Research shows that burnout at work is on the rise, with 42% of people saying they feel occupational burnout. This particularly affects women and workers under 30.1
As economic uncertainty continues, and employers and employees grapple with layoffs and low morale, how can you deal with burnout at work?
The first step is knowing what motivates your workers, and this varies from employee to employee. In this article, we’ll help you understand what burnout is, how to spot it in your workforce, and importantly, how to deal with burnout so your employees stay healthy.
‘Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.’
These are the words of the World Health Organization, which updated its definition of burnout in 2019, in a move crucial to underscoring the global impact of modern employee burnout.2 They make sure to push the message that burnout is not an official medical condition.
Burnout was first identified by Herbert Freudenberger, a psychologist working at a substance abuse clinic in 1970s New York City. The definition he uses in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement is: ‘a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.’
Throughout his practice, Freudenberger noticed a troubling trend among his clinic's most dedicated staff. These once enthusiastic volunteers would lose their charisma, become cynical and even show signs of physical illness. But despite their emotional exhaustion, they'd put in more and more hours, even as their work became less and less effective.
What was happening? Freudenberger had personal experience with these exact symptoms and called it ‘burnout’. He further investigated this occupational phenomenon and would later publish articles and a book about it. Thanks to him, the term ‘burnout’ became a familiar term for an all too common ailment.
According to a recent FlexJobs and Mental Health America survey of more than 1,500 people more than 75% have felt burned out at work.3 Over the years, understanding about burnout has improved and expanded beyond clinical settings.
Burnout isn't easy to spot, especially from the perspective of someone suffering from its effects. The nature of burnout means there's a good chance you'll be so caught up in the stresses of your environment that you don't pay attention to your body and overall well being.
You might identify it early enough to prevent anything major, but some people only spot burnout when it's too late, having suffered a medical problem or serious mental health issue.
In his articles, Herbert Freudenberger said that if you're feeling burnt you're likely to experience some of the following symptoms:5
Alongside these, more recent research suggests you might also experience:
These issues can have other causes but they serve as an indicator of the long-term physical and mental stresses that burnout tends to involve.
Given the negative effects of such an occupational hazard, it's wise to be on the lookout for signs of job burnout in yourself (and in your team, if you're responsible for others).
Here are a few ways to identify the signs of burnout so you can take preventative action to create an employee experience that boosts employee engagement and well-being.
If you're observing a burnout coworker you might notice the following behavior changes:
So what causes job burnout? As we learned above, the WHO describes burnout as a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been managed. So, anything that stresses you out at work for an extended period can lead to burnout.
Remote workers have a particularly difficult time defending their boundaries and finding a healthy work-life balance, and are at a high risk for burnout.
Here are some common causes of work-related stress:
Feeling like no one appreciates your work never feels good. And as it turns out, it can also contribute to burnout. According to Dice's Salary Survey, 36% of tech pros reported that a lack of recognition caused them to feel burned out.9
Physicians at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have a burnout rate of just 13% well below the national average. What made the difference? Well, UAB provides these physicians with the autonomy to choose what aligns with their purpose and even provides leadership development with coaching.10
Working in a role that doesn’t make the most of your unique strengths can drain energy, leading to burnout. Each of us has a set of workplace motivations that drive us, if these are ignored, we quickly lose interest. For example, if you have an affinity for group environments but are constantly working solo at home, you’ll feel exhausted. Or if you have a need for structure but work in a chaotic environment with a manager who gives you tasks at the last minute, you’ll feel stressed.
Understand your motivations by taking our evidence-based free assessment. In minutes, you’ll have a detailed report of your preferred work environment and communication style, so you feel re-energized at work by aligning tasks to your strengths.
Gallup identified unfair treatment at work as one of the 5 main causes of burnout.11 When an employee feels that they are treated unfairly at work, it more than doubles the likelihood that they'll feel highly burnt out.
Overworking causes job burnout, whether it's from an overbearing boss's unrealistic expectations or from the employee's own commitment to their work.
As Freudenberger saw with the free clinic staff, those with job burnout often make the mistake of working more, in the hopes they can improve outcomes-only to find that they're getting less done.
Even if an employee doesn't work too many hours, they can still feel stressed if there are no clear work-life boundaries. According to a 2018 Virginia Tech study, when an organization expects its employees to answer work emails after hours, those employees feel like they're ‘always on’ which harms their health-even if they're not doing any actual work.12
Taking time off is good for employees' wellbeing. The American Psychological Association's 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey found that 68% of Americans reported improved mood, 66% reported more energy and 57% reported feeling less stressed after returning to work from a vacation.13
But, the same survey found many barriers to American employees taking a vacation, including:
These findings point to a need for a cultural shift in organizations to help employees feel comfortable taking the break they need.
