Work Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, & How to Deal With It

Gallup research found that 76 percent of employees experience burnout at work at least sometimes, while 28 percent reported they are burned out often or always at work. The toll work burnout takes on employees at all organizational levels is severe. It impacts physical and mental health, work productivity, and the ability of your leaders to engage employees in positive personal relations. Surveys have found that many factors contribute to burnout, and it is not just a heavy workload. The organizational culture, leadership communication style, and lack of management support are just some reasons.   

Myths about Work Burnout 

There are a lot of myths about work burnout. One is that it is the hours an employee works is the primary reason people get job burnout. Though it can contribute to burnout, multiple studies have shown that it’s the demands and conditions of work that exceed the capacity of employees to handle them that puts them at risk of developing burnout. It’s important to note the conditions of work are as influential as the demands of the job. This means factors like the organizational culture, leadership support, and employee communication are often more important than long work weeks.  

Paula Davis, J.D., M.A.P.P. discussed five myths about burnout in Psychology Today. 

Myth 1: Burnout means an employee is weak and unable to handle stress when in fact, people experience higher burnout rates when they believe they aren’t making a difference (think cog in a wheel). 

Myth 2: Burnout requires a major work change when all that may be required is a reshaping of the job to create a better fit. 

Myth 3: Employees must keep burnout a secret when it’s better to talk to someone, like a supervisor or counselor.

Myth 4: Taking a vacation or a day off will cure burnout when quick fixes don’t address the real issues.  

Myth 5: Someone experiencing burnout is also depressed, but only 20 percent of burnout cases involve depression. 

A Deloitte survey of 1,000 full-time U.S. professionals leads to another myth: This myth says employees passionate about their jobs don’t experience burnout. On the contrary, the survey found that 87 percent of the survey respondents said they are passionate about their jobs but frequently feel stressed, a precursor to burnout.

What is Work Burnout?

The Mayo Clinic describes job burnout as a type of work-related stress. It is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and a loss of personal identity.” People experiencing burnout see themselves as a cog in a wheel, grinding away at their job without feeling like a significant contributor and experiencing stress and distress. Job burnout impacts the quality of work and personal and work relationships. Employees experiencing burnout usually take more days off, trying to find some relief.

Though burnout is not a medical diagnosis, the World Health Organization included workplace burnout in the International Classification of Diseases. WHO defined it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed well. As the nonprofit HelpGuide explains, burnout goes beyond stress. People can experience stress but continue to believe they will feel better if they get everything under control. Burnout is different. It is a feeling of emptiness, exhaustion, lack of motivation, and a failure to see any hope in positive change.

Causes of Burnout

With the burnout myths in mind, it’s clear that working long hours is often not the major contributing factor, or it’s not the only factor. It is a set of factors and conditions that cause job burnout.

  • Lack of control over the job – Employees who feel like they have no control of their workload, job responsibilities, schedule, and deadlines will experience stress. Ambiguous work responsibilities, difficulty understanding job requirements, and lack of employee training all contribute to burnout.
  • Heavy workload for extended periods of time – Sometimes, employees must work long hours to meet a deadline or manage a special assignment, but these periods should have an ending. When people are expected to routinely carry heavy workloads and get little leadership support, the stress builds.
  • Inadequate resources - Employees who don’t have the right resources to do their job properly will experience a high level of frustration. 
  • Lack of recognition – Employees want recognition for their contributions and achievements. When they fail to get it, they are likely to feel resentful and unmotivated. It can destroy motivation.  
  • Lack of supervisor support – Employees don’t feel comfortable talking to their supervisor about what they are feeling or experiencing, so the stress gets worse. Supervisor-employee communication is weak. 
  • Poor leadership skills – A DDI Frontline Leader Project surveyed 1,000 managers, senior leaders, and individual contributors. The results once again showed that most employees (57 percent) leave a job because of their manager, and another 32 percent considered leaving for the same reasons. Employees who can’t leave their jobs and stay are likely to experience a high level of stress leading to burnout.   
  • Negative organizational culture – Employees work in a culture in which poor leadership permits harassment, bias, back-stabbing, or other poor workforce behaviors.
  • Personal factors - Personality factors, like low self-esteem, can make it difficult for some people to manage stress and avoid burnout.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed that working from home or remote working is not always ideal for some employees and can cause burnout. A much-quoted survey found that 69 percent of workers experienced burnout symptoms while working from home during COVID-19. Workers found themselves trying to do their work and attend online meetings while home responsibilities beckoned. Employees continue to adjust to the hybrid schedule in which they work in the office and at home. Even post-Covid is causing stress because a lot of uncertainty remains about future work schedules and locations for many employees.  

