Workplace stress is likely to be an issue for all professionals at some stage in their career. No matter your industry or level of experience, managing stress levels is something all professionals need to practice to achieve success and happiness in and out of work.
If poorly managed, the impacts of workplace stress can cause workers to experience burnout, a phenomenon we’ve all become more familiar with over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
The last year or so has really tested us all, especially in achieving a work-life balance. According to research from Indeed earlier this year, 52% of employees feel burned out. What’s more, as searches online for ‘signs of burnout’ have increased by 24% throughout 2020 compared to the previous year, it’s never been more important to understand burnout and how it can impact our lives. The good news is that there are a lot of ways that employers and employees can reduce the probability of experiencing burnout. From self-care to evolving company cultures, the future of work doesn’t have to be one where digital burnout is commonplace.
In the age of multiple screens and constant communication, learning how to spot the warning signs of burnout and prioritising your mental health is an essential practice in order to have a sustainable relationship with our work and careers. In this guide, we explore what burnout looks and feels like, how to avoid it, and how to progress in your career without compromising your own stress levels.
Of employees feel burned out... ‘signs of burnout’ have increased by 24% throughout 2020
An introduction to burnout
What is burnout?
Burnout is a term we see thrown around quite a lot nowadays, but it’s a concept that has been explored since the 1970’s, with the publication of Herbert Freudenberger’s book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
We can understand burnout in the context of workplace stress, which many of us experience at some point or another. We can all become stressed at work, particularly if we are putting in longer hours than usual, there are important deadlines coming up, or we have issues in our personal lives. Research by Mental Health America and FlexJobs shows that 76% of respondents agreed that workplace stress affects their mental health and have experienced burnout.
Burnout is an extreme form of workplace stress whereby the stress you are experiencing makes way for mental and emotional exhaustion. The World Health Organization (WHO) characterises burnout by three main dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
When we are experiencing stress at work, it may be difficult to concentrate on tasks, and we may have feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. But workplace stress becomes burnout when we no longer have the capacity to care or engage with our work.
Why do people get burnt out?
Burnout is a result of excessive workplace stress, so it is essential to look at the factors that can create stress in the workplace, and therefore the environment for burnout to take place.
Historically, the work culture in most companies is one centred around productivity. And this is because businesses, by nature, are driven by profit, which is achieved by operating at maximum output. This often translates to an approach whereby productivity comes first, and inevitably, the needs of people come second.
This way of working creates the exact environment in which burnout can occur. This is because prioritising profits and results becomes a cultural norm that everyone is expected to practice. And voicing concerns about mental health often negatively reflects on performance and an employee’s efficacy.
A culture that normalises long working hours and neglects mental health is much more likely to see cases of burnout amongst its people. This is because it causes stress, and employees are not taught to recognise the signs to avoid burnout.
Lack of support from management
Management figures have the potential to represent a solution for stressed employees, and research does show that 96% of employers provide mental health resources to staff. But the effectiveness of this support doesn’t always translate, with only 1 in 6 employees feeling supported by these resources.
Another factor to consider is the way in which senior members of staff manage their teams and employees. The WHO lists “poor communication and management practices” as a risk factor for poor mental health, which directly contributes to burnout.
This is because employees often feel like they cannot tell their managers that they’re struggling. According to research by Deloitte, “the top driver of burnout...was lack of support or recognition from leadership, indicating the important role that leaders play in setting the tone.”
Empathetic management practices encourage communication and compassion amongst teams and create a safe environment for employees to be transparent about their mental health and stress levels. This positive environment can combat stress and prevent burnout, but the reality is that many workplaces don’t provide this kind of opportunity for employees to have their needs met. A recent study, Hindsight 2020: COVID Concerns into 2021 showed that a third of employees wished their managers acted with more empathy.
Another reason that people suffer from burnout is due to long hours. We spend the majority of our lives at work, but when the 9-5 becomes a daily 12-hour shift, our professional lives can eat into our personal ones. And, for those with high pressure jobs, that also means more stress. This has significant impacts on people’s lives, quite literally, with WHO and International Labour Organization reporting that “working long hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, up 29% since 2000.”
