Have you noticed that your employees are not acting like themselves recently? Maybe they’re making simple mistakes or are not meeting their deliverables in a timely manner. With the exceeding pressure to succeed and outperform, along with the constant demands of their jobs –– not to mention the multitude of stressors caused by the pandemic –– they may be in a state of workplace burnout. Characterized by feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, burnout can have severe consequences in a person’s career, personal life and overall physical and mental wellbeing.
As we continue to try and break the stigma of mental health by highlighting areas that employers need to take into consideration, burnout is a topic that must be addressed. Often associated with poor mental health, if the right measures are taken early on, it can be prevented.
In order to proactively address the effects of mental health in the workplace, it is important to fully understand what your employees are experiencing as burnout starts to creep in. Let’s take a look at what defines burnout, the stages most people experience, and how you can foster a healthier environment for all members of your team.
Defining burnout can be complicated, as there are many factors that come into play when someone develops burnout. This makes it difficult for experts to agree on what truly defines this condition. While some consider it to be a diagnosable medical condition, others believe it is an occupational phenomenon.
The term was first coined in the 1970s by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He originally used the term to describe the effects of severe stress and self-sacrifice among the “helping” professions, such as the healthcare field. Over the years, burnout has evolved to encompass anyone who is experiencing high levels of prolonged stress that ultimately lead to a state of complete physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion.
Many agree that there are three main components that arise when chronic stressors are present –– cynicism, inefficacy and exhaustion, and are the necessary symptoms to be diagnosed with burnout. Yet, burnout doesn’t simply occur overnight, rather, it is an accumulation of factors that build up over time. These factors can be grouped into five different stages.
The first stage of workplace burnout is the honeymoon phase, characterized by taking on new opportunities or responsibilities. During this time, people tend to experience high levels of satisfaction from these new undertakings, while coping with the predicted stress of their assigned tasks. If positive coping strategies are used during this phase, hypothetically, an employee can find a balance and manage the stress with satisfaction. In an ideal situation, employees would stay in this phase.
The second phase occurs when employees become aware of the stress they are experiencing and how it affects them physically, mentally, or emotionally. They may begin to feel less satisfied, optimistic, and productive, while also feeling anxious and irritable.
During this stage, the effects of stress are felt more intensely, taking a toll on the person’s overall well-being. As they begin to experience stress on a more frequent basis, they may start to feel resentful, develop a cynical attitude, and even begin to withdraw socially from family and friends.
Stage four is burnout itself –– where a person’s symptoms become critical and severely impact their day-to-day life. A person experiencing burnout may show signs of depression, such as feeling empty inside and developing an escapist mentality as a way of coping with the severe stress.
The final stage of burnout is when these symptoms are experienced habitually, as opposed to occasionally. These feelings and symptoms are chronic –– leading to intense physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. For those in this stage, the stress is such an integral part of their day to day lives that they are likely struggling with another physical or mental illness, such as depression.
Each individual has a particular limit of tolerance, and therefore, burnout can look and feel differently for everyone. Yet, it is important to recognize the signs of burnout early on in order for individuals to take the necessary steps to resolve the syndrome. You will notice that the symptoms build on one another, so if you do not invest the time to address burnout early, the impact on employees and the workplace can be significant. Here are seven common symptoms that are experienced when workplace burnout is present.
Complete exhaustion is a fundamental component of burnout. Once employees feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, they tend to overwork themselves to meet deliverables –– leading to physical and mental exhaustion. If you notice that someone looks sluggish and tired around the workplace, invest the time to check in and learn what is going on in their life. It may be as simple as giving them a mental health day or it could be connecting them to other resources and benefits to help them work through a challenge.
When the mind and body are under stress, it is difficult for them to function properly. This can inhibit creativity and innovative thinking necessary for problem solving. If you notice that your employees are lacking ingenuity, it may be a sign that they are experiencing workplace burnout.
Concentrating for long periods of time is draining, both mentally and physically. When your employees are already exhausted, it makes it even more difficult to achieve complete focus. This may translate into more mistakes, missed deadlines, and low-quality work.
Feelings of inefficacy are another sign of burnout in the workplace. Once employees begin to think cynically and feel exhausted, they simply do not have the energy or drive to perform at their highest level. They may begin to feel their skills declining and their connection to their work tapering off.
Once employees start to disengage from their work, performance tends to slow down significantly. This detachment, combined with their inability to focus, can lead to less motivation to achieve –– a driving force behind high performance.
Disconnecting from the source of stress is one way people cope with burnout. So, if you notice that your employees are simply going through the motions, they are most likely in one of the debilitating stages of burnout.
Also known as depersonalization, cynicism is another symptom of burnout. When employees develop cynical attitudes, it is because they are distancing themselves psychologically from their work. This typically occurs when they no longer feel enjoyment or pride in their work. This needs to be addressed immediately as this can quickly spread to other employees and ultimately have a detrimental impact on your culture. Again, it is important for the manager to meet with the employee to find out what is going on and identify ways they can help resolve any issues.
Whether burnout is already evident or looming, taking these steps can help alleviate or prevent the detrimental consequences of employee burnout.
Clearly defining workplace expectations is key to preventing performance anxiety in your employees. When employees don’t know exactly what is expected of them, it may also cause them to overwork to compensate for the uncertainty. If your management teams hold regular performance reviews, it can provide a clear direction for your employees –– which may motivate them and improve their overall performance.
Feeling a lack of control is one of the underlying factors that can lead to burnout. To offset this, provide your employees with a level of flexibility to adjust their schedules to their needs. Allowing a certain number of days to work remotely or offering a hybrid work model can give them the flexibility to feel in control of their schedules, all while creating a healthy work environment.
For many employees, the balancing act of juggling their career and personal life is a challenge they are faced with every day. Feeling pressure to put their job above all else can drive them to neglect the areas of their lives necessary to recharge and prevent burnout from occurring.
Employers need to communicate with their teams to make sure they understand that taking necessary breaks will not hinder their success in the company. To foster this message, encourage your employees to use their paid time off and disconnect completely from their job. Also, promote good eating habits and regular exercise, as physical health plays an important role in a person’s ability to manage stress in a healthy way.
In today’s world, employees expect the organizations they work for to respect their time and mental health. By taking the steps to show that their well being is important, you can create an empathetic work environment where employees support each other and lead to overall success.
To learn more about how you can promote positive mental health in your organization, read our post, Workplace Wellness: Promoting Mental Health Initiatives in Your Organization.
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