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5 ways to recognise and address employee burnout

Advice and top tips

5 ways to recognise and address employee burnout

UK workplace productivity is never far from the headlines – and rarely for the right reasons. The Office for National Statistics has pointed out that it has been at its lowest over the course of the past decade than at any other time during the 20th century.

All the while, company commitment to raising the productivity bar has been unremitting. From time saving tech to expected, but unpaid overtime, we are all under the cosh to do more with less – less time, less budget and less human resource.

All work and no rest or play

Research has revealed that a total of 7.5 million sick days were taken by UK SME employees, with a resulting £900 million cost to UK businesses, in 20171.

The reasons for people pulling sick days varied, but a need for rest days was cited by many – mainly due to stress and conflicts with colleagues.

But what are the underlying reasons for this workplace dissonance? Did people fail to take enough holidays or did they end up working during their holidays and suffered from poor health as a result? Or was their exhaustion due to slogging for 14 hour days out of fear of job loss, or being overlooked for promotion? Are businesses putting people under so much pressure to perform that they suffer from severe exhaustion or total burnout?

Whatever the cause, employee burnout has become so prevalent that The World Health Organisation has now officially recognised burnout as an occupational condition, describing it as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Britain’s long hours culture means workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU with full-time employees in this country working an average of 42 hours a week last year, almost two more than the typical EU employee. That’s less time with family and friends, less time partaking in activities good for health and wellbeing – less time to recharge the batteries after a long working day. But UK workers are still less productive than their German and Danish counterparts who work fewer hours, according to the TUC.

Most employees are prepared to work hard, but everyone has their limits. Burning the candle beyond an average eight hour day can lead to a downturn in productivity, not an upturn in output. When employees are overworked and pressured, without having adequate support, they will inevitably burn out. The result of the mismanagement of burnout is employees need rest and recuperation – and this invariably means prolonged and costly time off work to recover.

Spot the signs

Feeling worn out at times is quite normal when working long hours, meeting last minute deadlines or dealing with emergencies at work. But when an employee shows extended signs of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, this is when it becomes more serious.

Acute tiredness can manifest itself in many ways. Employees may seem forgetful, unable to concentrate, and drained from the minute they arrive in the morning. Exhaustion can be detected physically much more easily than mentally. Dark circles under the eyes, dull complexion, a gain or loss in weight, gloomy to blank facial expressions, or a significant neglect in appearance are some of the more obvious signs.

But here we look at five less obvious tell-tale signs of burnout and how organisations can take actionable steps to help employees recharge and hit their reset button.

1. Disengagement

Not to be confused with stress, which can sometimes result in higher levels of productivity. Disengaged employees may experience a level of disconnection with their work, and their colleagues, leading to a lull in output along with a lack-lustre performance.

Although a disengaged employee does not always suffer burnout, their symptoms can act as an alert that wellbeing intervention may be required.

If an employee is past the point of caring and feels disillusioned or detached from the working environment, line managers should determine the cause and severity of the situation before it becomes untenable.

2. Increased absenteeism

Employees on the verge of burnout, due to either chronic stress or work overload, can experience and display mental, emotional or physical symptoms. The likelihood of frequent sick days or long-term absence can greatly increase. And so may the excuses given, as people feel ashamed to admit to being exhausted – regarding it as a weakness or not an ‘adequate’ reason to be off sick.  While some may be unable to get out of bed, others may turn up physically, but not mentally, leading to presenteeism issues.

3. High sensitivity and irritability

Understanding the nuances of your workforce – their personality traits, what makes them tick and what motivates them – is key to getting the most, and best, out of them.

Who needs constant praise and feedback? Who are the perfectionists, who are the high-achieving extroverts or at the other end of the spectrum, who are the quiet lone rangers? What about those lacking in confidence who take criticism personally and are more susceptible to feeling victimised?  Who is the most susceptible to burnouts?

Recognising changes in employee behaviour is crucial – a normally laid-back, composed employee who suddenly becomes highly-sensitive and irritable can be a warning sign of an impending burnout.

Irritability can also be the result of an individual feeling ineffective or unimportant.

Whatever the cause of the burnout, it can manifest itself in self-isolation, excessive anger and, in some cases, even violence towards colleagues which can irrevocably damage careers.

4. Accidents will happen

When an employee is experiencing burnout, their attention will invariably be fixated on their adversity, which leaves no head space for concentrating on their work.

A lack of work focus can consequently lead to accidents or mistakes – and this can be of particular concern if employees are driving, handling machinery, or where their work affects the safety of others.

Getting to the root cause of their burnout, alleviating it and working on coping mechanisms can help to avoid such outcomes.

5. Depression

Employee burnout often leads to depression, which can manifest in the workplace as a lack of confidence, acting withdrawn, exhaustion, irrational thought processes and excessive worrying.

No two employees will show the same symptoms however. While one overeats, another will lose their appetite and so addressing the issue with discretion and sensitivity is paramount.

Creating an open and understanding environment for employees to express themselves without judgement is key to combatting depression from burnout. By encouraging employees to talk about their feelings, the right advice or treatment can be found before depression becomes totally life debilitating.

Helping employees bounce back

The socio-economic pressures of our daily lives has led to employee burnout posing a significant risk across all industries and pay grades.

From a business perspective it can cost employers in lost productivity, low engagement, increased errors and increased incidents of compromised workplace safety. For an employee, the cost can be equally high – both personally and professionally.

Every manager should be aware of the hidden, or subtle, signs of employee burnout so that they can take appropriate steps to help employees. These can range from encouraging regular breaks and promoting better sleep and eating habits to offering flexible working, morale-boosting activities or professional counselling sessions.

Employers need little reminder that a happy, healthy workforce will, more often than not, be a productive workforce.

1Statistics from business intelligence agency Opinium