Symptoms of Burnout at Work 

Work burnout symptoms can take many forms. Following are some of the common signs of burnout at work. 

  • Feeling disengaged or tired most of the time, making it difficult to complete even small tasks 
  • Feeling dread at the thought of going to work, and disillusioned about the workplace or the job 
  • Experiencing negative emotions in which an employee is irritable, cynical and impatient with coworkers and customers, often causing conflict at work 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Physical health impairment leading to more sick days, more trips to the emergency room and more work injuries 
  • Feeling isolated and disillusioned 
  • Feeling disengaged and unmotivated 
  • Lacking a feeling of satisfaction from achievements and having a sense of failure 
  • Feeling trapped and defeated 
  • Withdrawing from responsibilities

The work burnout symptoms can express themselves in different ways in individuals because factors like personality traits are involved.  

What Employees Can Do to Alleviate Burnout  

Employees can take some steps to reduce stress and alleviate the signs of burnout at work. Still, it quickly becomes apparent that the quality of leadership skills is a huge determinant of how well employees can alleviate burnout. They can help employees address burnout on their own while also making changes in the workplace.  

  • One of the most important steps an employee can take is approaching a supervisor or manager who is most likely to listen to concerns. This requires your leaders to have emotional intelligence, compassion, and empathy and be willing to explore options, like changing work goals or deadlines.  
  • Set work boundaries, especially if working remotely, and not be available 24/7. Good leaders don’t expect their employees to always be available and understand employees have personal and work lives that can’t always intersect. 
  • Take control of their physical and mental health by getting regular exercise and taking advantage of mental health resources offered by your organization. Your supervisors should regularly discuss available resources, like health and well-being programs and mental health counseling covered by the employer’s insurance. 
  • Employees should use vacation days – A U.S. Travel Association study found that more than half of Americans don’t use all of their vacation time. Even when they do take vacation, many have difficulty disconnecting from their job responsibilities and their supervisors.  
  • Engage with other coworkers. Social isolation can contribute to work burnout. Too often, people spend time on their phones instead of engaging others on breaks or rush from home to work and back and never take time to attend after-work social events. Good leaders who recognize a self-isolating employee should encourage the employee to take advantage of the open-door policy. 

There are many steps employees can take at home too. For example, they can talk to family or friends, improve sleep patterns and participate in more enjoyable activities. 

[bctt tweet="Employees can take some steps to reduce #stress and alleviate the signs of #burnout at work: set #boundaries, get regular #exercise, and take their vacation days, to name a few! #workburnout" username="projections"] 

How Employers Can Help Employees with Work Burnout

It’s clear your leaders can help your employees avoid burnout. One of the major contributing factors is lack of leadership support and lack of employee recognitionPoor leadership is a significant contributor to stressful workplace culture. Your leaders can help employees with work burnout by:  

  • Improving leadership communication skills through leadership training 
  • Regularly recognizing employees for their efforts and successes, reminding them they are important contributors to organizational success 
  • Being open to discuss stress and burnout with employees 
  • Giving workers more control over their workday 
  • Allowing flexible schedules so employees can better balance work-life responsibilities 
  • Analyzing and adjusting workloads so job responsibilities are fairly distributed, and deadlines are reasonable 
  • Offering mental health support 
  • Encouraging employees to use their vacation days and not contacting them while they are off  
  • Take advantage of digital communication to engage all employees in any location

If your employees are reluctant to talk to their supervisors or managers about stress and burnout, there is likely poor employee relations and low employee engagement. Employees who trust their managers are willing to talk to them. The organizational culture is important too. For example, employees reluctant to take a vacation may feel like management expects them to stay on the job, and that is a workplace culture issue.

Develop Positive Employee Relations  

Leaders who develop positive employee relations understand employees need more than pay. As one research study explained, burnout has three main components: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy (loss of self-confidence and capacity to perform). Employees can experience one, two, or three components. Executive coach Monique Valcour gives the example of an employee who doesn’t believe in leadership, organizational culture, and the company’s core activities, so they feel demoralized but still function at work. Thus, job and organizational factors play as much a role in work burnout as personal factors.  

It’s important to have skilled leaders with emotional intelligence who engage employees, encourage employees to be authentic and communicative by sharing feedback, give regular employee recognition, and helps them see a future with the organization. Our team of experts at IRI Consultants can provide the leadership training resources you need to develop a management team able to develop positive employee relations and reduce the risk of employee burnout on the job. 

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