Burnout is not a sudden illness. Burnout comes on slowly, over weeks, months, and years of unrelenting work and stress. Since ‘burnout’ is not a diagnosable medical condition, doctors and psychiatrists often mistake symptoms for depression or label personality changes as ‘mid-life crises.’ Medications are prescribed as quick fixes for symptoms but the underlying problem is not being corrected.
The first symptom of burnout is exhaustion. Employees may report having a difficult time waking up in the morning or feeling more tired at work. A new espresso machine for the office won’t make a difference. Sleeping patterns and quality of sleep are impaired by long hours in office environments. In addition to physical exhaustion, employees may feel emotionally exhausted and appear apathetic towards their work or the other workers. This leads to detachment.
Someone suffering from emotional exhaustion has no room left for care or investment in their work. When something disappoints them, they may appear to shrug it off, but this is because they are disassociated from the situation, not because they are ‘going with the flow.’ They may pull out of social events or discontinue supporting volunteer activities. Your staff member may show up, fulfill their duties, and go home every day like they used to, but if you look closely, you will see no passion or spark in their work.
Conversely, emotions may run high, with staff members showing cynicism, impatience, and irritability. Resentment could bubble up if an employee feels underappreciated or ganged up against. Lack of recognition can feed these feelings of detachment, and further distance a worker from the company. Eventually, dissatisfaction can lead to verbal aggression.
Employees who negatively speak out in meetings or incite others against announced company changes may be frustrated because they believe changes will increase their workload and they are already at the edge of their limit. They may question their own role within the company and fail to uphold the values and quality standards your company believes in.
The most used tool for evaluating burnout in employees is the Maslach Burnout Inventory. This questionnaire reviews 22 aspects of worker’s lives, work, and attitudes to determine levels of current or potential burnout. Or you could just talk to your workers and ask for honest feedback on your current vacation policy, how they feel about taking time off, and how they are handling their overall workload.
It is especially important to recognize burnout in top performers. The tendency is to give more work to those who complete their current duties the best, but in doing so, you may overload that team member and contribute to their eventual burnout. A person who is burnt out will not slowly fizzle away. They will continue to work at a more frenzied pace and strive for ever higher goals until one day, suddenly, they reach their limit and the fire dies completely.
Taking an interest in the mental health of your employees will help you recognize these important signs of burnout before they are too late to reverse. Remember, those experiencing burnout rarely recognize their symptoms for what they really are — the product of a stressful work environment and a lack of restorative time away from work.