We’ve also got to contend with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that we will start to see in research going forward. Considering research from NordVPN Teams that home workers are spending around 2.5 more hours logged on each day, workers are more vulnerable to burnout than ever before.
Being overwhelmed is a key driver of burnout, and many get to this point and then feel frustrated because they know they cannot be productive with their current workload. It is this loss of hope and engagement with work that leads to burnout amongst employees, making it a key area to focus on for businesses and managers.
However, in a working culture where employees are expected to ‘take one for the team’ and not question their superiors, workloads are often poorly managed and only reviewed when it is too late.
In fact, Qualtrics research shows that 79% of respondents in their survey of over 17,000 people across 26 countries feel “at or beyond workload capacity”. Considering this statistic in an area that is a leading cause of workplace stress, burnout looks more and more likely in the modern world unless companies change the way they operate.
Of employers provide mental health resources to staff. But the effectiveness of this support doesn’t always translate
What does burnout feel like?
As mentioned already, burnout is a mental state of exhaustion that results from being under excessive workplace stress. It manifests itself in a variety of ways regarding behaviour and feelings at work. These can act as warning signs to look out for in your teams or yourself. Let’s look at the ways that burnout can make us feel in our minds and bodies.
Emotional signs of burnout
People who are able to motivate themselves to do their jobs usually do so by finding meaning in their work. This inevitably includes having an emotional connection to it, be it a sense of pride at a skill they have or feelings of fulfilment and that they are achieving their purpose. But many people who experience burnout, experience a distinct lack of connection to their work as well as a lack of energy and motivation.
This can include feelings of:
- Doubt in your abilities to do your job
- Not feeling connected to your work
- Having a negative approach to your performance or career
- Wanting to give up
Physical signs of burnout
Stress manifests itself in the body as well as the mind, so people who are burned out are likely to have some physical symptoms too. These can include:
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Headaches or aches in the body
- Lowered immunity
- An inability to sleep
- Changes in appetite
Mental signs of burnout
Burnout is recognised as a syndrome by the WHO, and can have detrimental effects on your mental health. This can manifest itself through increased anxiety, an inability to focus and symptoms of depression in some cases. Burnout can manifest differently for many people, but it can be most commonly recognised when feelings of stress and anxiety make way for exhaustion and emptiness.
How can professionals avoid digital burnout?
Burnout is becoming more common amongst professionals, but this isn’t to say it’s an inevitable future. There are lots of ways that we can better manage work stress, and therefore avoid burnout. So now we’re familiar with what burnout is and how it can manifest itself in anyone’s professional life, let’s look at the ways in which we can avoid it.Avoiding burnout means being proactive about workplace stress from both an individual and company perspective. The company perspective is argued to be the most important area by psychologist Christina Maslach, whose work reveals that the work environment in which employees are in acts as a catalyst for burnout to occur. As a result, efforts to avoid burnout should start from organisations themselves.
It’s the responsibility of employers to create a positive work environment
Wellbeing programs and mental health support are little more than a gesture unless staff can access support in their professional lives. Toxic working environments are a key cause of burnout amongst professionals, so avoiding workplace stress must start at the top of a company.
We can see how management contributes to the issue of burnout with Gallup’s research into the causes of burnout. The five factors that were most highly correlated with burnout were:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workloads
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication and support from manager
- Unreasonable time pressure
Many of these factors are relatively easy to combat from a management perspective. All it takes are small changes from management that make all the difference to staff. This alternative approach shows that burnout is more to do with how people are treated at work rather than an individual’s actions.
Taking a more human, holistic approach to people management has the potential to reduce burnout significantly by enriching the employee experience. And many companies are doing this well, especially in the wake of the coronavirus.
According to recent research by McKinsey, 80% of employees think that managers have been proactive in protecting the health and safety of their teams. And these employees who are satisfied with their firms’ handling of the pandemic are six times more likely to have a good sense of wellbeing in their jobs.
