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Signs of Burnout at Work:
How To Help Employees

In May 2019, the World Health Organization updated the definition of burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Now the pandemic has created additional stress for employees and made it almost impossible to separate work and life. Needless to say, burnout is skyrocketing, especially among women. In this week’s blog, we focus on the tell-tale signs of employee burnout and explore ways an employer can create a less stressful workplace.

Spotting work burnout symptoms.

Burnout affects both the mind and the body. An employee suffering from burnout might complain of mental and physical exhaustion and poor sleep. They may also experience headaches, stomach pain, and increased blood pressure. In more severe cases of burnout, people can become depressed or misuse drugs and alcohol.

But there are other signs of burnout that managers should look for in the workplace. Maybe an employee has mentioned that they feel exhausted, undervalued or overworked. If so, they’re likely on their way to experiencing total burnout. Other signs of work-related burnout include:

  • Increased anger or irritability.
  • Job dissatisfaction or disengagement.
  • Taking an excessive number of sick days.
  • Trouble meeting deadlines or focusing on tasks.

Right now, burnout disproportionately affects women.

A CNBC article estimates that 9.8 million working mothers in the U.S. are currently suffering from burnout. An analysis by healthcare start-up Maven and Great Place to Work found that “just by being a working mother, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers.” It’s what’s leading many to term the current exodus of women from the workforce as a “shecession,” and cause labor participation for women to fall to the lowest level in a decade. So, while we are all experiencing more stress due to the pandemic, it’s clear that women are facing some unique needs that employers must acknowledge.

What to do if you notice signs of work-related burnout in your employees.

Act as early as possible. If burnout continues unaddressed, it can take much longer to recover. The first step is to talk with the employee. Sometimes, the solution could be taking time off, adopting a more flexible schedule, adjusting workload, or providing assistance with personal demands, such as caregiving. Point the employee to helpful company resources—like the EAP, virtual mental health programs, and concierge services.

In some cases, professional help may be necessary. If you suspect that the employee might be experiencing a mental health crisis, provide the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number, 1-800-273-TALK.

How do we prevent burnout from becoming an issue in the first place?

As noted in last week’s blog about reducing stress in the workplace, an organization’s managerial culture has a lot to do with employees’ stress levels. Research shows that the root causes of burnout are within the span of control of managers, and that managers should be responsible for the engagement, well-being, and performance of their people.

It’s a hard notion to swallow, especially because managers are already so overloaded with the demands of their own jobs. But the good news is it doesn’t take a ton of time to create a culture that proactively works to reduce stress and ultimately burnout.

Here are some tips managers and leadership roles can use to help reduce work-related burnout:

Hold regular check-ins.

Weekly check-ins are a must to head off burnout, especially in today’s world of remote work. Discuss what’s on the employee’s plate, what’s coming up, what they’re struggling with, and which projects give them energy. Listening is important, but employees also need to feel that you are serious about addressing their concerns. If they feel overloaded, look for projects that can be pushed back to give them more flexibility. Make sure to set clear expectations for work and set reasonable deadlines rather than letting everything pile up. Some managers might need extra training in how to work with employees in this space.

Make work purposeful and play to strengths.

Employees are less likely to be burned out when they connect their work to their company’s mission in a way that makes their job feel meaningful. This is especially important to younger generations who don’t want to be just a cog in the wheel. It’s also key for employees to do work that plays to their strengths, which has been linked to higher employee engagement. And engaged employees are typically less stressed.

Help employees set boundaries.

Sometimes employees need nudges to stop working. Some organizations have had success with gentle reminders to log off at a decent hour, scheduling email quiet periods, enforcing no-meeting Fridays, instituting mental health days, and incentivizing taking time off.

Ask leaders to model healthy well-being behaviors.

An organization may say it values employee health and well-being, but until people see tangible actions from senior leaders, they will be reluctant to prioritize their own well-being. Leaders can help by sharing their personal well-being tips in a short video, blocking time for daily movement, and showing how they are taking advantage of the well-being resources the company makes available, like meditation classes or virtual fitness sessions. If employees see leadership taking time for themselves, they’ll feel more empowered to take care of their own well-being.

Remember, burnout does not equal weakness.

It’s important to note that showing signs of burnout at work does not mean that an employee is weak or any less resilient than another. People are going through a lot right now, and everyone’s experiencing the pandemic’s effects on their lives in different ways. Since employees spend most of their weekday working, this is a wonderful opportunity for organizations to redesign—or reinforce—their commitment to their people and creating a fulfilling work-life balance, rather than causing more stress and burnout as we all navigate through this time.

Becoming aware of the signs of work-related burnout in your employees is the first step towards reducing it. But organizations also need to take a hard look at their culture to determine if it contributes to burnout due to unspoken norms and rules about work. Leaders and managers can work to change the culture by maintaining open communication, setting clear expectations, and modeling healthy behaviors themselves.

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