According to Dynamic Signal's 2019 State of Employee Communication and Engagement Study, 80% of American employees feel stressed because of poor communication at work. Sixty-three percent of them have been so stressed by it that they've wanted to quit their job!14
Winona State University in Minnesota offers a unique take on burnout in their stress management guide for students and faculty. Researchers at the institution created a 5 stage guide to burnout for assessing an individual's risk of burning out:15
This is a phase where burnout isn't really on your mind. It's when you've just started a new role or project and are developing an affinity for it, you're in a state of high focus and flow. You're committed to the task at hand and feel creative and determined to perform well.
It could be referred to eustress (the opposite of distress), but while it can be beneficial to some extent, you need to have proper coping mechanisms and relaxation techniques to avoid getting overwhelmed.16
This is where you become aware of some of the negative aspects of your job, and start to feel the pressure. Some days are more enjoyable than others, and you're beginning to feel fatigued occasionally.
Classic symptoms of stress start to appear, anxiety, lack of sleep, and general dissatisfaction with your job. Your lower productivity might appear alongside escapist activities in your downtime, where you distract yourself from stress rather than relax in a healthy way.
Stress symptoms are now becoming severe, with noticeable physical ailments becoming a regular, or even persistent, experience. Exhaustion, general illness, depression and emotional swings have become the norm for you.
In this stage, you'll start to withdraw more from friends and family, and your colleagues will increasingly notice your poor performance and attitude at work.
This stage is where your burnout symptoms become critical, and severely impair your ability to manage your personal life and working life.
Your physical symptoms will worsen to the point of potentially causing long-term damage to your body. Your attitude will be almost exclusively negative, with most days being a blur of anxiety and struggle.
You're likely to develop unhealthy habits to distract yourself from these feelings, such as drinking, drug taking, or other escapist pursuits.
Life is burnout; burnout is life. The symptoms of burnout are now so 'enmeshed' in your life that you're more likely to be labeled as having some significant physical or emotional problem than you are to be called a burnout case.
The hope is, of course, that you'd never make it near that final stage. It's an extreme example that highlights the fact that burnout is a scale, rather than a single point. It's a state you can reach over time in situations of constant stress.
The good news is that you can fix things before they get too bad and if you act early enough, you can prevent symptoms from happening altogether.
There are 3 distinct types of burnout, and it's crucial to understand the type of burnout you or your team members are experiencing in order to know which solutions to implement to help fix it.
These types are:
Frenetic burnout is the most common type suffered by people who give 110% of their energy to their work, usually due to underlying anxiety.
This often means they are high performers, and even overachievers, so their managers contribute to creating an unmanageable workload, assuming they are doing fine.
Their bosses are hesitant to suggest they slow down in fear that it will result in decreased output, but this couldn't be further from the truth.
Investing this level of energy into work is unsustainable and if left unaddressed, it will inevitably lead to reduced personal accomplishment and burnout.
Worn-out burnout happens frequently in a toxic workplace culture where there is little social support, work life balance or high levels of work related stress that goes unmanaged by HR or leaders. Workplace trauma is often a key contributor, too. This type frequently leads to depressive symptoms and low job satisfaction.
Throughout the pandemic, managers struggled with compassion fatigue due to challenges in their personal life, plus the personal issues of everyone they worked with, while keeping their team energized, engaged and focused on hitting targets.
If your team is struggling with worn-out burnout, forget about giving them gadgets, lunches, or a Zoom happy hour, they need time off to rest and decompress, no strings attached.17
Underchallenged burnout is straightforward: it happens when someone does not feel sufficiently challenged by one's job.
If you suspect one of your employees is suffering from this type of burnout, it's important to use it as a catalyst to start an honest conversation around what types of projects they find most stimulating—do not simply add more projects to their workload as that could quickly backfire and cause them to resign.
Employees who are burned out are 2.6 times as likely to be looking for a new job.18 And almost half of millennials say they’ve quit a job because of burnout.19
The most effective way to match people to the projects that excite them is to use our crazy-accurate assessment tool that measures 48 different motivations at work. Set your personal goal and AI Coach Marlee will match you with personalized coaching programs to help you achieve your goals.
You like some variety, radical changes, doing new and different things in some of your work or business.
With a little bit of development you can become more socially aware of yourself and others.
There are two approaches you need to be aware of: prevention and treatment. As always prevention is better than cure, but cures are pretty useful too.
If you already know you're feeling burnt out, in a way, that's a good thing. Self-awareness is the first step to healing. Let's have a look at the best ways to deal with burnout before it gets too bad.
As we saw above, taking a vacation reduces stress levels and helps you feel more energized. Even if you don't travel anywhere beyond the confines of your own house, detaching from work completely can enable you to recharge.
Maybe you can't take a vacation from work, but perhaps you can lighten your workload and set clearer work-life boundaries. If you feel comfortable, talk to your boss about adjusting expectations around your work, and see if you can delegate tasks so you're not overburdened.
We all need a little support sometimes, and coaching is a great way to gain guidance and accountability. By taking the free F4S assessment, you’ll gain valuable insights into what your needs are at work. Then, with AI Coach Marlee, you can participate in self-paced online coaching that’s personalised to help you meet your goals, whether that’s better work-life balance or a deeper sense of purpose in your job.
