When we mention the term “employee burnout,” it often elicits a few nervous glances from those nearby. As an employer, if you notice employees start shifting anxiously in their chairs at the mere mention of the phrase, it’s understandable considering the unusual circumstances we’ve experienced in the world of work.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased the incidence of workplace burnout, particularly as companies switched to remote and hybrid job roles. Blurry lines between the professional and personal have caused many workers to struggle as they adapt to new boundaries, seek professional opportunities, and stay grounded in a complicated job market.
For savvy employers, recognizing burnout signs early is the ticket to creating preventive measures that boost engagement and team productivity. Let’s take a look at why today’s employers have valid concerns, and how leaders can address those fears head-on.
The growing concern of employee burnout
The tough truth is that cultural phenomena like the “Great Resignation” don’t happen because workers are fulfilled, refreshed, and happily supported when it comes to their work.
Employees fizzle out when they’re experiencing the opposite. When frustration builds, employees check out mentally, socially, and professionally.
Over the past few years, researchers have discovered growing rates of burnout and stress in the workplace. In 2023, Zippia (a career platform for job seekers), shared internal research that illustrated an alarming 89% burnout rate among employees seeking new roles. Plus, only 21% of the employees surveyed had corporate assistance to handle or reduce job stress.
The transition to remote work makes these trends more alarming. Without a physical way to check in with employees, employers have no way to truly know when workers pull back. It’s one thing to show up for a Zoom meeting but another to be fully engaged in meaningful work from home. Plus, since remote employees report more difficulty finding emotional support or separating work from their personal lives, we can predict that challenges will continue.
Impact of workplace culture on employee burnout
Although it’s easy to think that employee burnout is a “them” problem (after all, shouldn’t employees take responsibility for their own feelings?), it’s undoubtedly an “us” problem. That’s because the environmental and cultural characteristics in the workplace significantly alter how workers think, produce work, and show up every day.
The faster that we own the idea that toxic workplaces cultures contribute to employee burnout, the better equipped we’ll be to start fixing it. Here are a few places to start:
- Leadership – Cultural sentiments from leaders and managers trickle down. From a practical standpoint, businesses must invest in developing character and core values among leaders so that they can pass that healthy mindset on to everyone.
- Communication – Workers and employees feel valued when they’re in the loop. Communicate with transparency and honesty—whether the topic involves structural changes, new responsibilities, or employee evaluations.
- Organizational policies – Holistic human resources (HR) and people policies play a vital role in shaping workplace culture. Think about what your organization’s policies say about concepts like inclusivity, diversity, transparency, and conflict resolution.
8 distinct signs of employee burnout
One characteristic that sets great employers apart from more negligent ones is a willingness to simply observe. When you embark on a mission to reduce employee burnout within an organization, paying attention to how employees show up every day is half the battle.
As you slow down enough to see the people in front of you, it’s easy to spot trademark signs of exhaustion, mental fatigue, and disengagement. The list below covers eight red flags that are typical when employees are on the fast track to burnout.
1. Emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion
Emotional and mental stress easily manifests in physical symptoms that affect health and well-being. According to the American Psychological Association, recurring stressful scenarios spike our heart rates, increase blood pressure, raise cortisol levels, and create gastrointestinal distress. Uh, yikes?
Some employees who struggle mentally and emotionally after experiencing work-related conflicts may handle it well, but others find it difficult to keep troubling symptoms under wraps. Do employees seem down and out? Do they appear physically unwell, unable to stop yawning, or taking extra long breaks just to cope with the day?
Dig a little deeper, and check in on people with empathy and compassion. Wearing physical stress on your sleeve isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience (for most of us), and it could be embarrassing when managers acknowledge it publicly. Leverage employee retention software to track any changes or signals in the team’s culture that could create friction.
