From heavier workloads and increased demands at home to little even zero time off, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new stressors, resulting in record cases of burnout and quits in the US. Business leaders now acknowledge the urgent need to establish a stronger connection among employees and managers based on deeper understanding and empathy. This would, ideally, lead to healthier work communities in general.

But this is easier said than done, and would be a result of many steps and changes. One step in this direction would be awareness of the symptoms of burnout among team members. Through this article, we hope to better understand this psychological syndrome and give tips on how to spot burnout symptoms at an early stage to avoid reaching the tipping point. 

The word ‘burnout’ literally means "being burned out"; that is, an inadequate response to chronic emotional stress whose main symptoms are the following:

1. Physical and/or psychological exhaustion: Chronic tiredness and/or emotional exhaustion is the feeling of being worn out and drained. You may observe the symptoms of energy loss and fatigue both physically and mentally.

2. Depersonalization: To alleviate the feeling of negativity, the person becomes a detached or disengaged observer within the team, avoiding any form of interaction and being reluctant to build any relationship with their colleagues. This is how the individual tries to cope with the situation, being conscious about the increased irritability or agitation and the loss of motivation as a result of mental distress.

3. Decrease in job performance: Job performance can decrease because the individual feels their job demands exceed their own working capacity. It can also be the case that the employee has all the resources to meet their goal, but feels discouraged to achieve it.

The stages of Burnout:

1. Imbalance between labor demands and individual resources: An excessive workload depletes the capacity of employees to meet the demands of their job, leading to higher stress levels. This stage is described by cases of coercive power or supervision, negative criticism, last-minute calendar changes, an overload of job demands, and the like. As a consequence, the subject’s feeling of incompetence is exacerbated, potentially resulting in the lowering of self-efficacy and self-esteem. 

2. Overexertion: When the subject tries to compensate for their feeling of incompetence, they tend to accept more work than necessary, focus more attention, or overplan. Consequently, secondary symptoms, such as anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and tiredness are observed, contributing to strain and demotivation. As a result, stress-related avoidance behavior is developed and is channeled towards the subject’s colleagues.

3. Change of attitudes and behaviors: As mentioned above, in order to cope with the feeling of negativity, the subject tends to turn to emotional distancing or detachment and begins to practice depersonalization.

How to address burnout at work?

1. Social Support: We cannot stress enough the importance of social support when seeking to improve the wellbeing of your workforce. The availability of help from other people significantly reduces the feeling of loneliness and emotional exhaustion. In addition, social support can be expressed through the development of team unity to effectively deal with problems. Encourage and train both the team and the supervisors to give constructive feedback and to be genuinely supportive and helpful to one another..

2. Anticipatory socialization: Organizing workshops to help employees deal with future scenarios. An example of such practices can include managers getting together to discuss ways in which they can speak to an employee with evident burnout symptoms, and role-playing difficult conversations with one another.

3. Organizational development: It is a long-term educational program, aimed at improving problem-solving processes inside the company, as well as building a strong organizational culture. It encourages collaboration, and stimulates positive emotions and creativity to seek solutions.

Other burnout recovery strategies could involve:

  • Redesigning the performance of tasks
  • Clarifying decision-making processes
  • Improving supervision
  • Establishing clear objectives for different professional roles
  • Establishing clear lines of authority
  • Improving organizational communication networks
  • Encouraging professionals to diversify their activities
  • Improving employee promotion policies
  • Promoting multidisciplinary meetings

Why is it important for team managers and business leaders to care about burnout?

Employees affected by the burnout condition can translate into significant business costs, such as 50% greater healthcare costs in high-pressure firms than in other companies. This is due to the fact that burned out workers are more susceptible to taking sick days off, not meeting deadlines or completely failing at their assigned projects, which, in turn, inevitably contribute to a negative work environment.

It is important to recognize the emerging signs of burnout in the workplace, since poor job performance caused by burnout can oftentimes be confused with low performance caused by the lack of commitment. If this results in a layoff that could have been avoided by taking preventive measures, then the direct costs can be extremely high.

It is extremely important to make burnout prevention a priority for your company, and offer help by creating a supportive, healthy work environment that encourages your employees to take good care of themselves. Knowing and understanding the underlying symptoms and stages of burnout will not only help to spot it, but it will also enable you to make better decisions to avoid it altogether.

Interested in tracking each department’s burnout risk level? Learn how Erudit empowers leaders to address their team’s burnout before it escalates.

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