Work burnout: what is it and how do you prevent it?

8 min read  |   24 December, 2021   By Rachael Down

A man in a blue shirt is sat at his desk with his laptop in front of him. He is holding his head in his hands and is looking very stressed.

Workplace burnout can creep up on the best of us. And it doesn't discriminate. Whether you're a director, manager, employee or an apprentice, burnout can affect your staff without them even realising, wreaking havoc on their physical and mental health. Getting in early, staying late and developing an unhealthy work/life balance in a bid to be the best, most competitive and most dedicated employee can all lead to burnout. And when it hits, it not only throws your employee a curveball, but it has an impact on your business too.

What is work burnout?

Burnout is now recognised as a medically defined condition. Pre May 2019, many experts believed that other medical conditions were to blame, such as depression or anxiety. Fortunately, that is no longer the case and burnout now describes an acute state of physical or mental exhaustion where even simple tasks feel like climbing a mountain for an affected employee. A worker may also feel like they’re losing their personal identity or not accomplishing as much.

Burnout can occur as a result of long-term stress at work or if a worker has failed to get the results they expected at work, leaving them feeling as if all they effort they put in wasn’t worth it.

Ironically, according to Mind Tools, work burnout usually occurs in people who initially shine very brightly, love their work, care deeply and do a fantastic job. But anyone can become exhausted and although this can be overcome with rest, there is also a deep sense of disillusionment which people who are more cynical about their job in the first place are less likely to feel.

What are the symptoms of work burnout?

There are a number of symptoms you can look for that indicate burnout, and these include:

  • Feeling hopeless about life and work
  • Having less patience with colleagues and friends than normal
  • A feeling that every day at work is a bad day
  • Frequently phoning in sick and feeling unable to cope with work
  • Feeling physically and emotionally exhausted a lot of the time
  • Lacking in motivation to do the job or go into work
  • Experiencing negative emotions all the time such as cynicism, despondency, frustration and pessimism
  • Greater difficulty in concentrating or carrying out normal tasks
  • A drop in job performance
  • Failure to take care of oneself e.g. drinking too much, not exercising, eating lots of junk food, smoking, not sleeping
  • Health problems – burnout over a long period of time can cause physical problems such as digestive issues, obesity, heart problems and depression 

Learn why health & wellbeing is crucial to business success

How to prevent burnout in your workplace

If you have staff suffering from burnout it can affect their performance, which in turn can affect company performance and productivity. Therefore, it’s important to take a proactive approach and tackle burnout before it becomes chronic. Here are 6 tips on preventing work burnout. 

Encourage staff to take their holiday

Research shows that staff who do not take all their annual leave are more likely to call in sick, simply because they need a rest. For a number of reasons, employees can feel guilty or unable to use up their whole allotted annual leave allowances.

Make sure you stay on top of annual leave trends so you can spot when someone is allowing theirs to build up. Be purposeful in creating a culture where taking a break is actively encouraged. And lead by example. Make sure you’re using up all your annual leave also.

Even if you're unable to travel, it's still important to take time off work. Make sure that staff are not able to be contacted while on holiday encouraging them to unplug and switch off completely.

We've created an HR software system to help manage holiday leave requests and track employee absence trends. Check out our part-time and full-time employee holiday calculators and ensure that your team protects themselves against burnout by taking the appropriate amount of holiday throughout the year. 

Give your employees purpose

Sure, your staff want to be paid for what they do - but they also want to know that what they do matters and has a purpose. Make sure you’re clear from the moment they join what their purpose is within your organisation, why they and their work matters, and how they help other people. You should regularly review job roles to emphasise this with your staff.

Performance reviews and 1-2-1s are a great opportunity to reinforce your employees' importance to your team and the wider business. This is incredibly easy to manage with the help of HR software

Create a mental health training programme 

Being proactive and creating a mental health training programme can reap long-term benefits for your organisation. Giving managers the necessary training to spot signs of work burnout and to address them early on can stop any problems from becoming more serious. It also shows your staff you’re a caring employer who considers their wellbeing important.

Not sure where to start? Here's a useful article from us on how to create an effective mental health programme for your people. 

Keep the lines of communication open 

It’s very important that your staff know they can talk to you or their line manager about any concerns. You need to foster an open-door policy where talking about mental health is normalised rather than viewed with suspicion.

Encourage exercise and healthy living 

As part of any wellbeing programme you implement you should encourage staff to exercise regularly and eat healthily which can help reduce stress and encourage relaxation. You could consider offering discounted gym membership or health perks as part of any benefits package available to staff.

Interested in learning more about the importance of office exercise? Here's 10 reasons why office fitness is good for business

Make sure staff unplug 

Set clear boundaries and make sure your employees know they shouldn’t be answering emails at midnight. If staff don’t feel like they can switch off it can increase long-term stress on them. Create a policy which avoids staff being contacted outside of hours and gives them a proper break.

Audit your workspace 

Take a look around the work environment. Could you reduce noise and make it more welcoming? Consider creating relaxation spaces or quiet areas for employees to take a bit of time out. Good lighting is also important and natural lighting has been shown to reduce stress and promote calm, peaceful moods.

Allow creativity

Providing an area or activities to trigger your people's creative spirit is another top tip to ward against burnout. Creativity is linked to improved productivity and provides a great outlet for reducing stress. 

Set time into the week for each employee to work on a more creative project. Or, welcome ideas for creative working from your team. Would they like to try an activity, lunch and learn or set-up a walking meeting? Open the discussion up to your team, chances are, they'll come up with some cracking ideas - which, if you've worked on your company culture could link very neatly to your core values. 

Get creative to motivate and support employee health and wellbeing.

Give praise

If your employees are engaged with their work, they will be a lot less likely to burn out. One of the best ways to increase engagement is to give recognition and praise for the good work they’ve done. If this is encouraged across your organisation, then you will start to see peer-to-peer praise which is great for morale.

"Feeling appreciated is a basic human need. Without any type of reward in place, employees are likely to feel that they are working for a paycheck and nothing more. The lack of appreciation leads to disengagement and the feeling of 'going through the motions' rather than working for an internal reward or passion. Simply recognizing [employees] for a job well done will go a long way in preventing burnout."

By giving your employees regular, constructive feedback, you can motivate them to keep striving to do good work. It’s also stimulating to let your employees know exactly what they need to do in order to reach the next target. Which keeps them engaged in their role. Our Kudos feature works a treat here. 

Feedback, both negative and positive, confirms to the employee that what they are doing matters. It is important for them to know their contribution is valued, not just by their direct manager but that it plays a part in the wider success of the business.

Breathe solves this issue by helping to organise and automate performance reviews, objectives and one-to-one feedback. Managers can quickly navigate to the employee's dashboard, which provides an up-to-date overview of each employee's status, including sickness trends and holiday allowances

Working with the impression that what you're doing isn’t worthwhile or valuable will be a big driving in causing employees to burn out. So it’s important to feedback regularly and give praise to avoid your employees burning out.

Avoiding employee burnout is crucial to the success of a business. As a manager of people, it’s important to recognise the strong connection between work and life's pressures and the impact it can have on health.

With an 'always-on' working culture we are prone to burnout now more than ever. Make sure you're doing all you can to avoid employee burnout by implementing the above tips and strive to maintain a happy, healthy team.

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Author: Rachael Down

With a passion for words, Content Specialist Rachel Down, is an experienced communicator with skills in journalism, content creation and web copy writing.

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