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Employee Burnout Signs: What to Watch For and How to Prevent It

Editor's Note: We recently updated this previously published post with new insights. Enjoy!

Employees often talk about feeling “burned out,” but are they really?

True employee burnout is more than needing a temporary break from work or feeling briefly worn down by an intense project. Instead, it’s a state of chronic job stress that results in overall exhaustion, frustration, and a defeatist attitude that negatively affects an employee’s personal and work life.

The condition can happen for any number of reasons, such as a work-life imbalance, unrealistic work expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, being in an emotionally draining profession, or simply feeling out of control. And it’s more common than employers might think: 75% of people have experienced burnout. The recent stress of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't helped, with 40% of workers reporting they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic.

If there’s any good news about employee burnout, it’s that it doesn’t develop overnight. It creeps up slowly, which gives employees and employers time to watch for and quickly address these warning signs.

The 7 Most Common Signs of Employee Burnout

By paying attention to and looking for the most common indicators, employers can customize their wellness program strategy to prevent the condition from escalating—or from developing at all.

Here are seven common employee burnout signs:

  1. Emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion
  2. Disengagement
  3. Increased absenteeism
  4. Isolation
  5. Higher sensitivity to feedback
  6. Emergence of physical symptoms
  7. Decreased productivity

Let’s examine these in more detail.

1. Emotional, Mental and Physical Exhaustion

Are employees reporting feeling drained when they first wake up in the morning? Do they talk about struggling with sleep issues? Employees suffering from exhaustion will find they’re dragging themselves to work and then unable to start or focus on a task.

2. Disengagement

Employees losing interest in the things they previously found enjoyable—like socializing with family and friends—can be an early warning sign. At work, employees may stop participating in meetings, avoid taking on new projects, or stop returning phone calls and emails. As they continue to disconnect from the environment around them, employees often lose enthusiasm for their job, resulting in a lower quality of work.

3. Increased Absenteeism

Overtaxed employees are likely to take more sick days. Some hope the day off will restore their spirits. Others use the time off as a way to avoid projects, managers and employees that cause them stress. Or some employees may come in late and leave early to avoid interactions with co-workers and supervisors.

4. Isolation

Formerly extroverted employees who suddenly become distant may just be having a bad day or experiencing stress in their personal life. But if this isolation continues, or if formerly social employees become angry when someone tries to speak with them, it may be a sign of a bigger problem. Isolation can be even harder to detect in remote employees, since you may not be able to tell if they are withdrawing from relationships without directly asking them.

5. Higher Sensitivity to Feedback

Employees may begin taking criticism more personally, reacting to it with increased defensiveness, anger, or other signs of stress. Feedback is often blown out of proportion: "I guess I can’t do anything right."

6. Emergence of Physical Symptoms

Exhaustion and stress can often manifest themselves as physical symptoms, including panic attacks, chest pains, increased heart rate, nausea, and headaches. Employees may lose their appetite and even lose weight, or they may start to gain weight from using food to cope with their stress.

7. Decreased Productivity

As the condition worsens, so will productivity and performance. Stress prevents employees from concentrating on the tasks at hand, and feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to catch up might make them feel as if their efforts aren’t worthwhile.


How Caretaker Burnout Affects Employee Wellness

The trouble with burnout is that while its effects can be seen at work, work isn’t always the cause. Burnout can also happen when caretaking responsibilities outside of work demand so much time and energy that finding a balance between work and caretaking becomes impossible.

This year, with an influx of employers and schools turning to remote options, many employees are struggling to keep up with their regular pace at work. Some are juggling childcare or virtual classes for young children, while others are providing care for elderly family members who need extra support during the pandemic, all while trying to work from home.

For employers, this period of added stress means you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for signs of burnout, as well as provide support for working parents and employees with other caretaking responsibilities.

Helping Remote Employees Avoid Burnout Before it Starts

When you’re interacting with employees in an office on a daily basis, noticing signs of burnout is a little more straightforward. Exhaustion, stress, and frustration are easier to read in person. But many employees aren’t working in an office anymore, which can have long-term effects on well-being if not carefully managed.

Even with the rise in video conferencing, it’s easy to miss warning signs of burnout in remote employees. But there are still a few things you can keep an eye out for:

Working at all Hours

If you suddenly notice an employee is sending work emails at all hours of the night and all through the weekend, they may be at risk of burnout. While some flexibility to complete work outside of traditional work hours can be helpful, it’s important for employees to find time to disconnect from work.

Not Taking Time Off

Taking time off to recharge is key to avoiding burnout. If you notice an employee hasn’t taken any time off in quite some time, they could be feeling overworked or fearful that taking time off will mean risking their job security.

A Dip in Performance

An employee who feels satisfied and well rested will have the energy and focus to perform well at their job the majority of the time. If an employee who was once a high performer suddenly starts to miss deadlines and show lackluster performance, it’s important to check in to see if they’re struggling with burnout.

Proactively Addressing Burnout with Remote Employees

It’s important for remote employees to proactively monitor themselves for signs of burnout. However, without proper leadership and resources, employees suffering from burnout can be left feeling like they have no choice but to trudge on.

Right now, employers have an opportunity to help their remote employees through leading by example. After all, helping employees avoid burnout not only boosts morale, it can save you money. For employers, this means actively encouraging employees to take time off (and modeling this behavior). HR and company leadership should also take an active role in helping employees to set healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives.

How Wellness Programs Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout

Fortunately, a corporate wellness program offers a terrific opportunity for employers to get out in front of the problem and create a work environment that tackles stress head on. Instead of only focusing on fitness and nutrition, employers can incorporate elements of emotional, occupational, and financial wellness into their programming. As a result, stress is not only treated, but prevented at the source.

Options to add to your program might include any of these strategies:

Give Thanks

When stress rises, it’s easy to lose sight of the many good things in life. However, when your wellness program challenges employees to practice gratitude and turn it into a habit, it can completely transform their perspective. For example, WellRight’s “Be Grateful” challenge encourages employees to write down three things they’re grateful for, for a period of 30 days. It’s also a great idea for employers to practice gratitude, showing their employees how much they appreciate them. When employees give (and receive) thanks, they see more value in themselves and in their work.

Focus on Others

One of the best ways to feel better about your own problems is to turn your focus to helping other people. Try adding a challenge or task to your wellness program that spurs employees to find ways to make other people happy. Our "Smile Big" challenge is a fun game, daring employees to make 60 different people smile in a 30-day period. By elevating the moods of other people, your staff will find that their own moods brighten as well.

Family Time

When employees experience work stress, that stress can easily spill over into their off-the-clock time. Whether they’re working longer hours or just keeping their mind on work while at home, burning the candle at both ends can quickly lead to burnout. Employers can show caring for the employee’s well-being by incorporating family-based challenges into their wellness programs, and making sure employee workloads enable them to carry out these challenges.

Coaching Counts

A major way to prevent employee burnout is for people to feel they’re not alone. One-on-one coaching (which WellRight offers not only to employees, but to their families) as part of a wellness program can help employees manage their stress, create achievable goals, and gain the motivation to accomplish those goals. The result? Improved engagement and boosted self-esteem.

Celebrate Achievements

When employees are discouraged and have diminished faith in their own skills, the fun “quick wins” offered by a wellness program can help them regain pride in their abilities. Rewards based not only on accomplishment but on effort keep the playing field level, giving every employee a chance to shine.

As the COVID crisis continues, it’s important that your employees feel supported while trying to navigate the constantly changing situation. Whether they are continuing to work from home, preparing to return to the office, or a combination of both, you can count on WellRight to help keep your employees safe, healthy, and engaged with innovative employee mental health resources.


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