Employee burnout is a silent crisis in UK workforces.
76% of all workers show signs of burnout at least sometimes, costing the economy a whopping £45 billion a year. Despite more people coming forward, the problem isn’t being fixed, as the cost has swelled 16% in two years.
Burnout is so endemic that it was declared an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organisation in 2019.
This is, however, a misunderstood condition; even those suffering may struggle to recognise the symptoms for what they are. Employers and employees being aware of both the tell-tale signs and the root causes behind burnout puts everyone in a position to regain control of the situation and break the cycle.
BetterSpace is the first choice-based intelligent marketplace for employee mental wellbeing. Our solution was developed in close consultation with medical experts and is aligned to the six pillars of wellbeing.
We’re sharing our invaluable insight into the causes and symptoms of employee burnout. Read on to find out more.
Signs and symptoms of employee burnout
Part of the reason employee burnout is so hard to recognise is that many of the signs tie in with what we commonly understand as employees exhibiting a ‘bad attitude’ or suffering a dip in their performance. But if a normally high-performing employee begins exhibiting these symptoms, it could be an indication that they are experiencing burnout.
Notice employees rubbing their eyes, making all-too-frequent trips to the break room for a coffee refill, maybe even nodding off at their desks? These could all be signs their energy has flatlined.
Physical and emotional exhaustion creates a vicious cycle. If an employee is using up their entire reserves at work, then going home to an environment where they have either no time or no motivation for restorative or relaxing activities, they show up with an empty tank the next day. Vice versa, if an employee has a demanding home life, they may have exhausted their energy before the working day even begins.
Additionally, work-related or unrelated stress could be disrupting their sleep, further perpetuating the cycle of exhaustion.
We’d all like to have a handle on our temper 100% of the time, but when we feel overwhelmed, we’re all susceptible to having a shorter fuse than usual. It can be easy to chalk rising tensions in the office up to out of control employees or people bringing their personal problems to work, but irritability is a sure sign someone is at the end of their tether.
Anger and irritability are also both symptoms of major depression—a common consequence of prolonged burnout and a condition with which burnout shares many similarities.
Sometimes the brain’s response to stress and overwhelm is to shut down or detach from the source of the problem altogether.
If you notice an employee withdrawing from social interaction in the workplace, appearing less engaged in meetings, taking longer to respond to messages from colleagues or clients, there’s a chance this isn’t a sign of disinterest. Rather, they could be withdrawing from the thing causing them stress—their job—in order to cope.
Like irritability, withdrawal is also linked to depression, a common consequence of getting burnt out.
A burnt out employee has nothing left to give—this can greatly impact the quality, consistency and efficiency of their work. If they’re making more mistakes, leaving tasks unfinished or only doing the bare minimum to get by instead of producing the standard they’re usually capable of, they’re probably burnt out.
Burnout can literally make your employees sick. Excessive stress can make a person more susceptible to fevers, headaches and more. A decline in their mental state as a result of burnout may mean they need to take more mental health days than they would otherwise.
Mental ill health is the most common cause of long-term absence, with 59% of organisations citing this among their top three causes. On a more serious note, employee burnout is shockingly attributed to around 120,000 deaths per year, as stress puts people at higher risk of cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure and suicidal ideation.
Employees may also take more sick days to avoid the office. This shouldn’t immediately be punished; it’s a consequence of an organisation-wide problem.
Causes of employee burnout
There are countless potential causes of burnout, coming from both inside and outside the workplace. Gallup identified the following five situations as being the main causes of burnout within organisations:
- Unreasonable time pressure: There’s only so much one person can reasonably accomplish in one day, and they may not be able to operate at maximum capacity day-in, day-out. 60% of organisations surveyed by the CIPD said that employees work outside of contracted hours to complete tasks and projects. The expectation of speed over quality is more likely to burn someone out and make them feel negative about their job than anything else.
- Lack of communication and support: The role of a manager goes far beyond assigning and supervising the work of their team. It should function as an additional layer of support, reassuring employees that they aren’t solely responsible should something go wrong. In absence of this, it’s easy for employees to feel overwhelmed and under intense pressure.
- Lack of role clarity: Uncertainty is stressful. When you aren’t sure what your employer’s expectations are, it’s impossible to know whether you’re meeting them. In a worst case scenario, responsibilities you weren’t aware of can catch you off guard, causing frustration and resentment.
- Unmanageable workload: If employees are being assigned an unrealistic amount of work with they expectation that they finish it on a tight deadline, their inability to complete it can feel like a personal failure as opposed to an organisational one, damaging their confidence and straining their relationship with management.
- Unfair treatment, favouritism and bias: Similarly, uneven support can stoke the fires of resentment. This can take the form of overt favouritism when it comes to responsiveness or opportunities, or in the most serious cases, a conscious or subconscious racial, gender or disability bias.
While all of these causes need addressing, it’s worth noting that 61% of people who have experienced a mental health problem attribute it to a non-work issue—just 35% of men and 24% of women only experience work-related mental health problems. This comes back to a very simple and obvious, yet completely fundamental consideration: that your employees are people first and employees second.
The fact that the root cause of employee burnout is coming from outside the workplace does not absolve the employer of responsibility. Anything that impacts your employees’ performance and experience at work is your problem too.
Work-life balance, a concept so oft-discussed that it has practically become a buzzword, has a large part to play in employee burnout, whether the individual employee’s home life is stressful or not. The reality is that burnt out employees are unlikely to have the energy left over to start implementing this balance and it’s important to consider whether the expectations of the employer allow for this.
It’s in the employer’s best interest to go out of their way to encourage employees to build work-life balance into their life by engaging in activities and hobbies outside of the workplace.
Addressing the problem
There are, of course, short-term fixes for burnout: rest, relaxation, TLC, a bit of ‘self-care’… but in the absence of true organisational and cultural change, you’re treating individual employees one after another in a never-ending cycle of burnout. This does nothing to safeguard your workforce against the serious consequences of burnout and isn’t cost-effective.
Preventing burnout before it has the chance to damage your employees and your organisation is the best solution. However, more than half of organisation rely solely on employees coming forward before taking action on burnout and many use reactive systems like EAPs, which require a diagnosis before treatment—such as counselling—can begin. In both cases, by the time the symptoms are addressed, burnout has already caused your employee enormous stress, damaged their health and performance and cost your organisation money.
Even the treatments on offer are often ineffective because they fail to take into account that all-important maxim: your employees are individuals before they are employees. Every person is not going to derive the same level of benefit from a meditation app, counselling or a gym membership. It’s important to have a diversity of choice on offer to suit the individual.
Our research demonstrates the enormous value of a choice-based, preventative model. During our pilot project with law firm Linklaters, the most popular resource accounted for just 4.7% of overall demand. This clearly demonstrates that employees want options when it comes to their wellbeing.