≡ Menu

Detecting burnout before it burns you

BURNOUT. It’s the seven letter word that every employer dreads encountering. As businesses push to meet productivity needs and illicit the best results, employees can become overwhelmed, overtasked and burned out, sometimes without even realising it. Employers then become unwitting participants in the detection of subtle cues that suggest a need for change. Often burnout presents in seemingly disconnected ways. Small gestures that may, on the surface, look like behavioural or emotional anomalies, are sometimes indicators of a burnout silently brewing into an all-out raging inferno.


This infographic from PeopleHR.com shows the top three reasons people call out of work in the UK. Exploring the causes of absence is an important step toward detecting burnout. It is nearly impossible to know whether missed time is legitimately illness-based or the result of someone being overwhelmed about work. Most people will not feel they can be open about the need for a mental-health day, whether that is the result of their workplace climate, their own guilt about work ethic or fear of being fired. And some employees actually can become ill as a result of increased stress and lowered immunity.

Detecting a burnout

Some burned out workers will still show up like clockwork, but you notice changes in their productivity, or they uncharacteristically begin to miss deadlines and seem to be constantly working at catching up. A burned out employee may feel defensive when this is brought to their attention, and this can fuel resentments that add a toxic element to the workplace.

Other subtle signs of burnout may include unusual irritability, apathy, and withdrawal from co-workers. Sometimes burnout can manifest in depressive symptoms, self-esteem challenges, tearfulness and fatigue symptoms. It can be tricky to determine whether an employee is struggling with work or personal challenges; often it is a combination of factors that contribute to burnout.

It is impossible for a supervisor to intuit the needs of each worker in a business without a crystal ball. It is crucial for workers to monitor their own wellness, and businesses will benefit from creating a workplace culture that values self-care. Workers who are taking care of themselves, and who are actively encouraged to do so by their employer, will be less stressed, more rested and better capable of attending to the day’s work.

The solution

Once detected, the solutions to burnout can vary, depending on the sources of distress. Harvard Business Review offers three useful strategies for overcoming burnout that require self-reflection and attention to work/life balance. Sometimes burnout can be indicative of the need for a break, a change of pace or something more significant such as a shift in workplace responsibility or role. Collaboration between employer and employee should focus on removing the stigma of burnout so that neither party is operating out of fear or defensiveness. Burnout should be treated like any other need in the workplace. In an openly communicative work environment, the reality of burnout can be a non-threatening conversation about self-care. What does self-care look like to you and your employees? Is it restructuring your day, taking a vacation or saying no to additional projects for a while? Maybe self-care is reflection on your successes, pay increases, or making exercise a priority. Self-care can be a practical way to avoid excessive stress and burnout for individuals in the workplace.

Source of a burnout

In a survey of the most common workplace stressors by Stress, workload was the most significant finding at 46%. Issues with other people ranked at 28%, while juggling work and personal life accounted for 20% of concern. Six percent surveyed reported that lack of job security was a workplace stressor.

The complexity of the average person’s lifestyle, compounded by mounting workplace pressures can take its toll. Simply asking “what would help” could make the difference for an employee who is floundering to meet expectations and is headed for burnout. No one is immune to burnout, regardless of the profession. Since stress is highly subjective, it is fair to say that every job will carry it’s own set of challenges. Symptoms of stress and burnout are nondiscriminatory and can sneak into any profession.

Moving forward

Often, burnout can hide beneath avoidance. Are there tasks you or your employee tend to avoid? Are there areas of dread that plague you the day before going in to work? Strategising these topics in supervision can help unearth useful solutions. From there, a proactive plan for avoiding burnout and improving the workplace experience can be developed. But all of this relies on communication. If no one else at work is talking about burnout, it is the proverbial elephant in the room. Be fearless and mention it to colleagues, and you will likely open a helpful dialogue for everyone. Burnout can take on a life of its own if it goes unattended for too long. By openly discussing burnout, it is removed from the shadows so it can be managed compassionately for better outcomes.

More on managing stress and motivating your employees.

Top Articles

Do I need an accountant for my limited company?
Find out what a limited company accountant could do for you.

Mortgages for limited company directors and contractors Are you self-employed and looking at getting a mortgage?

How much limited company tax do I have to pay? Find out the latest tax information for limited company owners.

Company Bug Newsletter

Keep up to date with small business news and guides by signing up to the Company Bug newsletter.