Employee Burnout: Learn the Risks, Symptoms, and How to Prevent It

A woman slumped over her computer with a red low battery icon.

Lack of productivity, poor performance, demotivated workers: it’s no surprise that employee burnout has become an increasingly important topic. According to a research by Gallup, 76% of employees experience burnout at work at least sometimes, and 28% say they experience it “very often” or “always.”

So, what is employee burnout? And more importantly, what can organizations and HR professionals do about it?

In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms of burnout at work, how to prevent burnout, and the best burnout prevention strategies for HR leads.

What Is Employee Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization, employee burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

Burnout is usually characterized by three things:

Employees may experience any or all of these symptoms at some point in their careers —after all, we all have bad days. But when workers feel exhausted, negative, and ineffective day after day for an extended period, bad days turn into burnout. And burnout can quickly turn into an expensive and serious problem for both employees and employers.

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The True Cost of Employee Burnout

The real cost of burnout is much more than a handful of tired, disengaged employees. Harvard research suggested that the cost of employee burnout to American businesses could total $190 billion per year in healthcare expenses.

A study by Gallup found employees with burnout cost $3,400 out of every $10,000 due to being disengaged with their work. This leads to not only lower productivity but a higher staff turnover.

And replacing workers is expensive. The replacement cost for the average worker is one-half to two times the annual salary.

But even mild burnout among your employees can have a significant negative impact. A Gallup report shows that employees who experience burnout at work “very often” or “always” are:

The cost of employee burnout is high for individuals and organizations alike; it’s clear your company can’t afford to ignore it.

4 Tell-Tale Symptoms of Burnout at Work

Knowing the signs of employee burnout can help you recognize and address it early—before it becomes a huge issue. This is especially important because employees may not tell you when they’re feeling burned out.

While not every case of burnout looks the same, keeping an eye out for these symptoms can help with burnout prevention.

1. Exhaustion

We are all familiar with the midday slump. The yawning, the drooping eyes, the fuzzy thoughts. It can be tough to work through those slow afternoon hours.

But employees suffering from burnout may feel as if their midday slump never ends. Coming to work each day is exhausting. And not just physically. Mental exhaustion can be just as taxing.

The biggest danger with exhaustion is that it’s often cyclical. An employee comes to work and becomes exhausted, the stress of the day weighs on them in the evening and prevents restful sleep. The next day, they come into the office even more tired than before, and the cycle continues — leading to burnout in the workplace.

What to watch for:

2. Cynicism

Another common sign of employee burnout is an attitude of cynicism. We all know a few cynics in the office — maybe we even have an inner cynic ourselves. While everyone feels frustrated or negative at work sometimes, employees who consistently behave negatively may be suffering from burnout.

A cynical attitude at work doesn’t develop overnight. Rather it grows over time and results from repeated bad experiences. Most often, employees fall into cynicism when they are lacking two things in their work experience: trust and job clarity.

Trust is a relatively fragile thing that’s built and reinforced through repeated interactions with the same people or situations. When a manager acts in a way that betrays an employee’s trust, such as taking credit for their work, the relationship is damaged, and that employee will be warier during the next interaction. If further interactions continue to erode trust, employees will begin to doubt their organization’s or manager’s intentions and refuse to cooperate, resulting in employee burnout.

Even when managers sincerely try to treat employees well, they may fall short in establishing clear job expectations. A lack of clarity can lead to cynicism (and therefore employee burnout) because of the stress it creates for employees.

For example, one study found employees who experience role clarity are 53% more efficient and 27% more effective at work than those who have role ambiguity. Having a clear understanding of job roles can improve employee satisfaction, helping to prevent burnout in the workplace.

What to watch for:

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3. Inefficacy

A burned-out, disengaged employee is also an ineffective one. This is often caused by an overwhelming and endless to-do list.

Every organization has its busy periods where everyone needs to pull a little extra weight to keep things running smoothly. But when crunch time never ends, and employees find themselves constantly swamped, they are at serious risk of burnout in the workplace.
One thing that keeps employees from being truly effective in their work is a constant flow of distractions and interruptions.
Research from Spring Health found 36% of those experiencing burnout in the workplace cited increased responsibilities at work as a contributing factor. A Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after something as small as an e-mail interruption.

Can you imagine working on a large, complex project in three-minute increments interspersed with 15-minute interruptions? Not only this is incredibly inefficient, but it’s also frustrating and exhausting. Unfortunately, this is what many employees face in their workplace.

What to watch for:

4. Loneliness

The final sign of employee burnout we’re going to cover is loneliness. It can be tough to tell if an employee feels lonely and disconnected, but if they consistently withdraw from social activities or avoid interacting with teammates, that may be the problem.

Friendships are a vital piece of the employee engagement puzzle. Employees with close social connections at work also tend to be better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job.

On the other hand, those who lack these kinds of relationships have only an 8% chance of being highly engaged.

Humans are social creatures, and meaningful social interaction is an integral part of each day. With no social time, an individual is equally likely to report having a bad day as having a good day; each hour of social interaction increases the chances of having a good day.

The average employee spends about eight hours of their day at work. If they don’t have any friends among their team members, then it’s likely their social time is limited to a few hours each day before or after work. That could lead to bad day after bad day and, ultimately, employee burnout.

What to watch for:

How to Avoid Work Burnout: 5 Best Practices

Burnout can occur when workers feel overworked and undervalued. On an organizational level, this can lead to higher staff turnover, lower employee engagement, and a negative impact on workplace culture.

