Spotting Early Signs of Burnout in Yourself or Your Team

August 9, 2023

In today's rapidly changing business landscape, burnout has become an all-too-common phenomenon, affecting both individuals and teams within any and all organisations, no matter their size or sector.

As HR and People leaders, the majority of us will be keen to foster a supportive work environment that not only promotes productivity but also safeguards the well-being of employees. In this article, we'll explore effective strategies to spotting burnout, identifying its early signs, drawing on scientific evidence and broad actionable guidance.

Understanding Burnout: A Sneaky Productivity Killer

Before delving into preventive measures, let's understand what burnout truly is. Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can lead to reduced performance, disengagement, and a range of physical and mental health issues.

Often it can emerge when deadlines mount, autonomy reduces or factors affecting our control and capability are acute

According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout can be attributed to a combination of factors, including excessive workload, lack of control over tasks, insufficient support from supervisors or colleagues, and an imbalanced work-life dynamic.

Mitigating Burnout: Building Resilience

  1. Promote Open Communication: Encourage transparent dialogue within your team. Make it clear that seeking help or discussing workload concerns is not a sign of weakness. Open communication reduces feelings of isolation and can prevent stress from escalating.
  2. Set Realistic Expectations: Unattainable goals often lead to burnout. Collaborate with your team to set achievable objectives that take into account available resources and time constraints.
  3. Foster a Positive Work Culture: Cultivate a culture of appreciation and recognition. When employees feel valued, they are more likely to remain motivated and less prone to burnout.
  4. Encourage Regular Breaks: Breaks are not a sign of laziness; they are essential for productivity and mental well-being. Encourage your team to take short breaks throughout the day to recharge.
  5. Provide Professional Development Opportunities: Learning and growth contribute to a sense of purpose and engagement. Offering training and development opportunities will definitely assist in employees' self-esteem and resilience.
  6. Flexibility and Autonomy: Whenever possible, provide employees with the flexibility to manage their work schedules. Autonomy over tasks and work methods can significantly reduce feelings of burnout.
  7. Prioritize Workload Management: Monitor workloads and distribute tasks evenly. Use project management tools to avoid overwhelming any individual team member.

Spotting Signs of Burnout: A Proactive Approach

Even with prevention strategies in place, burnout can sometimes sneak up. As a perceptive HR or People manager, recognizing the early signs is crucial for any intervention.

  1. Physical Symptoms: Keep an eye out for persistent headaches, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and changes in appetite. These can be indicators of escalating stress levels.
  2. Emotional Changes: If an employee starts exhibiting mood swings, irritability, increased cynicism, or a generally negative attitude, it might be time to have a conversation.
  3. Reduced Performance: A noticeable decline in the quality of work, missed deadlines, or increased errors can signal burnout-related issues.
  4. Withdrawal and Isolation: If a usually sociable team member starts avoiding interactions, isolating themselves, or expressing disinterest in team activities, it could be due to burnout.
  5. Decreased Enthusiasm: An individual who once displayed passion for their work suddenly showing indifference or lack of enthusiasm might be struggling with burnout.

The Connection Between Burnout and Health

Research has consistently highlighted the link between burnout and health problems. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that chronic job burnout is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, a meta-analysis in the journal PLoS ONE revealed that burnout is linked to an elevated risk of depression and anxiety disorders.

Implementing Solutions: A Proactive Approach to Well-being

Recognizing and addressing burnout is only half the battle. To truly ensure the well-being of your team, implement a holistic approach to well-being:

  1. Wellness Programs: Establish wellness programs that encompass physical activity, mindfulness, and stress-reduction techniques. Regular exercise has been shown to have positive effects on mood and stress levels.
  2. Work-Life Balance: Encourage a healthy boundary between work and personal life. Encourage employees to disconnect after work hours and utilize their vacation time.
  3. Access to Support: Ensure that employees have access to confidential counseling services. Sometimes, professional guidance is necessary to navigate challenging situations.
  4. Regular Check-ins: Schedule regular one-on-one meetings to discuss workloads, goals, and any challenges an employee might be facing.
  5. Lead by Example: As an HR or People manager, your behavior sets the tone for the team. Displaying a balanced work-life dynamic and demonstrating stress management techniques can inspire others.

Burnout is a multifaceted issue that requires proactive strategies for prevention and early detection. By fostering a culture of open communication, setting realistic expectations, and being attuned to the well-being of your team, you can create a resilient work environment. Providing resilience and adaptability training may also go some ways to instilling a culture of continuous learning, which can aid in fortifying teams to future conditions related to burnout

  • World Health Organization (WHO). (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases.
  • Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103-111.
  • Toker, S., Melamed, S., Berliner, S., & Zeltser, D. (2012). Burnout and risk of cardiovascular disease: evidence, possible causal paths, and promising research directions. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 327-353.
  • Bianchi, R., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2016). Burnout is associated with a depressive cognitive style. Personality and Individual Differences, 100, 1-5.

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