Disengagement is a broad term that describes everything from daydreaming during an important conference call to skipping out on work responsibilities regularly. Since it’s tough to nail down officially (and changes based on context), take a look at Officevibe’s concise description of a disengaged worker:
“When noticing a disengaged employee, you’ll likely discover signs like a lack of motivation to complete everyday tasks or goals, signs of poor sleep, difficulty focusing during meetings or in their own work time, and isolation from the team or social events. If your employees’ work is suffering, it’s time to connect.”
From this imagery, we glean a few common threads. Disengaged team members display those physical signs we mentioned above, and they fail to participate enthusiastically. Moreover, they could be lonely, distant, or unproductive. While these issues come up naturally in performance reviews or one-on-one meetings, dig deeper to learn what’s really going on.
If you’re ready to go one step further, employee sentiment software like Erudit removes the guesswork. Get live feedback straight from the source to understand when employees are bored, anxious, or have a chip on their shoulder.
3. Increased job-related absenteeism
Individual burnout leads to poor decisions that affect everyone within an organization. As burned out employees pull back from their responsibilities or tasks, they might also stop showing up for work entirely.
Although this is a pretty obvious signal to spot in physical offices, it’s tougher to manage in remote-only workplaces. Without time tracking software or screen monitoring programs, managers might not realize when employers are logging on but mentally checking out.
Is this an invitation to micromanage every worker on your team? Definitely not. But it does point out the importance of accountability and connection as you work to engage team members and prevent burnout from spiraling.
4. Isolation and performance withdrawal
Employees who feel burned out are more likely to pull away from their typical tasks, activities, and even social engagements. Over time, decisions to retreat lead to isolation—a major red flag when we’re talking about workplace burnout.
As Bonnie Dilber says, “loud quitting is the new ‘trend” where employees are actively disengaged in ways that harm the company.”
Isolation, then, isn’t just saying no to team happy hours and water cooler chats. Instead, it involves intentionally shirking responsibilities so that the employee no longer has to own up.
What does all this mean? Employers need to check in, keeping a pulse on the workplace environment. Ask intentional questions about what changes need to happen to help workers feel more supported. Waiting until the annual performance review is often too late in the game, and employees may have already made up their minds to pursue outside opportunities.
5. Heightened sensitivity to feedback
To excel at work (and to level up for milestones like promotions and new opportunities), employees must be open to constructive feedback. When managers and leaders deliver this feedback personably and responsibly, employees grow and improve.
Unwillingness to accept feedback is not just a personal pain point; it also makes the work culture a little unpredictable. When employees start to resist honest advice—or when they become overly sensitive to anyone’s critique—it’s time to peel back the layers. In these instances, rule out burnout by asking questions like:
- “Are you bothered by the way we delivered this feedback?”
- “Is there any current conflict between you and the person offering feedback?”
- “Are there unknown problems that are affecting your performance or working relationships?”
- “How can we deliver this feedback so that it’s more beneficial and courteous?”
Even though it’s easy to make snap judgments when someone responds poorly, burnout isn’t always the cause. Managers must ask more questions (sensitively, of course) to understand the “why.”
(Psst—if you’re a manager who’s unsure about how to deliver feedback in healthy, people-friendly ways, we’ve got a post to help.)
6. Decline in productivity and quality of work
There are many reasons why employees have dips in productivity, and some of them boil down to simply being human. For example, the post-lunch slump is real, and it might mean that workers need flexibility to schedule their days (and meetings) around peak productivity.
But what happens when someone’s quality of work slips continuously as a result of burnout? Well, that’s more systemic and has consequences for the entire organization.
