How to Prevent Burnout in the Workplace

Nov 8

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Although burnout has always existed, the challenges we’re facing in regards to burnout today are more pervasive than ever.

According to our State of HR and People Ops During the Pandemic survey, employee mental health struggles were among the top three biggest concerns faced by Human Resource Departments and People Operators in 2020-2021.

From spotting burnout to learning how to prevent it in the workplace, this article will help you and your employees have a more positive experience at work so you don’t bring burnout home.

Part 1: The Basics of Burnout

A single burnt match in a group of matches

The only way to know how to reduce employee burnout is to know exactly what it is. It’s especially important because more people are reporting burnout than ever before. According to the Employee Burnout Report conducted by Indeed, over half of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021. That’s up from 43% of respondents who reported the same thing on a survey conducted pre-COVID.

Whether you’re dealing with workplace exhaustion or you can tell a few of the employees on your team are struggling, understanding what burnout is and what causes it is the only way to know which strategies will be the most effective.

What is Employee Burnout?

Burnout was once considered a stress syndrome. Although the feelings of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion that come along with burnout are still present, the World Health Organization has updated its workplace burnout definition. It now refers to burnout as a, “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

It further characterizes the three dimensions of burnout as:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

This change in the definition is important because the definition identifies workplaces as part of the problem. Instead of individual and team burnout being a stress problem for employees to deal with on their own, it calls attention to the fact that workplaces have some responsibility in whether their employees feel burnt out or not.

When once employees may have been fearful to slow down and deal with symptoms of burnout, they can now feel empowered to speak up knowing that burnout isn’t just a personal problem they have to deal with – it’s a professional problem that is greatly influenced by factors that are out of their control.

It is important to note that burnout is strictly a workplace challenge. The World Health Organization states that, “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

However, that doesn’t mean burnout can’t affect other areas of your life. Burnout can include physical burnout, mental burnout, and emotional burnout that can affect your personal relationships, your motivation, and your mental health. If feelings of burnout aren’t addressed head-on, they can fester and ultimately transform into depression and anxiety that can affect your life in profound ways.

What Causes Burnout?

The only way you can be effective at helping employees with burnout is to know what causes burnout and recognize that it isn’t necessarily their fault. There’s much more to what causes burnout than an employee who works overtime, whether asked or not, or an employee who can’t seem to stop checking their email at home after they have clocked out.

According to Caroline Milton, burnout specialist of the Milton Coaching Collective who was interviewed for the Thriver Podcast, the root causes of burnout go way back. She says:

Parenting styles have shifted away from unstructured, free play and into organized sports, extracurricular activities, and other things that keep kids safe when mom and dad aren’t done with work. Those of us who were born in 1980 and later, we’ve been on a constant mode of achievement from a very early age.

– Quote from Caroline Milton on Thriver Podcast Ep.21

Workers are burning out in their 20’s and 30’s and feeling guilty about it because they really haven’t been working for very long. However, Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z have had a busy, achievement-based lifestyle since their teens and possibly even earlier, which makes burnout more likely to occur at an earlier age.

One of the biggest contributors to workplace burnout is the fact that our society uses productivity to measure value. We have to be productive all the time. Employees are skipping breaks, eating lunch at their desks, and checking emails off the clock all in an effort to optimize every minute of their day.

Combine this with the fact that the workforce today has been told by society that our identities and worth are tied to our occupation, and it suddenly becomes clear why burnout in the workplace is so pervasive.

Part 2: Facing Burnout in the Workplace

Stressed employee in front of their laptop

The effects of burnout in the workplace can be pervasive. Not only can burnout result in depression and anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association, it can come with some serious health effects, like stroke, an increased likelihood of type II diabetes, and sleep disorders, among many others.

The effects of burnout in the workplace are also troublesome. Burnout can result in:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Low quality of work
  • More sick days taken with little to no mental improvement
  • Higher employee turnover
  • Less creativity and innovation

Reducing these personal and professional symptoms and managing burnout starts with identifying its signs, and then doing something about it.

What are the Signs of Employee Burnout?

Workplace burnout symptoms are a little different than personal signs that you’re burnt out. It requires management, HR, and coworkers to pay attention to the behavior of others because most people won’t come forward and admit to being burnt out.

Caroline Milton says, “If your office used to be very creative in their problem solving abilities, and all of a sudden, they’re lacking that creativity, that could be a really good indication that burnout is prevalent within their work life.” 

In addition, symptoms of workplace burnout include employees who are struggling to meet deadlines when they were able to meet past deadlines easily.

