We’re now over a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, and workplace burnout is having a moment. It’s hardly surprising; with the world turned upside down, people have been working harder, have taken on additional roles (like becoming a home-schooling teacher) and have had to pick up the slack left by other colleagues who were either put on furlough schemes or who left the business, leaving the remaining workforce to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities. This is not a criticism of management; leaders have pulled out all the stops to keep the wheels of their businesses turning and to keep their organisations afloat during these tumultuous times. In some sectors, teams have had to pivot entirely, shuttering in-person restaurants, events and enterprises to quickly respond to a spike in demand for virtual and e-commerce offerings. This has taken its toll on people at all levels. Workplace burnout is a real thing so it’s important to know how to spot it, how to prevent it and most importantly, how to maintain employee loyalty and morale.
Burnout is quite a subjective term and it's not an actual medical diagnosis. The World Health Association defines it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The term was initially coined in the Healthcare Sector by Herbert Freudenberger (1974), an American Psychologist who was studying the effects of stress on a group of people working in a Health Clinic. The physical symptoms described included fatigue and frequent headaches as well as behavioural signs such as crying or angering easily. More recent research describes burnout as more than just tiredness; it’s feeling tired even before your day even started. Professor Michael Leiter from the Psychology department at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada describes three distinct signs of burnout. The first is a deep lack of energy.
The second is a ‘mental distance’ from one’s job such as a sense of detachment or cynicism. The third is a sense of reduced productivity or effectiveness. When all these things come together at the same time, Burnout takes hold. It’s a bit like the breakdown of a relationship - the employee perceives a deep disconnect between what they can give and what their job and employer wants of them. It doesn’t help that there’s still a real stigma about mental health in the workplace, which stops many people from being honest about how they feel and seeking help either internally or externally.
One of the keys to preventing workplace burnout for your people is to be able to spot the early signs, so you can give people the tailored support they need.
Decreased productivity and performance
Look out for signs of a drop in productivity or performance. People suffering burnout at various stages can feel that their work has lost its sense of purpose and their motivation can drop. Managers typically call out a drop in performance as being an issue that can lead to disciplinary action. This can only serve to worsen the stress levels of an employee. Therefore, when you spot an employee whose productivity and motivation have dropped, it could be a sign of stress and possible burnout. Aim to be positive, supporting and caring, rather than solely focusing on the simple measures of performance.
Cynicism towards co-workers and clients
It’s not hard to spot employees who appear to be unhappy. They might be the first person to complain about their employer, their clients or even their colleagues. You might find these colleagues to be more aggressive, less open to coaching or feedback and some other employees may even describe them as having a negative outlook or energy. Look out for these signs early and don’t judge these behaviours at face value. Behind an outwardly negative attitude could be a person who is struggling deeply with their work or even issues that go outside the workplace.
Detached from the company
Not every employee will fully embrace the lofty ambitions of your company’s mantra or corporate vision. For some, their employment is a way to make a living doing something they excel in. For others, their employment is a deep part of their self-identity and they become living, breathing advocates and evangelists for everything your organisation stands for. You could argue that either of these scenarios is fine, as long as people are achieving shared goals and contributing to business outcomes. However, occasionally you might come across people who are noticeably absent from company events. This could be anything from meetings to workshops and social occasions. Here it’s important to understand any underlying factors that could be contributing to this — such as an excessive workload that prevents their active participation. They may love the idea of getting involved, but fear the impact of losing time and their ability to get work completed on time.
So how do you prevent workplace burnout from happening in the first place?
Let’s look at some of the most common reasons for Burnout:
- Unclear expectations
- Poor communication
- Being overworked and under-appreciated
- Feeling the need to be constantly connected to work
- Working in a toxic environment
- Lack of support from a manager and/or coworkers
- Being micromanaged
The above are like the “Seven deadly sins of Management”. In order to keep your workforce and organisation healthy, you absolutely need to avoid a workplace culture that encourages or promotes these behaviours and styles of working. Together, things like micromanagement, a toxic environment and a persistent culture of over-work make for a deadly cocktail to avoid at all costs.
Pulse surveys can be helpful when run across the organisation to gauge the temperature and culture of the workplace. These allow people to confidentially rate the workplace environment and culture across a number of factors. Do some research in your department — are you aware of each person’s workload? Are they having to take work home to finish in the evening? It’s one thing to have goals that stretch people, but are your teams’ objectives realistic from a real-world perspective?
Burnout should not be a taboo word in your organisation. It’s something that needs to be openly talked about from the top down. Educate leaders and managers to recognise the signs of burnout and train them on how best to approach employees. Be open and transparent with all about the resources available to deal with stress and anxiety in the workplace.
Think about company-wide commitments and policies that actively help to reduce burnout. For example, in our always-online, always contactable business world, give your teams the right to stop looking at email (or turn off shared chat feeds) when they have left the workplace. Take a common-sense approach and put regular communication at the heart of your strategy. As a manager, make time for regular check-ins with your people to discuss their health and wellbeing as well as their performance. Use your performance management software to capture the output of these informal chats and use this information to proactively monitor and support those that need it. Finally, keep promoting everything your company offers on a regular basis. Don’t just send a one-off email to promote those ‘how to work smarter, not harder’ sessions - keep people aware at every possible touchpoint.