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How to spot (and stop) employee burnout

Workplace burnout is an occupational phenomenon that needs to be addressed.

This article was last updated Feb. 1, 2022.

“If you want something bad enough, you’ll work until you get it.”

It's likely a number of your employees (maybe even you) have heard this phrase here and there. Unfortunately, many people tend to take it quite literally.

Which leads us to the World Health Organization's (WHO) recent recognition of workplace “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon, according to The Advisory Board. External Site

For example, one of your employees — let’s call him Craig — is juggling multiple projects, overseeing a team of people, and is balancing a chaotic home-life with five little children running around. Craig feels continued pressure to exceed above and beyond what’s expected of him — so in order to get everything done, Craig often comes in early, eats lunch at his desk, goes home late, or even takes his work home. There’s no doubt that Craig is a hard-working and valued employee, but it’s likely he isn’t feeling that way and has reached his burnout point.

It might be time to start thinking about how you can help employees prevent or cope with workplace burnout.

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity according to the Mayo Clinic. External Site

Signs of an employee experiencing work burnout

It doesn’t matter if your company has the highest salaries, best benefits packages, or social perks, there is bound to be a time when an employee reaches their burnout point. Burnout can be associated with one, or all, of the following signs:

Decreased productivity or quality of work.

  • What to look for: An employee blatantly spending time on social media, shopping sites, or taking extended lunches throughout the day to avoid their work at all costs.

Uncharacteristic disengagement.

  • What to look for: An employee who started out engaged and excited to do their work, but is now delaying project and tasks, and missing deadlines left and right.

Increased cynicism and complaints.

  • What to look for: If you have a happy-go lucky employee who suddenly becomes quiet, increasingly negative and avoids everyone — you need to find out the root cause of the problem.

Irritability and exhaustion.

  • What to look for: Constant annoyance, frequent colds or fever, along with headaches and body aches — all tell-tale signs of someone under stress.

Missing work.

  • What to look for: When an employee begins to take a number of sick days and racks up unexplained absences.

How your workplace may be contributing to employee burnout

It can be difficult to accept that your workplace can be the source of job burnout. We hate to break it to you, but it’s true. Your employees are raking in more than 40 hours a week at their full-time jobs (if not more). And mind you, this is all time spent away from their family, friends and activities they love doing outside of work.

Based on a three-part study conducted by Gallup External Site, let's walk through the five main causes of workplace burnout with real-time examples your employees may be facing today.

  1. Unfair treatment.

    Sam is known for his hard work-ethic, great presentation skills, and has never missed a deadline in the five years he’s worked at your company. Sam has asked for a promotion on numerous occasions, and has the numbers to support his advancement. But his coworker, who is better friends with the boss, started one-year ago and sits on social media most of the day, is in line for a promotion. Employees being treated unfairly, like Sam, are 3 times more likely to experience higher levels of burnout than their counterparts.
  2. Unmanageable workload.

    Kara is a "go-getter" and never says no to a project that comes her way. So, her boss takes advantage and sends Kara projects when they know she has a lot on her plate (and there are other team members with capacity). Because Kara will get it done. When an employee like Kara feels like they have an unmanageable workload, they can feel like they are drowning. This is why nearly 50 percent of American workers forfeited their paid vacation time in fear of falling behind.
  3. Lack of role clarity.

    In Tom’s interview, he was told he would be working on a particular client account; managing projects and pitching ideas. Instead, Tom found out there are six other individuals on this one account, and everyone has the same title and role. Employees like Tom are among the 40 percent of workers who don’t know what is expected of them, according to the State of the American Workplace report External Site.
  4. Lack of communication or support from manager.

    Pam presented to an all-staff meeting about a very important upcoming project she and her boss are working on. Once the presentation wrapped up, she was bombarded with questions and wasn’t sure of answers — so she asked her boss for support. But her boss hurried to the next meeting and left her to manage the Q&A alone. Situations like this are probably why 58 percent of employees would trust a stranger over their own boss.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure.

    Steve was handed a new project he was excited about, but found out he only had one week to get everything prepped for a meeting with C-level executives. No pressure, right? Makes sense why 46 percent of employees feel like they have a workload that causes them increased stress External Site.

The price your workplace can pay with employee burnout

Most likely, a number of these factors are associated with employee burnout. And, as your company’s HR or benefits administrator, you care about keeping your employees happy, healthy and the company's bottom line in check.

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Beware of employee burnout

Psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees can cost an estimated $125 to $190 billion a year in health care spending in the U.S.

2 out of 3 full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

Employees suffering from burnout are:

  • 63 percent more likely to take a sick day.
  • 13 percent lower in confidence of performance.
  • 50 percent less likely to discuss performance goals with their managers.
  • 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room.
    • Sources: Gallup, Harvard Business Review

5 tips to stop employee workplace burnout in its tracks

Now, for the most actionable step. How can you help prevent employee workplace burnout before it starts — or goes too far? Consider these five tips.

  1. Create fair workloads.

    We all know there are down times and busy times. But, if there is an employee who is continually taking on every project or task, but another employee is "twiddling their thumbs" (e.g., online shopping, distracting others, or on social media), it may be time to reconsider how work is divvied up.
  2. Cultivate fairness and balance.

    This one's simple: Avoid playing the 'favorites' game, mistreating or bullying coworkers, or granting unfair perks with your employees.
  3. Support ‘mental health’ days.

    Several companies (Deloitte and Ernst Young for example) are developing stronger policies and programs within their workplaces to help managers become more supportive and encourage coworkers to find someone to talk to or take a mental health day.
  4. Don’t add stress.

    Don't leave your employees out of discussions or decision-making. When your employees feel like they have an active role, control or participation in decision-making, it can help create a healthy work-life balance.
  5. Be proactive.

    There are a number of purposeful resources out there to help your employees feel supported. Consider these to start:
    • Consider implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This is a great option to include within your workplace to provide free and confidential services for employees dealing with work or personal issues.
    • When an employee is feeling blue, virtual visits are here. Mental health is a topic many avoid or are timid to discuss — especially in the workplace. By adding a virtual visit service to your employees' benefit package, employees can connect with a licensed therapist — or psychiatrist for more complex issue — to listen and help find solutions. Get a download of everything your employees receive with a virtual visit service by logging into Employer Connection Secure Site to access the free resource.
    • Learn from Lyndsey Fennelly, mental performance coach and entrepreneur, about her struggle with mental health and how you can support your employees with various solutions and resources by watching our free webinar External Site.

Take action for a healthier workplace and employees

Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield is committed to creating an environment within your workplace that promotes healthy behaviors. Through our employer and well-being consulting services, we look beyond your employees’ claims and provide a variety of evidence-based programs that address the six elements of well-being: financial, social, career, emotional, physical and community.

Looking to get started or want more information? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative, or email us at Send Email.