Pay attention to personality changes too. If someone used to go to lunch with coworkers and they suddenly start eating lunch at their desk or if a coworker appears defeated day-in and day-out when they used to approach everyone with a smile, it could be a sign of burnout.

Taking sick time can be a good sign too, especially if that person calls in at the last minute, but returns to work with the same glum attitude. It’s a sign that they’re trying to fix feelings of burnout with a day off. Although time off can be on the list of burnout strategies your company uses to help employees, if not utilized properly, days off can actually end up making employees feel worse.

Keep in mind that these signs can be associated with burnout, but they can be associated with many other things as well. For example, employees who are dealing with personal matters at home may act differently in the office. Those battling an illness may behave differently too. That’s why it’s important to start a conversation. Ask the person if they have been feeling burnt out, or if there’s something going on in their life that is making the workday more challenging.

Then, be prepared to listen. That also means accepting, without judgement, the possibility that they may not be willing to talk about it. If they don’t want to open up, you may not be able to help them directly, but there are still things you can do to make managing and preventing burnout part of your workplace culture so employees are more willing to come forward in the future.

Managing Employee Burnout

Figuring out how to manage employee burnout can feel like an overwhelming job. You might be wondering how to help an employee with burnout, while also wondering how to motivate burned out employees throughout your business.

Start by checking out mental health resources that are available to your organization. For example, Thriver’s marketplace includes virtual activities you can do with your team, whether your employees or in the office or working from home, like:

  • Stress & Burnout Workshop: With a certified nutritionist host and a PDF activity worksheet, your team can learn helpful stress management strategies that are focused on diet and lifestyle.
  • Cultivating Happiness & Avoiding Burnout Workshop: With live guided visualization and a sound bath experience, this workshop aims to show you how to shift your mindset from negative to positive to enhance your well-being, improve productivity, and experience more clarity.
  • Using Food for Burnout Prevention Workshop: Learn about food-related stress triggers and how to integrate ingredients into your diet that enable you to manage your health and improve your overall wellness.
  • Avoiding Burnout in the Workplace Workshop: Enable employees to identify their personal burnout story, create a toolkit to enhance their capacity to thrive in the workplace, and learn how to respond when feelings of burnout arise.
  • Managing Pandemic Stress Workshop: Led by a medical clinician and ICF-certified professional coach, this workshop will educate you on the neuroscience behind stress while providing you with science-based stress reduction techniques to manage feelings of overwhelm.

Managing existing feelings of burnout also includes asking your employees what would help them manage burnout when it rears its ugly head. For example, 36% of respondents of the Indeed survey reported that paid time off could help reduce burnout. Provide employees with additional time off that they can use however they wish, but encourage them to make the most of their time off by telling them to stay off of their email. You should also reassure them that they don’t have to play sick (which means they can do something fun and fulfilling with their time off instead of ruminating about missing work while laying on the couch). 

Ways to Prevent Burnout in the Workplace

Not only should you deal with burnout when it arises, you should also consider how to prevent employee burnout from occurring in the first place.

There are things you can do easily in the workplace every day. For example, you can start all Zoom meetings by leading the group through some focused breathing for stress management. You may also inform your team that meetings will no longer be scheduled over the lunch hour to give everyone a break.

On the Thriver Podcast titled Identifying & Preventing Burnout with Expert Advice, Caroline Milton also mentions being willing to shoulder the load, but only when it comes with communication.

Observing that someone on our team is struggling and needs to change their pace, that’s when we should be willing to be flexible with our boundaries to help shoulder the load.

– Quote from Caroline Milton on Thriver Podcast Ep.21

However, it also means starting a dialog about whether taking on the project is really helpful, or if there’s another way to be helpful like, “slowing down a little bit, investing in their creativity, or implementing new strategies for helping manage the stress,” so you don’t just start a cycle of asking others to pick up the slack for a team member who is struggling over and over again.

Knowing how to avoid employee burnout also means giving employees the opportunity to say no, or to tell you when they have had enough. That prevents resentment between coworkers, and it also enables employees to tell you that taking on another project is likely to lead to feelings of burnout.

Preventing burnout at work should also include facing the fact that our identity and worth have been tied to our occupation, even though that doesn’t have to be the case. Recognize that your employees are more than their occupation, and the primary role of work in their lives is to make money so they can live the life they want. This frame of mind will influence the way you treat your employees in positive ways, reducing the chances for management to be the cause of burnout among employees.

