more people to handle the workload. If you are in a crunch and need an employee to put in significantly more time and effort, give them some additional compensation as a way of saying “thank you.” Using top employee scheduling software can also prevent short staffing.

If you are actively looking for signs of burnout among your employees and creating a positive work environment, you can avoid its negative impacts on both your employees and your bottom line. 

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
Jennifer Dublino
Jennifer Dublino
business.com Contributing Writer
Jennifer Dublino is a prolific researcher, writer, and editor, specializing in topical, engaging, and informative content. She has written numerous e-books, slideshows, websites, landing pages, sales pages, email campaigns, blog posts, press releases and thought leadership articles. Topics include consumer financial services, home buying and finance, general business topics, health and wellness, neuroscience and neuromarketing, and B2B industrial products.