Employee Burnout – The Signs and the Safeguards


What does it look like when tiredness and stress tip over into burnout? And what does that mean for employees and employers alike?

Brené Brown, professor and researcher into courage, vulnerability and leadership, describes the difference between feeling “stressed” and feeling “overwhelmed”. She explains that when we experience overwhelm, we start to shut down and become incapable of taking action: “Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.” (Atlas of the Heart, Random House, 2021). Once we reach this state, we can’t think clearly, make decisions, or take the next step.

In the same way, burnout is chronic and debilitating. It’s not just the odd day here and there of feeling stressed or worn down, and it can’t be solved with a long lunch break or a day off.

Overwhelm and burnout will affect both our work and our personal lives – in terms of attitude, relationships, productivity and performance.

Burnout and the Workplace

Of course, there is a vast spectrum of factors that affect our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, as people and as employees. Burnout may not be specifically caused by a person’s working environment, but as we collectively begin to understand more about mental health, wellbeing and burnout, there are certain conditions that emerge as contributing factors. These can include:

  • An unhealthy work/life balance
  • Unreasonable workload and unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of control, autonomy or support at work
  • Lack of inclusivity in the workplace
  • Workplace conflict or dysfunctional relationships

A global survey conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute between February and April 2022 identified the most significant contributing factor as toxic behaviour. This was found to have the biggest impact on employee burnout: “employees who report experiencing high levels of toxic behavior at work are eight times more likely to experience burnout symptoms.” The results also showed that employees experiencing burnout symptoms were six times more likely to report that they were planning to leave their current employment.

What Does It Mean For Employers?

The wellbeing of your people is intrinsically bound up with the health, performance, and longevity of your organisation – this fundamental fact underpins everything we do here at Inpulse. If your employees are reaching the point of burnout, they will become “unable to function”. They will become unmotivated and unfocused in their work.

From a purely practical point of view, burnout leads to a decline in performance and productivity, more absences and prolonged sick leave, and poor retention – with the added cost of replacing those employees who leave and don’t come back.

But burnout doesn’t just happen overnight. So, what can employers do to spot the early warning signs and help prevent stress turning into full on overwhelm and burnout?

The Warning Signs

If an employee is at risk of burnout, they are likely to show some of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Exhaustion – Employees are drained before they even start work in the morning, and may share that they are struggling to sleep at night
  • Frustration or a negative attitude
  • Lack of motivation and productivity – Struggling to complete tasks, achieve goals or meet deadlines, and not volunteering to take on any new projects
  • Disengagement – Less contribution to meetings, or missing them altogether
  • Highly sensitive to feedback – Taking things personally, and perhaps becoming defensive or angry
  • Lack of focus – Stress, exhaustion and overwhelm make it almost impossible to concentrate and stay focused
  • Increased isolation – Avoiding chatting or socialising with colleagues
  • Physical symptoms – Headaches, panic attacks, significant weight gain/loss, etc.

Remote working brings an added challenge for employers when it comes to spotting these early red flags. It can be easier to fly under the radar when you’re not seeing colleagues and employers in the office every day, so the warning signs are easier to hide – until it’s too late.

As well as paying attention to the above signs and symptoms, line managers and employers should look out for things like receiving e-mails/communications at all hours of the day and night, employees regularly missing or cancelling calls and meetings, and a drop in performance over time.

What Can Employers Do?

In the McKinsey survey, 27% of the UK employees who took part reported symptoms of burnout, despite 78% of HR departments reporting mental health as a top priority within their organisations. If this shows us one thing it’s that “talking the talk” just isn’t enough.

So, what can employers do to proactively guard against burnout among their people?

  • Cultivate and promote a fair and inclusive workplace culture
  • Implement an employee wellness program – eg. wellness benefits, such as subscriptions to mindfulness resources or gyms, team wellness days, and training in time management and work/life balance
  • Establish robust line management – including effective communication, realistic expectations, constructive feedback, and talent nurturing
  • Encourage a healthy work/life balance, and promote the importance of taking time off
  • Mentoring and coaching ­– one-on-one relationships of support and accountability

As an employer, you are not responsible for every aspect of your employees’ lives, and the many and varied factors that might influence their mental and emotional states, but you are responsible for establishing a workplace culture in which they feel safe and supported. If you’re not proactive in doing so, you’re likely to pay the price.

You can find out more about how to support the wellbeing of your employees and help to prevent burnout by checking out the key takeaways from our Wellbeing Webinar in February.

Master Engagement Throughout the Employee Lifecycle