Companies also need to engage their employees more
Research carried out by Achievers Workforce Institute found that many organisations struggled to engage their employees throughout the pandemic, with 40% saying they weren’t recognised for their work. They suggested that a lack of recognition ultimately leads to disengagement. And this feeling of disconnectedness and disengagement from work is a key cause of burnout, highlighting the importance of work wellbeing. Finding ways to engage employees means providing wellbeing resources and opportunities that work for them.
For example, large corporations like Adobe have taken a people-first approach to management. They’ve taken a tailored approach to wellbeing so that individual employees’ needs are met – no matter their background or living situation. They did this by segmenting their employees into groups and creating tailored wellbeing packages for them depending on their individual needs. Moves like this along with an extra day off each month to recharge saw their engagement rates actually rise over the pandemic.
It’s essential to recognise that wellness programs work well in theory, but they cannot be implemented in practice unless organisations and managers provide the space to make them happen. If an employee doesn’t have time for mindfulness or feels uncomfortable voicing their needs out of fear of being reprimanded or ignored, then the issue lies in the culture of the company.
Of employees think that managers have been proactive in protecting the health and safety of their teams.
What can we do as individuals to avoid burnout?
Whilst the root causes of burnout lie more in environmental factors; as individuals, we can put certain measures in place to help avoid burnout by effectively managing workplace stress. These revolve around setting the right priorities to protect your mental health and getting into healthy habits in regards to boundaries and work-life balance.
Boundaries are an important practice to safeguard your sense of wellbeing and avoid feeling stressed. You can set boundaries with co-workers, managers, and yourself to better manage your time and energy and not feel overwhelmed or stretched too thin. Interpersonal boundaries often take the form of saying no if you feel uncomfortable or unable to take on extra responsibilities. When it comes to setting boundaries with yourself, this can take the form of sticking to a daily work routine that doesn’t leave you feeling drained and makes time for other areas of your life.
Achieve a healthy work-life balance
Setting boundaries with yourself and your job can create time for the other areas of your life, but having a healthy work-life balance is about more than making the time. It’s also about what you do with it. In your downtime, try to practice self-care, stay active and prioritise the things that bring you joy so that you can enjoy a full, balanced life.
Communicate with your manager
Creating a healthy workplace where workplace stress is minimised means practicing two-way communication between management and employees. There’s no way to make actionable changes to your schedule or job unless your manager understands what you need, so be vocal about how you’re feeling and your manager can then support you better.
If you do feel stressed or overwhelmed, be honest with your manager about how you feel and what you can achieve. It’s difficult to gauge people’s headspaces and capacity, especially while remote working. So being open and honest with management is vital for creating the optimal working environment.
Limit screen time
Burnout can be driven by the always-on digital workplace, so limiting screen time in your routine can be beneficial. This also aids in creating work-life balance and switching off from your professional life in a digital workplace.
Burnout in the working world
What does burnout look like in the real world?
In this chapter, we’re going to explore what burnout really looks like in real life, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and what the impacts are for both employees and organisations. After all, it’s important to be able to spot burnout in ourselves and our colleague.
As we covered earlier, here are the main factors that contribute to burnout:
- Excessive workload
- Toxic work culture
- Lack of social support
- Lack of work-life balance
- Excessive pressure to perform
But knowing what these are is only half of the puzzle. It’s important to look at how exactly these factors actually show up so that we can understand how to combat the signs of, and ultimately avoid, burnout.
Burned out employees exhibit certain behaviours that are telling of mental exhaustion, including a change in attitude towards work and lowered performance. It is different to workplace stress, as employees can be stressed and still do their jobs. Workplace stress becomes burnout when employees no longer have the energy for their work and feel disconnected from it.
Behavioural changes that can indicate burnout
Someone experiencing burnout may withdraw socially from the workplace due to the emotional and mental disconnect they feel towards their work. This can come in various forms, including:
- Missing meetings
- Not replying to emails or messages
- Disengaging from team activities
They will often feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained and won’t have the social energy to interact with colleagues or contribute to social events. If a colleague is doing this, then they may be in the early stages of burnout.