It’s good practice to build systems that enable employees to perform their best. As a result, “an employee who is healthy and well-rested is more likely to deliver high-quality output than an employee struggling with a demanding workload.” For employers looking to mitigate burnout, this means:
- Distributing workload fairly among team members
- Having a transparent assessment process for the quality of work
- Vocalizing work deadlines and expectations upfront (and in full honesty)
- Being willing to adapt when employees start to struggle
7. Negative attitude or cynicism
When an employee who’s usually light-hearted and focused grows cold and cynical, it’s time to check in. Sure, employees often have personal situations outside of work that affect moods, but the only way to understand if the bad vibes are work-related or not is to ask. This is especially true when:
- Employee negativity affects the outcome of key deliverables or projects
- The team member starts to have unexpected conflicts with other people
- The employee vocalizes cynicism publicly (such as on a social media post)
- The sentiment negatively impacts departmental or organizational morale
Workplace negativity is poison, and it can seep into places you might not expect. While it’s true that managers aren’t the gatekeepers for everyone’s emotional stability, ensuring that the working environment is healthy keeps burnout at bay.
8. Lowered concentration and motivation
According to Dr. Jeremy Sutton, when we experience burnout in the workplace, we’re more likely to feel hopeless, trapped, and depressed in comparison to the general population. These concerns cause employees to lose concentration during normal routines. Unfortunately, this means that employees also feel confused, indecisive, and unmotivated. Once these negative sentiments are in motion, it takes commitment to pump the brakes.
With Erudit, employers can leverage powerful deep learning models to predict when and if employee motivation declines. At the same time, the data is anonymized and confidential to respect privacy. The result? Organizations with knowledge to reduce burnout and turnover while giving employees a greater, and more significant, voice.
The connection between individual health and workplace burnout
In a hyper busy and digitally-connected world, it’s fair to say that we all experience overwhelm. But when our physical and mental health decline, it’s an indication and a consequence of workplace burnout.
Health issues from burnout are so intense that even the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes work-induced stress as an occupational health hazard. WHO also includes “feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion” in the organization’s global definition of burnout as a psychological syndrome.
Although these trademarks used to describe high-pressure roles like nursing and healthcare (particularly in the context of a worldwide pandemic), symptoms of burnout are now typical in most professions, office environments, and remote work cultures. In other words—burnout can make anyone feel more ill and stressed out than ever.
Proactively address corporate burnout
Delaying assistance to a burned out employee (after they’ve already started exhibiting signs and symptoms) is like tossing a few arm floaties to someone struggling to tread water. It might be a smart gesture, but it’s simply not enough to eliminate the exhaustion or provide a long-term fix that brings them back to safety.
Early identification and proactive measures are vital to preventing burnout. Fortunately, creating a supportive work environment and promoting better work-life balance are possible for any organization, especially when adopting a solution like Erudit.
Erudit’s AI-powered tools provide realistic solutions for:
- Employee sentiment – Keep pulse on important employee metrics without invasive and time-consuming survey methods.
- Insights and reporting – Listen to employees and pull real-time data on powerful communications and workplace triggers that stand in the way of employees’ best work.
- Action planning – Get granular and find a clear path forward based on specific sentiment metrics, departments, or leadership teams.
How Erudit identifies and prevents employee burnout
Erudit's AI-powered platform provides engagement updates, identifies burnout risks, and helps organizations implement effective action plans that protect engagement and retention. To maintain a healthy and productive work environment, you can’t afford to use antiquated systems that deliver low value and return. Here’s just a glimpse at how you can benefit from a process that uses real behavioral science and research to maximize employee well-being.
- Integrate with corporate communication tools (like Google Drive and Slack) to surface over 40 important employee metrics.
- Have a clear plan and path to address red flags and employee hurdles right away.
- Measure employee sentiment to help leaders and executives make more informed decisions that positively affect everyone.
Recognize burnout signs with better data
Taking preventive action is the only way to address employee burnout before it starts to spiral dangerously. With Erudit - AI-powered people software, employers have people-first tools to make a positive difference in employee morale and well-being.
Together, we can stop broadly guessing about how employees feel about their work. Instead, we’ll reverse troubling trends and increase job fulfillment, engagement, and purpose.
Try Erudit’s platform for 30 days and get your first Culture Assessment free.