Burnout at Work is Contagious. Here’s How to Spot it and Stop it.
According to a 2021 report by Indeed.com, 52% of employees feel burned out, and 67% believe COVID worsened those feelings. Employee burnout is a growing problem in today’s businesses. The best way to protect your organization is to recognize the signs and symptoms early on and offer ongoing support to those who are suffering.
Factors that cause burnout at work
To protect your employees against burnout, first, ensure that your business isn’t a culture where it easily thrives. As an HR manager, it's crucial to be aware of these issues and proactively address them.
Lack of autonomy
People like having control over their lives. Assignments, workloads, schedules … people want their opinions on their work to matter. Not having this control is one of the leading causes of burnout. Being micromanaged is not only aggravating, but also can leave workers feeling powerless. It sends the message that leadership doesn’t trust its employees, which in turn damages employees’ trust in them. According to the APA’s 2021 Work and Well-Being Survey, 48% of respondents said not being involved in decision-making at work increased their stress.
Lack of autonomy grows into burnout when employees feel constantly trapped in their role, with little say in how things might change. On the flip side, a sense of autonomy increases your employees’ satisfaction with their job and gives them a sense of ownership that helps them emotionally connect to their work.
Lack of clear expectations
Even the most motivated employee will burn out if goals, objectives, and expectations aren’t clearly defined. Employees need strong goals to keep their job interesting and engaging. In fact, according to the APA survey, 52% said lack of growth opportunities contributed to their stress at work. Employees also need clearly defined expectations to understand what’s their responsibility — and what’s not. Not having this context can make them feel that their role doesn’t matter, especially if there’s a significant overlap between their job and others’ jobs. It also decreases feelings of ownership, pride, and value.
Not setting clear expectations also leads to accountability issues. If a task is everybody’s responsibility, it becomes no one’s responsibility. The duty often falls to top performers to complete the work if no one is identified as the driver of a group project.
Lack of workplace support
Burnout thrives in an environment of negativity, intimidation, and drama, and working in cultures like this causes emotional and mental distractions. Think of your own employment experiences and your (hopefully former) coworkers who were constantly negative, complaining, or gossipy. At best, these people cause you to want to withdraw from workplace socialization to protect yourself. At worst? Constantly being exposed to bad attitudes increases stress, leading to burnout. According to the APA survey, 43% of respondents cited problems with coworkers, and 44% cited issues with their managers as a contributing factor to stress.
These negative feelings have increased for many during the pandemic, with growing responsibilities at home and fears for personal health and safety fueling the flames. But having to constantly deal with coworkers’ negative emotions on top of your own stresses and fears quickly becomes burnout.
How burnout at work manifests
Recognizing burnout on a company-wide level is a start, however it’s just as important to recognize the symptoms of burnout on an individual level. Here are the signs:
One of the most frequent signs of burnout is disengagement — once-involved employees withdrawing from company social life, events, or simply not seeming present at work. Disengagement is a defense mechanism; when an employee’s emotional and mental needs are not being met at work, they’ll draw back to protect themselves from further stress. Disengaged employees are:
- Less energetic than normal
- Less passionate or excited about their job than they used to be
- Uninterested in establishing goals or growing in their career
- More prone to negativity or irritation
Burned-out employees feel disconnected from the company. They don’t feel like their role matters, and they don’t have the support to fix it, so they just stop producing at their regular volume. This leads to inefficiencies in their job, such as:
- Being late to work or to meetings more often than usual
- Taking more breaks during the day
- Producing lower-quality and more error-filled work
- Missing deadlines
Constantly subjecting yourself to stress has very real medical ramifications. In fact, a 2017 medical study cited burnout as a “significant predictor” in a startling list of physical and mental health conditions:
- Type II diabetes
- Heart disease
- Bone, muscle, and tissue pain
- Chronic fatigue
- New or worsening headaches
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Respiratory problems
- Depression and anxiety
These conditions increase absenteeism by requiring additional doctor appointments or sick days to cope with the symptoms.
How to address burnout at work
Burnout must be treated proactively to improve employee morale and maintain retention. Even if you don’t think your employees are struggling, talk to them about burnout to keep the lines of communication open.
1. Start with a conversation
Start to address burnout by talking to your employees. Your HR team should start the discussion by presenting information on burnout in a company-wide meeting. After the meeting, send out an anonymous survey to gauge the overall level of burnout at your company. Ask questions like:
- Are employees satisfied?
- Are they stressed?
- What specifically is causing stress?
- Would they be interested in support resources?
- Do they feel safe sharing their feelings?
Once you begin the conversation, direct managers should follow up with their employees on a 1-on-1 basis. This gives managers direct insights into problems on their team, so they can take action to fix them. It also reinforces to employees that the company cares about them and hears their concerns.
2. Make a plan to mitigate the root causes
Use your employees’ feedback to determine trends, then make a plan to address the most common issues on a company-wide level. Here are a few examples to get you started.
- If employees are struggling with work-life balance: Implement a policy where managers don’t message, text, or email employees after hours. To ensure compliance, HR managers should also tell employees not to respond to any after-hours messages and assure them there will be no retribution for setting this boundary.
- If employees are struggling with autonomy: Look for ways to directly involve employees in their own growth path. Ensure that your company’s goal-setting meetings are directed by employees’ interests as well as company needs.
- If employees are struggling with a lack of workplace support: Identify HR champions that create safe spaces for employee feedback and can help mediate any peer issues. Consider ways to boost workplace camaraderie, like company-sponsored team-building and social events.
While this won’t account for every employee’s individual struggles, addressing the most common causes enables you to help the majority of burned-out employees as quickly as possible.
3. Offer ongoing support
Regardless of your company’s current burnout level, all employees can benefit from mental health resources and extra support sometimes, and many employees wish their HR provided these resources. According to the APA survey, 37% of employees said providing mental health support would be helpful when asked what their employers could be doing to reduce their stress.
That’s where solutions like online therapy can shine. Therapy apps make connecting with a professional mental health counselor easy, convenient, and private. Offering flexible care options to struggling employees is the perfect way to prove you value their mental health and wellbeing and to resolve burnout for good.