How to spot the signs of burnout

  • 02 Aug 2022

Photo credit: Milan Ilic | Shutterstock

Written by: Lesley Cooper, management consultant and founder of WorkingWell

Conversations around workplace burnout have been consistently growing. As of 2019, burnout has been declared an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organization, describing the condition as influencing health status.

This state of chronic stress and exhaustion can occur when someone has been under workplace pressure for a prolonged time, or has been struggling in managing high stress levels in their professional role. Symptoms of someone suffering from burnout can include extreme tiredness, negative feelings towards work, and reduced productivity and efficiency.

It is important that business leaders know exactly the signs to watch out for, not only within others but so that they can check in on themselves too. It’s no easy job running a business, but it is one that can come accompanied with dangerous pressure levels if you are unaware of what to watch out for.

The following are five key signs of burnout to watch out for:

Increased irritability

When people are struggling with extreme fatigue, their patience may deplete alongside their energy levels. Noticing when employees are behaving differently with colleagues and if their reactions seem unreasonable is key, as this could be a sign that they are struggling with burnout.

Not only should you be vigilant in spotting this in the workforce, but also in yourself. If you find that you are behaving out of character or your responses do not seem justified, this could be a sign that you are heading towards burnout.

Disengagement with colleagues

If employees become detached and appear isolated from their co-workers and senior leadership, it could be because they are lacking the energy to engage, signalling burnout. This could range from being generally withdrawn while in the office, less engagement in meetings, decreased output of work, or an increase in home working.

Looking out for this behaviour and reaching out sensitively and without judgment is important once you notice this. Give people the psychologically safe space to describe how they are feeling.



Not taking breaks

Burnout can occur when people are not allowing themselves much-needed breaks. This can stem from employees not having clear boundaries to look after themselves. An employee may feel guilty taking time away from work, think that working without breaks makes them appear more productive, or might feel so overwhelmed that they do not feel they are able to have time for themselves.

Whatever the reason, breaks away from work are necessary for emotional wellbeing and stress management. Overworking should not be glorified on an individual, or company, level.

We need to think of ourselves like an axe that will blunt itself against the trunk of a tree with repeated strikes. Doing the same thing repeatedly for over 90-120 minutes means we lose our edge. Instead, deliberate breaks will help us decompress after intense cognitive tasks. 

Not taking holiday

Breaks alone are not enough. If working hours are encroaching on time reserved for personal life, then there is still a net loss of recovery time. People need prolonged time to be disengaged from work, either over a weekend or week’s holiday.

Leaders are responsible for promoting proper down time. When employees have extended time to rest, they will come back to work recharged, and will be better equipped to manage stress and keep on top of work efficiently.

Individual pressure management

If employees are appearing frantic or disorganised in their approach to work, it may signal their struggle to self-regulate their emotions and difficulty in coping with stress. Pressure itself is inescapable, but when left unaddressed, unhealthy responses creep in. This pressure can then snowball and manifest into a much bigger issue that can lead to burnout.

Leaders should prioritise teaching healthy coping mechanisms, and skills to rationalise while under pressure. This will help workers’ energy thrive and optimise quality of work and organisation.

Proactive wellbeing strategies empower everyone in the business to know the signs of burnout and psychologically safe spaces allow for the conversations that prevent these symptoms from taking hold. By working together, managers and their teams can create healthy and supportive workplace cultures.

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