A burned out employee will also show higher absenteeism. Whether it’s taking time off or coming in late, or leaving early, they will find it challenging to fulfil all of their hours. In fact, research by Gallup of over 7,500 professionals in the US shows that burned out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day than employees who feel happy and engaged.
Struggle with deadlines
When under a lot of stress, it isn’t uncommon to miss deadlines, especially if someone’s workload is too heavy. However, a burned out employee will miss multiple deadlines as they are mentally drained and don’t have the motivation to do their work. It’s more about their lack of energy than it is about their workload. If a member of your team is missing deadlines repeatedly, then they may be burned out.
Affect on work performance
A direct result of the emotional and mental exhaustion that burnout brings is a struggle to perform your job role. Poor work performance, especially if an employee is usually high-achieving, indicates that they are struggling to do their job. Poor work performance can show up as:
- A drop in quality of work
- Failing to achieve goals
- Failing to meet productivity expectations
It should be noted that poor work performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of burnout. It could also point to workplace stress, but only upon further investigation will it become clear whether an employee is stressed or burned out.
Withdrawing from professional responsibilities
Burnout is characterised by a diminished sense of accomplishment and lack of connection to your job, so it isn’t uncommon to see someone suffering from burnout to withdraw from their professional responsibilities. Whether they usually lead meetings or have specific responsibilities that they are no longer fulfilling, feelings of disinvestment are common with burned out professionals.
Change in attitude
Most employees who are happy and engaged in their jobs will have a generally positive attitude toward work. And even those who are stressed will still put the effort in to reduce their stress levels and get their work done. However, a burned out employee will exhibit a distinct change in their attitude. Their attitude may change from optimistic and energised to:
The most important thing to remember with spotting burnout in the workplace is that it happens gradually. No one gets burned out overnight, so look out for these behavioural changes over time.
Of over 7,500 professionals in the US say burned out employees are more likely to take a sick day than employees who feel happy and engaged.
Burnout in the context of COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has caused huge shifts in the workplace, with millions moving to a work from home format and many workers with public-facing jobs experiencing a heightened level of anxiety and stress in the face of the pandemic.
With the sudden switch to working from home, many companies had to hastily adapt to a format of working that most of them hadn’t been able to fully prepare for. This meant that there was a lack of formal work from home policies in place, leaving both management and employees struggling to get into routines and balance their work and home lives. By August 2020, according to research carried out by Glint, employee burnout risk reached a two-year high, no doubt due to the uncertainty and stress that the pandemic brought on.
The uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to people’s working lives only exacerbated workplace stress and created another, more acute sense of stress that only increased the probability of burnout.
To understand exactly how the coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has exacerbated the issue of burnout, we need to explore these new factors, and see how some companies have responded to these.
Pressure to perform well from home
Many consider working remotely to be a perk of the modern working world. In reality, working from home offers increased flexibility to all, particularly staff who have caring responsibilities. This increases job satisfaction and overall employee happiness as they feel that their company is invested in helping them feel more empowered at work and work to suit their lifestyle.
However, working from home during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been so much a privilege but a necessity, with Stay At Home orders issued to workers worldwide last year. And with this sudden change came pressure to maintain pre-pandemic productivity levels. For example, we can see this in practice, as Indeed’s Employee Burnout Report stated that 38% of employees who have been working from home during the pandemic feel pressure from management to work longer hours.
With such an unexpected change in the workplace and the danger that COVID-19 posed to us all, the pandemic understandably affected people’s ability to work, as well as their mental health and job satisfaction. Many employers realised that they needed to adjust expectations and be more flexible with workloads, with some implementing regular catch ups with teams to understand what they were able to achieve in a workday.
Work-life balance when working from home
People with children or other caring responsibilities have had to deal with work stress and care commitments side by side throughout the pandemic. A study in Belgium found that parents also experience “parental burnout”, which suggests parents and carers could be at greater risk of burnout. And women’s work-life balance has been the most affected, as shown by Lean In and Survey Monkey research. Their study showed that women have been impacted the most by the pandemic, spending:
This extra 14 hours inevitably eats into their personal lives, leaving little room for rest and leisure.
