Last reviewed 29 October 2021

The prolonged challenges of the past 18 months mean the number of burnout cases is still on the rise. How can you spot the signs? And as an employer or manager, what can you do to prevent burnout? Lizzie Broadbent suggests some practical steps to reduce the risk.

What is burnout?

It is generally agreed that burnout is an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition. It is the result of excessive or prolonged work-related stress and manifests as some combination of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion.

While someone who is stressed may appear frantic or anxious and find it difficult to focus, someone who is burned out is more likely to be totally depleted and have checked out. The two phenomena are connected but they are not the same.

Dr Christina Maslach has been researching burnout for more than 30 years and has identified three different components:

  • disengagement — feeling isolated or increasingly distanced from work

  • ineffectiveness — procrastinating or finding it difficult to complete work

  • over-extension — feeling depleted or exhausted.

Any of these in isolation are concerning but someone who has burnout will be experiencing all three elements.

Spotting the signs

If you see burnout as synonymous with exhaustion, you might not notice some of the other early signs that someone in your team is starting to struggle. There are several red flags that could tell you that someone in your team is approaching or in a state of burnout.

People who are approaching a state of burnout out often feel that nothing makes a difference. They might start questioning the point of their work or make sarcastic or cynical remarks in work-related discussions. With low energy and little motivation, they are likely be missing deadlines or be delivering work which is well below the quality you would expect from them. They might start to withdraw from social activity, speaking less in meetings or on calls or failing to respond to emails.

Simply being more aware of the three component parts of burnout will help you reflect on where the risks could be in your own working environment and manage those risks better. Acting promptly when you see a warning sign in any of the three areas might enable you to prevent a case of full-blown burnout.

Taking preventive action

Burnout is bad for the individual but since it is the result of being in a challenging environment for a prolonged period of time, if you have a case in your team, you can be fairly sure that the rest of the team, and potentially the organisation, are also struggling at some level. If you are the leader of a team, a large department or a business, you have a major role to play in creating an environment where people remain energised, engaged and motivated. By taking the three aspects of burnout separately, it is easier to identify actions you can take.

Increase engagement

Work with purpose

There is now evidence to back up the theory that connecting to corporate purpose has a positive impact on employee engagement. So, particularly when times are tough, keep talking about why what the team is doing matters. Discuss with members of the team what they have they done in the last week or month that they think has made a positive difference, individually and as a group. Share feedback from customers and other departments within the business that show that others believe your work is worthwhile.

Show appreciation

The link between reward, recognition and motivation is well established. Employees who feel recognised tend to have higher self-esteem, more confidence, more willingness to take on new challenges and more eagerness to be innovative, all important in periods of high uncertainty and fast-moving change.

If this is something that keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do list, why not start to build a new habit. Make a recognition cheat sheet by writing down all the different ways you can show appreciation, from verbal and written thanks to a financial reward. Don’t forget more public forms of recognition: can you showcase work on the company website or nominate an individual or a team for an internal or external award?

Something which can be very powerful is to highlight a great piece of work to a senior member of the business and ask them to send a personal message of thanks. Put this list somewhere visible, set a diary reminder to look at it once a week, reflect on what has happened during the last few days and identify a couple of people inside and outside your team you can recognise.

Improve efficacy

Stop doing what doesn’t matter

Focusing team members’ time and energy on the things that matter most is a vital role for any leader. If organisational priorities or protocols keep changing, it is important to be clear about what people can stop doing, either temporarily or permanently, as well as what they need to start doing or focus on.

Make time to revisit working practices

Over the past 18 months there have been huge changes in ways of working to create safe working environments for customers and colleagues. New practices soon become habits. Stop to review them every month or two as a group so you maintain habits which are still relevant and useful while changing practices which are now less useful.

Reducing over-extension

Set and discuss boundaries

Flexible working should not mean being always available. The past 18 months have presented many opportunities for experimenting with different ways of working. Some people have thrived but others have found themselves “always on”, working longer hours and responding to emails at all hours of the day, every day. Noticing individual working habits, discussing them and using specific examples to determine boundaries rather than talking in generalities can all help.

Keep an eye on time off

A recent report said that 40% of people had taken less holiday last year, carrying over as much as they could. We all need time to recover from the demands of work so you need to be aware if one of your team members has gone for a long time without a break.

Conclusion

The pandemic has changed the working norms for all of us, whatever our work situation and this, in turn, might mean it takes longer than it might otherwise have done to give sufficient attention to changes in people’s behaviour. We all benefit from staying alert to the symptoms of burnout, in ourselves and in our teams and taking action where we see the greatest risks.

Further information

  • “A Corporate Purpose as an Antecedent to Employee Motivation and Work Engagement” (September 2020), van Tuin, L et al, Frontiers in Psychology.