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8 signs of burnout at work (and how to deal with it)

burnout at work causing stress to a woman with blond hair

We can see that burnout at work is a serious problem that is painful for those experiencing it.

But just how prevalent is it in today's workforce? Here are some job burnout statistics that show why it's so important for employers to take notice.

Let's look at some critical burnout at work statistics:

  • 75% of people have felt burned out at work, and 40% have felt so during the pandemic in particular, according to a FlexJobs and Mental Health America survey of more than 1,500 people. [1]
  • A Glint survey of more than 700,000 employees worldwide found that comments related to burnout doubled from March 2020 (pre-lockdown) to April 2020 (during lockdown, working remotely), increasing from 2.7% to 5.4%. [2]
  • This suggests burnout is a growing threat to the productivity and engagement of today's workforce. The study found that those who struggle with balancing home and work are 4.4x more likely to show signs of job burnout. [2]
  • 83% of full-time U.S. professionals say that job burnout negatively affects their personal relationships. [3]
  • Almost 70% of professionals say their employers don't do enough to prevent or lessen burnout. [3]
  • Burnout affects millennials the most, with 84% of millennials saying they’ve felt burned out at their job, compared to 77% of all survey participants. [3]
  • Almost half of millennials say they’ve quit a job before because of burnout, compared to 42% of all survey participants. [3]
  • 82% of remote developers in the U.S. are experiencing signs of burnout. [4]
  • Employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to call in sick. [5]
  • Employees who are burned out are 2.6 times as likely to be looking for a new job. [5]
  • Burned out employees are also 23% more likely to go to the emergency room. [5]
  • Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. $125 to $190 billion a year in health care expenses. [6]
  • Workplace stress is estimated to lead to at least 120,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. [6]
  • Only about half (51%) of workers say they have the necessary emotional support at work to help them manage their stress. [1]
  • Only 1 in 5 were able to have “open, productive conversations with HR” to find ways to relieve their job burnout. [1]

What is job burnout?

"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. 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 practise, Freudenberger noticed a troubling trend among his clinic's most dedicated staff. These once enthusiastic volunteers would often 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 decided to call 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.

Over the years, work burnout has become better understood, and instead of being limited to clinical settings, it can be present in any kind of workplace.

To sum it up:

  • Workplace burnout is job-related.
  • Chronic stress that isn't managed well leads to burnout.
  • In the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO classifies burnout as an "occupational phenomenon," not a medical condition.

What is Maslach burnout theory?

Christina Maslach, an American social psychologist and psychology professor at University of California, Burkeley, co-wrote the Maslach Burnout Inventory and Areas of Worklife Survey in 1981.

The assessment takes only 10 minutes and measures three dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment.

Maslach argues that burnout is different from exhaustion because with burnout there's a tendency towards exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of efficacy on the job, whereas someone who is exhausted will just have a hard time keeping up with the pace, but likely still feel good about what they're doing.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Worker burnout isn't always 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 it when it's too late, having suffered a medical problem or serious mental health issue. 

In his articles written about the subject in the 70s, Herbert Freudenberger included these potential signs. If you're feeling burnt out at work, he says, you're likely to experience some of the following symptoms too: 

  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Sleeplessness
  • Depression
  • Resentment
  • Irritability

Alongside these, more recent research suggests you might also experience:

  • Forgetfulness 
  • Trouble staying focused for more than a few minutes at a time
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite

These issues can have other causes, of course, but they can serve as an indicator to the long-term physical and mental stresses that burnout tends to involve. 

What are the signs of burnout at work?

Given the detrimental 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).

Specifically in the workplace, you'll find a few indicators to look for. Here are a few ways you can identify the signs of burnout at work so you can take preventative action to create an employee experience that boosts employee engagement and wellbeing.

Job burnout, according to the WHO, has three dimensions:

  • "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy"

If you're observing a coworker and suspect they might be showing signs of burnout, you might notice the following behavior changes: 

  • Increased frequency of sickness absence
  • Careless attitude towards punctuality or delivering projects on time
  • Reduced willingness to participate in social events
  • Boundaries between work and personal life start to blur (especially common in remote work arrangements)
  • Not taking their allocated vacation time and working through it instead

What causes job burnout?

So what causes job burnout? Well, as we saw above, the WHO describes burnout as "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." So anything that stresses you out at work for an extended period can potentially lead to burnout syndrome.

Remote workers have a particularly difficult time defending their boundaries and finding a healthy work-life balance, and thus might be at a higher risk for burnout.

Here are some common causes of work related stress:

Lack of recognition

Feeling like no one appreciates your work never feels good. And as it turns out, it can even 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. 

Lack of autonomy and opportunity for professional development

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 programs with coaching.

Unfair treatment

"Unfair treatment at work" is one of the five causes of burnout Gallup found in its study. When an employee feels strongly "that they are often treated unfairly at work," it more than doubles the likelihood that they'll feel highly burnt out.

Working too many hours

Overworking can cause 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 even more, in the hopes they can improve outcomes-only to find that they're getting less done.

Unclear boundaries

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.

Never taking a vacation

Taking time off is good for employees' well-being. 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.

But, the same survey found many barriers to American employees taking a vacation, including:

  • Their employers don't provide paid time off.
  • Their organization's culture and their supervisors don't encourage taking time off.
  • Their workload makes it challenging to take time off.

These findings point to a need for a cultural shift in organizations to help employees feel comfortable taking the break they need.

