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

10 min read  |   19 April, 2024   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

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 '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.

In this blog, founder & owner of enlightenHR, CIPD Fellow & Breathe HR Partner, Alison Benney, shares her top HR tips for burnout prevention & recovery. 


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What is work burnout?

Burnout is recognised as a medically-defined condition. In the past, many experts believed that other medical conditions were to blame, such as depression or anxiety.

Fortunately, that's no longer the case and burnout is now commonly described as an acute state of physical or mental exhaustion. In burnout, 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 feeling helpless as to why they can't accomplish as much as they used to. 

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, burnout can also cause 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?

Alison Benney shares her top warning signs of an employee suffering from burnout:

"Dropping out of sight or contact is the most obvious sign of burnout, or suddenly realising that someone hasn't been in touch with you as usual, or is avoiding talking to you.

Changes in behaviour are also a red flag - something that is out of character for that person. For example, someone usually talkative goes quiet, or someone usually quiet is dramatically louder than usual. This can also manifest in emotional outbursts, or someone being argumentative for the sake of it."

Alison Benney, owner & founder of enlightenHR

There are a number of additional symptoms of burnout that you can look out for:

  • 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 



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. 


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.

"Monitor and record working hours. Employers should be doing that anyway, although very few do so if employees are salaried rather than paid hourly. The point of doing this is NOT to make sure employees are working, it’s the opposite- to make sure they are switching off.

Have clear policies on when you can/should be sending & responding to emails. Working flexibly (or out of hours) is fine if it suits you, but not if it puts someone else under pressure. You can set most email systems to only send emails within the 'normal' working day (e.g. 08:30 and 18:00). It will then hold emails sent outside core hours and deliver them the next working day. 

Have policies which reflect that it is not acceptable to send work messages outside of core working hours and make sure that no one does – especially the boss.

Alison Benney, owner & founder of enlightenHR

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


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. 


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.


Keep communicating

It’s important that your staff know they can talk to HR or their line manager about any concerns. Fostering an open-door policy where talking about mental health is normalised (rather than viewed with suspicion) is always best. 


Lead from the top 

Alison Benney advises that when it comes to over-working, the example needs to be set from the top.

"Lead from the top. Everyone in the organisation will follow the boss' lead. If the boss switches off at 18:00, then it's acceptable for others to do so. If they're sending emails at 23:00, even if they don't expect/require a response, their subordinates will think that they need to respond." (Alison Benney, founder of enlightenHR).


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 paycheque 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. 


3 tips to help with treating burnout

Sadly, sometimes even with preventative measures in place, burnout will occur. In these cases, Alison Benney, founder of enlightenHR has shared some advice on how to support employees suffering from burnout. 


1. Holistic support

"Seek to understand what kind of support the employees want/need, rather than just the standard 'programmes'," advises Alison. 

"If possible, try to help the individual to look at their lives holistically - not just 'work' and 'home'. Often, issues are caused by a combination of factors, not just any one thing or situation. It's sometimes easier for an employee to seat the blame for how they are feeling as being totally work related, as they then avoid facing other (possibly more difficult) challenges in their lives. This also gives them someone to blame other than themselves especially if they are not in a place to take personal responsibility and action."

2. Arrange a buddy

"You could arrange a mentor or a buddy for someone who is struggling - perhaps a Mental Health First Aider, if you have any within your organisation," Alison advises. "Make sure the buddy has some training in helping someone who is struggling, as you wouldn't want them to become overwhelmed themselves."


3. Encourage prioritising wellbeing 

Alison reminds us that "feeling better physically often helps but when we are feeling emotionally unwell, we often neglect our physical wellbeing, too."

Alison's wellbeing tips are as follows:

  • Something as simple as getting out for a walk in the park is proven to help our wellbeing and capacity for processing. 

  • A good, balanced diet and exercise help our mental health, as they're linked. If there’s a way to support someone who's struggling with that see if they will accept it.

  • Remembering small wins,  not big leaps. Recognise and celebrate achieving something, anything! US Navy Admiral William H McRaven's Ted Talk about the importance of making your bed every day, even if you achieve nothing else that day, when you go to bed that night, you have achieved that, is worth a watch. 

  • Small acts of kindness can help in a small way with depression. Remembering those is important, too. 

Small acts of kindness can also extend to reminding your employees that they're doing a good job, every once in a while. It's 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.


Alison Benney is the founder of enlightenHR and a Fellow of the CIPD. Find out more about receiving professional HR advice from Breathe's network of HR Partners today. 


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter (2023) & English Language & Literature graduate (BA Hons), Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With 3 years' content marketing experience, Aimée has a passion for writing - and providing SME HR teams with solutions to their problems. She enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: from employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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