A lack of space also impacts work-life balance when working from home. Many people are working, eating, sleeping, and living in the same space, blurring important boundaries between work and play. It is all too easy to check emails during dinner or log on during the weekend to ease the workload during the week.
The office provided a regular routine for many and a refreshing change in environment. Part of why home workers struggle with work-life balance is because there is no physical ‘off’ switch that is usually triggered by leaving the office that ends the work day. Indeed’s research indicates that 61% of remote workers find it difficult to unplug after work.
When working from home in the same space that you are supposed to rest in, it is extremely difficult to switch off, only adding to the potential strain of work.
The mental and emotional toll of COVID-19
Aside from isolation, there was also anxiety about health and the safety of loved ones. With deaths from COVID-19 soaring globally, workers did not have to simply contend with staying at home but also worrying about the health of themselves and their friends and family. Qualtrics’ research also reported that 65.9% of people reported higher stress levels off the back of the pandemic’s outbreak, citing fears of contracting the virus as a key reason for their stress. This provides a unique insight into the sources of stress for workers during the pandemic, specifically that some of it wasn’t even coming from work.
Some companies responded to this by implementing regular meetings or updates where they provided employees with the latest information regarding COVID-19 to help keep everyone informed. A small act such as this can do wonders for relieving some anxiety around the pandemic, and create a sense of community in the company.
Of people reported higher stress levels off the back of the pandemic’s outbreak, citing fears of contracting the virus as a key reason for their stress.
The impact of burnout
Burnout has a significant impact on individuals and organisations alike, resulting in negative outcomes for both groups.
Impact on individuals
Burnout affects individuals both mentally and physically, with long periods of burnout contributing to long term, serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, according to a 2017 study.
Burnout can also have detrimental effects on your emotional and mental wellbeing, in extreme cases causing depression. It can take time to recover from professional burnout, with many of the signs of it spilling over into people’s personal lives too.
Losses for companies
Lower employee retention
Burned out employees lack a personal connection to their job, and feelings of being overwhelmed can cause them to want to distance themselves from their current job. According to research by Gallup, burned out employees are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job. This results in lower employee retention, and therefore morale in the workplace.
Higher costs for mental health
Burnout is caused by poor mental health and workplace stress, which only incurs more costs for employers. Work by Stanford researchers has found that in the US, workplace stress costs employers a total of between $125 to $190 billion per year, a considerable cost that is ultimately avoidable.
In fact, protecting employees’ mental health isn’t just good for avoiding burnout, but also is beneficial for business. Research by the World Health Organisation shows that for every $1 put into mental health care; there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.
According to research by Gallup, burned out employees are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job.
How to balance workplace stress
and career progression
Workplace stress and burnout are traditionally associated with personal failure or weakness. Many people feel that if they disclose that they are suffering to superiors, their chances of progression will be affected. The pressure to be productive and high-achieving means that professionals are highly likely to compromise their wellbeing in order to secure promotions.
But what happens when your energy and motivation has been depleted because of burnout? When workplace stress is ignored, it can pose more of a threat to career progression in the long term if employees find themselves burned out and unable to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
The impact of burnout on career progression
The mental exhaustion that burnout causes means that employees suffering from this extreme form of workplace stress will inevitably not be able to set or achieve goals, which doesn’t bode well for career progression.
Research by Gallup shows that burned out employees are 13% less confident in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager. This can be down to a lack of inspiration or motivation when employees are burned out.
Burnout can be difficult to recover from and potentially cost you promotions, so it poses a more significant risk to career progression than taking action to manage workplace stress.
Of employees are less confident in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager.
Can wellbeing and career progression coexist?
The issue with the traditional approach to career progression is the notion that you must work non-stop and perform perfectly to climb the career ladder. This only further stigmatises workplace stress and continues to associate it with personal failure. In reality, stress is a part of our professional lives that we need to learn to effectively manage. Everyone experiences stress, so ignoring it only increases the likelihood of burnout later on in your career.