Poor workplace communication

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!

What are the five stages of burnout?

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 five stage guide to burnout for assessing an individual's risk of burning out. The guide is as follows: 

1 ) The honeymoon phase

This is a phase where burnout isn't really on your mind at all. 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.

2 ) The balancing act

This is where you become aware of some of the negative aspects of your job, and start to feel the pressure. Some days become 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.

3 ) Chronic symptoms

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. 

4 ) The crisis

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. 

5 ) Enmeshment

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 that can be achieved over time in situations of constant stress. 

The good news is that you can fix things before they get too bad. And even better - if you act early enough, you can prevent symptoms happening altogether.

Subtypes of burnout

There are three 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

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 bosses and 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

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 in particular are prone to struggling with compassion fatigue due to having to navigate their struggles in their personal life, plus the personal issues of everyone they are working 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, your workers need time off to rest and decompress—no strings attached.

Underchallenged burnout

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 onto their workload as that could quickly backfire and cause them to resign.

The most effective way to match people to the projects that excite them is by using our crazy-accurate assessment tool that measures 48 different motivations at work.

How do you fix burnout?

So there are two approaches you need to be aware of: prevention and treatment. As usual, prevention is better than the cure - it's important to know how to not get burnt out at work in the first place, which we'll cover below. 

But cures are still pretty useful, too. 

If you already know you're feeling burnt out at work, 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. 

How to fix burnout when you're already experiencing a symptom

Take a break.

As we saw above, taking a vacation can reduce stress levels and help you feel more energized. Even if you don't travel anywhere beyond the confines of your own house, detaching from work completely can help you to recharge-regardless of where you are.

Change your workload.

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 so overburdened.

Get professional help.

Signs of burnout can manifest as mental and physical symptoms. It's always a good idea to talk to a doctor about the symptoms you've been experiencing so they can provide medical advice.

Talking to 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 have made it easier and more affordable to access licensed counselors.

We even have an online wellbeing coaching program that only takes around 15-minutes a week and is completely science-based, so you can be sure it will 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.

How do you prevent burnout before it happens?

Because job burnout is caused by workplace stress, which is sometimes beyond our control, it needs a two-pronged approach: individual and organizational.

On the one hand, workers themselves have partial responsibility for preventing burnout. If you're wondering how to not get burnt out at work because you think you're experiencing symptoms, it means you might have missed chances in the past to make things easier for your future self.

Here's a few tactics for keeping yourself healthy in the face of increased pressure. 

How do individuals prevent burnout? 

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.

Make sure these forms of self-care are high on your list of priorities: 

Get regular exercise

If you're in a high-pressure work environment - especially in an office - it can be really easy to neglect your physical health when the work piles on.

But even if it's just for an hour each week, regular exercise sessions help. Exercise helps individuals 'maintain their mental health, reducing fatigue, and improving overall cognitive function'.

Spend time in nature

A sterile office environment isn't a place your body and mind are designed to thrive. Relaxing, walking or doing any other exercise in a natural environment when you have some downtime has been proven to increase the benefits above and beyond what you'd get indoors. 

Get a good night's sleep

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 seven hours' 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.

But 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. 

How do organizations prevent burnout?

According to an article by the American Medical Association, Dr. Christine Sinsky says treating burnout should "focus on fixing the workplace rather than focusing on 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."

So here are some of the best ways companies can help prevent burnout in their workforce.

Improve communication.

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.

Improve workloads and processes.

Managers should be regularly checking in with their direct reports to ensure they're feeling fulfilled at work and aren't being overloaded with tasks. The only way you can know about your employees' workloads is to ask them about it. Regular one-on-one meetings are useful for this.

Further, checking in on your processes is vital so you can find any inefficiencies. Inefficiencies drain resources and time; removing them can decrease job burnout.

Remove stigma around mental health.

Employees who are experiencing job burnout may be hesitant to admit it. They may fear that 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.

Show appreciation.

Because a lack of recognition can lead to burnout, organizations should implement formal and informal ways of showing appreciation for employees' hard work. It can be anything from an employee appreciation program or simply adding 10 minutes to every team meeting to praise people for their achievements.

Encourage taking time off.

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.

What can employers do to make taking a vacation more enticing? We find an interesting case study in Buffer. The social media management software company has experimented with three types of incentives:

  • Offering unlimited vacation - Surprisingly, even with unlimited vacation, people didn't take much time off.
  • Paying employees to take vacations - This boosted the number of vacations taken, but it wasn't sustainable for Buffer.
  • Requiring a minimum vacation time. This is what Buffer has found to be the best for their employees so far. They require their employees to take at least three weeks of vacation during the year.

Beyond company policy, managers should lead by example. Employees are unlikely to take time off if they notice that 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 three years of building their company, they realized how important taking a break is, and they hoped to set a good example for their employees. It was after this that they instituted the policy of paying their team to take vacations.

Burnout at work is preventable

As we saw from the research, job burnout doesn't mean your employee lacks dedication-far from it. As Freudenberger observed at his clinic, it's the ones who are the most dedicated who 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 help your committed yet overworked employees recover.

It's important to realize, however, that you as a manager can only do so much. If you think someone on your team is experiencing physical or mental symptoms of burnout, it's always a good idea to point them to a medical professional who can properly evaluate and treat them.

Need help establishing better work-life boundaries to help avoid job burnout? Sign up for our FREE coaching!

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