Sadly, I am no stranger to workplace burnout.
As someone who lives with a mental illness, if I don’t track my symptoms carefully I become particularly susceptible to slipping into an episode of burnout. Over the past several years I’ve left a toxic company, been hospitalized, and even taken a month-long leave of absence due to burnout-related stress.
But what exactly is burnout?
“Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” –Mayo Clinic, Job burnout: How to spot it and take action
With the significant financial and emotional tolls associated with burnout, it’s important to be aware of the early signs for the best chance at prevention. Here are a few of the signs that work stress may be something more serious:
Disengagement Employees who once were actively involved in their roles may become cynical or unenthusiastic about their work if they aren’t feeling fulfilled or in control. Employees who are disengaged are less likely to be proactive in suggesting process improvements, more likely to slip into a performance decline, or may leave the company altogether.
Performance Issues On the surface, burnout can appear as a performance issue. Stressed-out employees are more likely to make mistakes, miss deadlines, have strained relationships with others, and cut corners in order to get work done. If their stressors aren’t addressed appropriately, a once high-performer may find themselves on a performance plan or may begin to seek work externally.
Physical Symptoms Chronic stress can also lead to serious health complications including anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and digestive issues. If the stress is left unchecked, individuals are also at a higher risk of developing more serious chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. The physical symptoms of burnout cost US employers between $125 billion and $190 billion annually in health care expenditures alone.
Attendance Issues All of the above factors can contribute to attendance issues, whether an employee’s anxiety has them dreading going in to work, their disengagement has them regularly strolling in late, or an employee’s stress levels have compromised their immune systems to the point that they’re reporting more frequent illnesses. The cost of absenteeism on US businesses is a staggering $84 billion annually.
So what can employers do to help prevent employees from burning out?
Talk To Your Employees If this is a sudden change in an individual’s behavior, don’t immediately jump to disciplinary action. Take the time to meet with an employee to find out if there is an underlying cause of their stress that you can help address.
Take Burnout Seriously Burnout isn’t just another buzzword or the result of “oversensitivity.” Just because you may have tolerated a toxic workplace in your career doesn’t mean that others are expected to do the same. Show empathy to employees when they open up so you can help navigate a plan to successfully overcome their stressors.
Know Your Resources Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are one of the most valuable, yet vastly underutilized benefits that employers offer. EAPs can connect employees with resources in their area, including referrals to therapists. Employees who are suffering from burnout-related illness or disability may also be entitled to leave or accommodations under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Burnout is not an issue that employers can afford to ignore. Proactively identifying and addressing workplace stress is an essential component of creating happier and healthier workplaces.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek medical help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24-hour hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) which will connect to the crisis center nearest to you.