Looking at any career from a long-term perspective, avoiding burnout should go hand-in-hand with career progression. This is because maintaining a sense of wellbeing allows employees to be resilient and perform at their best. A report by McKinsey argues that wellbeing should be treated as “a tangible skill, a critical business input, and a measurable outcome” due to the benefits it can provide both employees and organisations.
Shifting attitudes and the values of a modern-day workplace don’t just recognise workplace stress as an issue but consider one’s ability to manage stress a strength. That strength will only support people throughout their career.
One of the best things you can do is lead the way and set an example by doing the following:
Be honest and open about your own struggles
It’s okay to make mistakes or have a bad week, but far too often we’re worried about telling people what’s going on. However, attitudes are shifting in the workplace and people are realising the importance of talking about wellbeing. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can inspire others to also be honest about any difficulties they’re facing. Every person who is open helps to create a supportive environment. After all, help can only be provided if people are willing to open up.
Set an example for prioritising your own wellbeing
Similarly, the more people see you (and others) making time for themselves and creating a clear boundary between work and life, the more they’ll feel comfortable doing the same. This means finishing the day at a decent time, taking your holidays and not responding out of office hours. It should be seen as a strength that people are looking after themselves, taking the time away from work as they need it, and returning refreshed and motivated. Even early on in your career, you can be an inspiration for looking after your own wellbeing.
Learn to recognise the signs of stress in others
Not everyone will feel comfortable talking about their emotions or their wellbeing. But if you can spot the signs of stress in others, rather than dismissing them as being uncooperative or rude, you could be a real source of support. It’s always best to ask someone if they’re okay, rather than add to their stress by responding poorly. When people are stressed, they may lash out at others or act out of character. It’s up to us how we respond, and it can be a great character trait – especially for career progression – to learn how to support those under stress.
Burnout doesn’t have to be the future for workers
The last year has been extremely difficult for all professionals. In a world where uncertainty is becoming a part of our new reality, building employee resilience needs to be a priority for all businesses if they want to avoid burnout and meet the needs of their people. And the signs are positive, with the COVID-19 pandemic acting as a catalyst for positive change in the way that we work. Burnout doesn’t have to be the future for workers, and changes at both an individual and organisational level are how we can get there.
Attitudes to workplace stress are changing
With attitudes to mental health shifting to recognise the importance of it in our lives, the way that workplace stress is looked at is also evolving. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, we are also seeing it being taken more seriously by society, with many companies hugely improving the way they approach mental health and workplace stress. This social shift is what the world has needed to enact tangible, sustainable change.
Where wellbeing programs were once seen as a way to make employers seem more attractive or a surface-level ‘job perk’, they are now forming the foundations of a new workplace culture. It’s one that recognises that wellbeing is an integral part of any successful, sustainable business and makes investments in it at every level. Reducing employee stress and burnout is vital due to the potential benefits companies can reap in terms of productivity and engagement.
The future of work is wellbeing
Hopefully, we will see wellbeing more widely evolve from a company perk to a tangible skill that all employees are encouraged to develop. Not to mention it will provide a real competitive edge for companies going forward. And examples are coming to light of companies driving employee wellbeing forward. Buffer introduced an ‘Unsick Day’ which is a day off dedicated to preventative care, Accenture has its own app which rewards employees for accomplishing key wellness goals and Hilton is one of the first hospitality companies to partner with a start-up that offers corporate wellness training. These are just a handful of examples. With research by European HR firm Personio confirming that 83% of employees agree that a workplace that prioritises wellbeing helps them to be more productive, more companies are likely to take notice.
Dr. Chris Mullen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SPHR, Executive Director at The Workforce Institute at UKG reflects on the importance of wellbeing in the modern organisation: “As organisations around the world operate through an unprecedented global pandemic, they need to double down on their employee experience strategy. However, instead of looking for trendy perks, they must get back to the foundational needs every employee requires: physical safety, psychological security, job stability, and flexibility.”
The future of work doesn’t have to cause stress, anxiety and burnout. And the power lies with organisations to take all that we’ve learned over the last year or so and create work environments that foster creativity, positivity and growth.
For more information on how to enhance your employees’ wellbeing in a remote workplace, check out our complete guide.