Signs of burnout can manifest as mental and physical symptoms. It's a good idea to talk to a doctor about the symptoms you've been experiencing so they can provide medical advice.
Talking to a mental health professional, such as a therapist, can also ease the mental and emotional burden of burnout. Find out if your employer provides mental health services via its Employee Assistance Program. If not, online therapy services such as Talkspace make it easy and affordable to access licensed counselors.
At F4S we have an evidence-based online wellbeing coaching program that takes around 15-minutes a week to help get you back on track quickly.
Also, you may want to check out the Perceived Stress Scale to see where your levels of stress fall.
Because job burnout is caused by workplace stress, which is sometimes beyond our control, prevention requires a two-pronged approach: individual and organizational.
Workers have partial responsibility for preventing burnout. If you're wondering how to avoid burnout at work, it means you might have missed chances in the past to make things easier for your future self.
Anyone with responsibility of some sort is at risk of burnout, whether you're an entrepreneur, content creator, manager, or carer, when there's a constant pressure to deliver results, the potential to overdo it is there.
Here's a few tactics for keeping yourself healthy in the face of increased pressure, make sure these forms of self-care are high on your list of priorities:
If you're in a high-pressure work environment, especially in an office, it can be easy to neglect your physical health when the work piles on.
Regular exercise sessions help, even if it’s just for an hour a week. Exercise helps individuals maintain their mental health, by reducing fatigue, and improving overall cognitive function.
A sterile office isn't the ideal setting for your mind and body to thrive. Relaxing, walking or exercising in a natural environment during downtime has been proven to increase the benefits above and beyond what you'd get indoors.
Sleep sits right at the center of our wellbeing, if sleep is out of whack, a number of other bodily processes are disrupted. At least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night is a good starting point. Without hitting this consistently, you can build up a 'sleep debt' that takes a long time to pay back.20
The responsibility for preventing burnout can't be left solely to individuals. Some of the burden has to be shared by the companies they work for.
According to Dr. Christine Sinsky at the American Medical Association burnout treatment should ‘focus on fixing the workplace rather than fixing the worker.’
Dr. Sinsky goes on to say, ‘The ICD-11 definition of burnout is consistent with our research and our approach, which is that burnout is related to stressors within the environment rather than related to weakness on the part of susceptible individuals.’21
Almost 70% of professionals say their employers don't do enough to prevent or lessen burnout.22 Only half (51%) of workers say they have the necessary emotional support at work to help them manage their stress, and only 1 in 5 were able to have ‘open, productive conversations with HR’ to find ways to relieve their job burnout.23
Here are the best ways to prevent burnout in your workplace:
Employers would do well to better communicate tasks and expectations. Employees who don't know what's expected of them can become anxious because they can never be sure if they're doing their job right.
Managers should regularly check in with direct reports to ensure they're feeling fulfilled at work and aren't overloaded with tasks. The only way you can know about your employees' workloads is to ask. Regular one-on-one meetings are useful for this.
Further, checking in on your processes is vital so you identify inefficiencies. Inefficiencies drain resources and time and removing them decreases job burnout.
Employees experiencing job burnout may be hesitant to admit it. They may fear their boss will see them as less committed to their job. But as Freudenberger discovered, it's actually the most committed workers who are the most prone to burnout.
Managers should be prepared to spot signs of mental distress in their teams and point them to the proper medical and mental health resources.
Because a lack of recognition can lead to burnout, organizations should implement formal and informal ways of showing appreciation for employees' hard work. This can be anything from an employee appreciation program or adding time to every team meeting to praise people for their achievements.
You'd think overworked employees would be jumping at the opportunity for a vacation. But according to the U.S. Travel Association, in 2018, Americans left 768 million vacation days on the table. More than half don't use their PTO.24
What can employers do to make a vacation more enticing? We found an interesting case study at social media management company Buffer, which has experimented with 3 types of incentives:
Beyond company policy, managers should lead by example. Employees are unlikely to take time off if they notice their boss never does. This is something that even Buffer's leaders noticed. When co-founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich went on their first vacation after 3 years of building their company, they realized how important taking a break is. After this hey instituted the policy of paying their team to take vacations.
As we saw from the research, job burnout doesn't mean your employee lacks dedication, far from it. As Freudenberger observed at his clinic, more dedicated employees are most prone to burnout.
The good news is burnout at work is preventable and treatable. First, become familiar with the signs of burnout so you can more easily detect it in your team. Then, by improving company communication, lessening workloads, providing support and encouraging time off, you can support your committed yet overworked employees recover.
Second, learn your employees’ unique needs. Burnout often happens because we’ve lost touch with what energizes us or we never really knew what motivated us to begin with.
Through the free, science-backed F4S assessment, you and your team can understand your unique motivations, and get insights into how you can leverage strengths to thrive at work.
Remember, as a manager you can only do so much. If you think someone on your team is experiencing physical or mental symptoms of burnout, it's a good idea to point them to a medical professional who can properly evaluate and treat them.
Take the F4S assessment and jumpstart your wellbeing at work and in your personal life.
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