Part 3: Dealing With Burnout in Your Own Life

A laptop with a sticky note that says Help

If you’re managing burnout in your own life, know that you aren’t alone. According to our survey, mental health challenges were indicated as the top personal struggle for HR/People Ops, followed by struggles to maintain a healthy lifestyle, work-life balance, and financial concerns.

It is important to know how to stop burnout in its tracks, but it’s also important to know the signs you’re starting to feel burnt out so you can do something about it.

Signs You’re Feeling the Effects of Burnout

The only way to know if you should be addressing burnout symptoms is if you know that you’re experiencing symptoms in the first place! 

A few signs that you’re feeling the effects of burnout include:

  • You’re feeling disconnected from things you used to feel passionate about
  • You feel less creative 
  • You are finding it harder to handle stress in the workplace
  • You’re lashing out at coworkers, friends, or family members

Burnout can come from the external environment, like projects that are a little too demanding, a manager that demands overtime, or a poor working environment, but it can occur internally as well.

If you’re starting to feel disconnected from things that you used to feel passionate about, you may start to think deeper about the point of work and address philosophical questions, like why you’re here and if you’re doing what you were meant to do. The tension of what you once thought motivated you when it no longer does could be a symptom that you’re feeling burnt out in your current job.

You should keep your eyes open for physical symptoms too. You might feel more tired and sluggish than usual, you could experience stomach aches, especially ahead of work, and headaches.

Once you know the signs and you start seeing them pop up in your life, you can research how to reduce burnout to stop it in its tracks.

How to Reduce or Eliminate Feelings of Burnout

There are things you can do if you’re feeling the effects of burnout. Some of the best ways to reduce burnout include listening to and taking care of your body.

Take care of your physical self by slowing down. That could mean taking a day off, or it could mean saying no the next time your manager asks you to take on more work. Taking naps or going to bed early so you get more sleep can help reduce burnout too.

Are you taking time off of work, but it doesn’t seem to be helping? It could be because you’re thinking about work even when you aren’t on the clock. If you’re worried about a project that’s due, a big meeting that’s coming up, or you’re just ruminating on solutions to a problem you’re experiencing at work, you aren’t giving yourself the break you need. Doing something you’ve never done before can help take your mind off of work, as can spending time with a friend.

Caroline Milton on the Thriver Podcast also mentions the importance of realizing that there are many other areas of life where we get to choose who to be. If we’re feeling burnout, all of those identities are dominated by our work identity. Banishing burnout means reconnecting with the identities outside of work that make us feel alive and aligned, whatever they may be.

Knowing how to reduce existing feelings of burnout is important, but it’s also important to know how to avoid burnout when working from home or in the office.

Ways to Prevent Burnout in the Future

Learning how to avoid burnout can be simpler than you think. It’s all about creating routines and rituals that help you stay grounded.

When you’re working at home, it’s important to have a designated workspace, but what most people don’t talk about is getting into the mental space of work. Then, when work is done, you have to adjust your thoughts to leave work behind and be present for your family.

Give yourself a commute, even if you don’t have one. It could be anything from taking a short walk at the start and end of your day, swinging some kettlebells, journaling, or reading a book.

Getting dressed can help you get in the right frame of mind for work too. Even though you can work in your pajamas when you’re at home, getting dressed for the day, then changing back into your sweatpants, can help you build boundaries around your workday. Do whatever works for you, but stick to it so your brain knows when you’re at work and at home, regardless of where you are.

Having trouble sticking to your routine? Fill a friend or family member in on your intentions and ask them to help keep you accountable. They can check in and make sure you’re sticking to your routine, and you can do the same for them.

Caroline Milton says, “Don’t be mistaken that when you feel five-percent better that you’re ready to go. With our desire for immediate satisfaction, that can be an easy trap to fall into. When I feel a little bit better, there’s a small sense of relief, so I’m going to go back to my ways of working, but our body needs more.”

The best way to prevent burnout is to continue practicing rituals, taking time off, and maintaining workplace boundaries, even if you feel fine, so burnout doesn’t sneak up on you.

Learning how to prevent burnout in the workplace starts with knowing the signs of burnout, then doing something about it. Learning how to prevent burnout in the workplace starts with knowing the signs of burnout, then doing something about it. Whether you’re dealing with it on your own or you are managing a team, there are things you can do day-in and day-out to make sure you and your workforce feel like their best selves at work.

If you’re searching for ways to manage burnout in your workplace, checkout Thriver’s mental health workshops for ideas.

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