But how can HR professionals prevent burnout in the workplace? Training, complimentary massages and seminars on health are all useful measures, but they can only go so far. Instead, it’s better to get straight to the source.

Here are five burnout prevention strategies for your organization.

1. Cut Down on Multitasking

Multitasking is a relic of a bygone era. In fact, studies show that that just 2.5% of people are capable of multitasking effectively. When we bounce between tasks, we become less focused and more likely to make an error. This can make us less productive and more prone to stress, resulting in employee burnout.

To combat this, try encouraging employees to minimize the time spent needlessly switching between tasks. For example, advising workers to ‘mute’ their communication tools and set focus hours throughout the day. This will allow them to mindfully check in on messages, rather than being constantly distracted by notifications throughout the day.

2. Create a Safe Work Environment

Employees need to feel secure and comfortable at all times. They must also feel empowered to speak up, voice concerns and ask for help or accommodations. Burnout, like other mental health issues, may be difficult for some to admit to: whether out of fear for their jobs or losing the respect of their peers and managers.

Addressing employee burnout and being open about stress and mental health can help to break down these barriers. This can come in the form of one-on-one check-ins, both scheduled and informal.

3. Identify Your Core Values

Nurturing company culture starts with establishing core values. These are the clearest examples of what matters to your organization and what your company expects from employees.

If you have a set of core values, it’s worth revisiting them. Consider how those values will translate into lived employee experiences. Preventing burnout at work means letting your employees know that their health comes first. Including that as part of your company values, and committing to it, is crucial.

4. Make Work-Life Balance Real

The discourse of work-life balance has become more prevalent over the past decade or so. Employees aren’t robots, after all, and they need a healthy blend of professional and personal activities. It’s also incredibly important for organizations who need to help facilitate this balance. To prevent employee burnout, they have the duty of playing an active role.

This can consist of:

5. Keep Up Communication

Preventing burnout in the workplace starts by identifying when and how it happens. As an HR professional, it’s important to consider how you can keep the pulse of your organization. Keeping up with employees is a great way to establish a proper prevention system.

This means collecting feedback, scheduling appraisals and distributing pulse surveys. If people are satisfied, then great! But if they are overworked or stressed, you may need to consider initiatives that can help to keep that spark before people get burned out.

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How HR Professionals Can Manage Burnout

It’s not just employees that are experiencing burnout in the workplace. HR and People leaders are feeling the strain too.

In many ways, HR has been an unacknowledged frontline worker during the pandemic. Many report facing their own mental, physical and financial wellbeing challenges on top of continuing to help employees through the same thing.

All of this can feel pretty grim, but we’re not just here to point out the hard stuff. We also want to give you solutions for when the strain of these additional, unexpected responsibilities gets to be too much.

Here are a few resources for you to start with:

Try the Ten Percent Happier App

Mindfulness meditation is proven to regulate stress hormones but, for many people, it’s a skill with a steep learning curve. The Ten Percent Happier app flattens the curve so that busy professionals can harness several moments of calm whenever and wherever.

At the 2021 HR Virtual Summit, a yearly virtual conference BambooHR hosts for HR pros, Ten Percent Happier’s Director of People Nadine Robinson presented a keynote on the impact of mindfulness meditation on workplace wellbeing. Her presentation included a five-minute guided meditation by one of her company’s meditation experts.

We were moved when many attendees took to the comments afterward to share that the unexpected experience had brought them much-needed relief. That’s why we think the free Ten Percent Happier app is a convenient and powerful tool for burnout prevention.

Introduce an HR Wellbeing Week

Another route toward both community and self-care is HR Wellbeing Week. It’s an annual virtual conference devoted entirely to giving HR professionals the skills and information they need to self-advocate, manage crises with resilience, avoid burnout, and ultimately take better care of themselves.

HR Wellbeing Week is sponsored in part by HR@Heart, which was founded by another wellbeing-focused HR Virtual Summit speaker, Julie Turney.

A four-day conference with dozens of speakers, HR Wellbeing Week lets you pick and choose from in-depth sessions in these twelve categories:

Encourage Therapy and Mental Health Counseling

As the source for mental health information and providers, HR professionals frequently find themselves playing the role of counselor. But whether or not you have an EAP to direct employees to (or to use yourself), you’re still engaging in emotional labor (i.e., therapy work) pretty much on the daily.

Even therapists need therapy, and when HR is functioning as a therapist, well, you get the idea. Check out this list of top mental health resources, curated by Healthline, to get started finding your own dedicated counselor.

Join Online HR Communities

The burnout prevention strategies don’t stop there! There are plenty of online HR communities waiting for you, your voice, and your participation, including r/humanresources and r/askHR on the popular discussion site Reddit.

And if you’d rather just be present and take it all in than step up to the mic (or your keyboard)—nobody will judge you for it. There’s still a lot of value to be gained in reading others’ discussions.

Remember: You’ve Got This

Your day-to-day concerns as an HR pro may revolve around the employee experience, but when the to-dos of the day flow into every single day on your calendar, it’s easy to forget a simple but important truth: you’re an employee, too, and you deserve all the care and attention you give your people.

Just remember, when it feels like there’s nowhere to turn for that critical support, you’re not alone. There’s an entire community in your corner.

Gather Powerful Insights, Create a Better Employee Experience

Don't leave your company culture to chance. With accurate, reliable employee surveys in BambooHR, you'll gain the insight you need to prevent burnout, improve morale, and stop premature turnover in its tracks.

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