Detached, exhausted and dreading work | Tackling the phenomenon of employee burnout

Ever witnessed a normally enthusiastic, hardworking employee start to become irritable and disengaged? If so, they may be exhibiting signs of burnout – and it’s more common than you might think.

Described by the World Health Organisation as an “occupational phenomenon”, burnout refers to a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and overwork.

In layman’s terms, burnout is the result of becoming so completely overwhelmed by a job that facing the realities of day-to-day working life feels unbearable, and achievement seems near impossible. Unlike stress, which causes sufferers to feel emotions more strongly, burnout is characterised by a flattening of emotions, intense feelings of apathy and complete loss of motivation.

Left unmanaged, burnout can have real consequences in the workplace, ranging from increased lateness or absenteeism to employees who are constantly on the brink of resignation. In fact, speaking of her own experience with burnout, BBC 2 Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox told the Guardian: “I just thought: ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need a safety net. I’m going to write out my resignation letter, keep it in my handbag, and if I have another really bad day, I’ll just quit.’”

Of course, there’s also the impact on productivity, as employees struggle to focus on day-to-day tasks. As one sufferer explained, “I would stare at my screen, unable to engage my brain to send a simple email. I couldn’t remember how to solve a simple problem on a spreadsheet, or who to call – all of which would have been instinctive before. I had blurred vision, like a fog hovering over me. That’s when I realised that what I was experiencing was mental burnout.”

No employer wants their employees to dread coming to work. So, what can be done to stop everyday stresses from gradually undermining people’s mental and physical health?

5 ways to prevent a burnt-out workplace

1. Identify those at risk

The truth is, the more invested we are in our work, the more likely it is to impact our sense of self and overall mental wellbeing. Those who feel a self-inflicted pressure to perform or who try to be all things to all people will often allow the balance between their work and personal life to suffer. This, combined with their refusal to lower their own personal standards, puts them at high risk of burnout.

It’s important to identify these individuals and make sure they don’t crumble under the weight of what they take on. If you notice that they’re taking work home, working through lunch, or being bombarded with requests from different departments, spend some time with them to help them prioritise what’s on their plate, find out how the load might be shared, and reiterate that it’s okay to say no.

2. Allow time to switch off

Nobody can be expected to perform at their best without time to recharge. While it’s reasonable to expect employees to give 100% during working hours, employers can help to prevent burnout by ensuring staff are able to switch off at the end of day. This means actively enforcing your finish times, limiting calls and texts to employees after hours, and making sure that the work allocated is achievable within working hours. If you can see that an employee is working tirelessly but is constantly playing catch-up over the weekend, then it might be time to rethink your expectations.

Be aware: Flexible working arrangements are a blessing and a curse when it comes to reducing the risk of burnout. In theory, moving away from the traditional 9 to 5 allows employees to achieve a healthier work-life balance, temporarily escape the stresses of the working environment, and ease into their own rhythm. Making themselves less available will also help to reduce the amount of excess work being thrown their way. However, flexible working can also add to burnout by making it more difficult for employees to unplug from their jobs, increasing feelings of loneliness, and making communication more difficult – so it’s important to consider the needs of individual employees.

3. Set clear expectations

Autonomy can be great, and being left to your own devices can be motivating for some; however, for others, undefined expectations and constantly moving goal posts can lead to anxiety and disillusion. Without a clear understanding of the scope of their role, employees may find themselves working with no real direction or end goal and are less likely to feel accomplished, which in turn leaves them vulnerable to burnout. Unambiguous job descriptions, set KPIs and regular progress meetings can help to keep employees feeling motivated, reduce feelings of inadequacy, and prevent staff from feeling tempted to bite off more than they can chew.

4. Manage employees’ workload

An unmanageable workload is a major contributor to burnout. Not only can overloading employees with too may tasks cause them to become overwhelmed, but by spreading themselves too thin, it’s likely that they won’t be doing anything to their full potential, resulting in feelings of inadequacy – another catalyst for burnout.

To prevent staff from becoming overworked, hold weekly meetings to find out what each member of your team is working on, then create a prioritised schedule and identify what additional support individuals require to make tasks more manageable. You may wish to position yourself as a buffer between your team and other departments so that you can monitor any requests that come their way and redirect work that doesn’t fall within their remit.

5. Establish clear feedback channels

Not knowing how you’re performing can be unnerving and may lead to ‘imposter syndrome’ – otherwise known as chronic self-doubt. There are a number of factors that can cause employees to feel as though they’re not cut out for the job – from a working culture that amplifies competition with colleagues, to little to no management support – but a lack of feedback over a prolonged period is perhaps the biggest mistake employers can make when it comes to self-doubt-induced burnout.

Feedback is the cheapest, most underused tool managers have at their disposal. Whether it’s constructive criticism or a standing ovation, feedback is your first line of defence against burnout as it allows employees to know what they’re doing well and what can be worked on. This will relieve performance anxiety, help people to stay on track, and is a great way to keep employees motivated and energised. If your workplace is suffering a “feedback famine”, holding regular appraisals, making a conscious effort to incorporate on-the-spot feedback into your management approach, and implementing reward and recognition schemes can contribute greatly to employee satisfaction, as well as keep productivity high.

In many ways, burnout is symptomatic of an ailing organisation rather than a sick individual. While businesses will need to prioritise performance, finding ways of getting the best out of people without compromising their mental health is essential if you are to benefit from healthy, happy employees and ensure the long-term stability of your workforce.

Employee issues impeding productivity?

At Ellis Whittam, we enable employers to overcome a full spectrum of employee relations issues, from managing burnout to handling day-to-day obstacles such as sickness absence and misconduct. Our unlimited, fixed-fee service gives you access to dedicated support from a legally-qualified Employment Law Adviser for practical, commercially-minded advice at any time, as well as bespoke contracts, handbooks and policies to keep you on the right track.

To discover how our external support can help you to clear employment hurdles quickly and create engaged, high-performing teams, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.