Recognize employee burnout: Signs at the workplace

As a team leader, you have to be on the lookout for signs that your team is struggling. One of the things to keep an eye on are burnout symptoms. The impact of burnout on your team can be huge, so it’s important to nip it in the bud as soon as possible. By doing so, you can take steps to mitigate the situation, help your team get back on track and learn how to prevent it altogether.

Three colleagues in discussion

The definition of a burnout

A burnout is a state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress experiences. The combination of personal and professional challenges can become a significant source of stress. A burnout can happen to any employee, regardless of their age, job description, gender or experience. 

Difference of being overworked or burnout

There is a difference between being overworked and being burned out. Burnout is the result of experiencing too much pressure, stress or difficult circumstances over an extended period of time. The experience of being overworked is the same, but for a shorter period of time.

How to: Recognize signs of a burnout

So, what are burnout symptoms to be on the lookout for? There are several tell-tale signs that someone in your team might be struggling with a burnout. A person who’s dealing with burnout is experiencing these symptoms on a more intense level than normally. The signs can be divided into three categories: physical, mental and emotional symptoms. Each of these categories has associated signs that you can look out for.

Physical symptoms

The physical symptoms will often be noticed first by both the team member and their colleagues. In the office, you might notice that the team member is starting to call in sick more often or take more days off. Here's a list of common physical symptoms. 

1. Fatigue and insomnia

Fatigue is one of the most common burnout symptoms. If you notice that a team member is often tired, even after a good night's sleep, this is a clear indication that something is wrong. You can notice this in the office if a team member has difficulty concentrating, staying active during meetings, or taking longer than usual to complete tasks. 

2. Headaches

Stress can cause a lot of physical symptoms, including headaches. If a team member is getting headaches on a regular basis, it could be a sign that they're under a lot of stress. 

3. Gastrointestinal problems

Similarly, stress can also cause gastrointestinal problems like stomachaches, diarrhoea, and constipation. The symptoms are difficult to notice, but you might see a change in the appetite and weight of the colleague.

5. Heart palpitations

Heart palpitations can also be a tell sign of burnout. You might notice this if your team member is experiencing shortness of breath, chest pains or an increased heart rate.

Mental symptoms

Mental symptoms are also a key indicator of burnout.  These can be harder to spot because the team member is not always open about their struggles. But if you look out for certain signs, you may be able to detect when someone needs help. Here are some mental symptoms to watch out for.

1. Difficulty concentrating

If a team member is having difficulty concentrating, you can notice it in their work performance. They might take longer to finish tasks or make more mistakes than usual. 

2. Negative thinking

When someone is burnt out, they may start to think negative thoughts about themselves, their job, and their life in general. This can lead to a downward spiral of negative thinking that can be hard to break out of. In the workplace, you might hear the team member talking negatively about themselves, colleagues or their work. 

3. Memory problems

Stress can cause memory problems. A team member might be having difficulty remembering details or forgets important tasks. Even easy tasks might become overwhelming, so it’s important to be aware of this. 

 4. Loss of creativity and problem-solving 

Burnout can also lead to a loss of creativity and problem-solving skills. A team member might seem to be having difficulty coming up with creative solutions to problems or can't seem to think outside the box. 

Emotional symptoms

The emotional symptoms tend to be the most difficult to notice by others. Still, it's important to be aware of these signs and provide support when needed. A person who’s enduring a burnout is going through an intense and emotional time. The team member may have to deal with a range of emotions as a result of this. Here's what you should look out for. 

1. Irritability

Some team members can feel anger and frustration. This can lead to them snapping at colleagues or customers, which can be damaging to relationships and a decline in team morale. Sarcastic remarks and sudden outbursts can also be a sign of burnout if the team member is normally calm and collected.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety is another common emotion that people experience when they're burnt out. You might be able to notice this in their behaviour when they seem to be on edge or apprehensive.

3. Depression

Depression is a serious symptom of burnout that should not be ignored. If a team member is feeling depressed, it can lead to them feeling isolated and disconnected from their work.

4. Apathy

If a team member seems unmotivated and uninterested in their work, it might be an indicator that they're struggling to find meaning in what they're doing. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as coming in late or leaving early, not participating in team meetings, or not completing assigned tasks.

How to: Address burnout

If you think a team member may be experiencing burnout, there are a few things you can do to help. If you think someone on your team may be burned out, the best thing to do is to talk to them about it. This will give you a chance to see how they're really doing and what might be causing their stress.

1. Express your concern

Begin by expressing concern for their well-being and ask how they are coping with their workload.

2. Share observations

Share any observations you've made about their recent behaviour, such as increased stress levels or decreased productivity.

3. Practise active listening

Listen actively and without judgement to what they have to say.

4. Offer help

Ask if they would be willing to talk about what they're going through and if they need any help. Offer specific and concrete suggestions for how they can take care of themselves and manage their workload, such as taking breaks, delegating tasks, or seeking out additional resources.

5. Reassure them

Reassure the colleague that burnout is common, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, and together you can work to find a solution.

6. Encourage finding professional help

Encourage them to seek help from a professional counsellor or employee assistance program if necessary. This could include therapy or counselling. A professional can provide the team member with the best tools and help they need to help manage their stress and recover from burnout. It's not your responsibility to diagnose or treat any issues, but you can provide support and guidance. 

Prevention is better than a cure

Cultivating a supportive work environment might not prevent burnout, but there are some steps you can take to help mitigate it, even if the burnout is not related to work. 

1. Enable time off

Every team member needs time to relax and recharge. This could mean taking time off or working fewer hours for a period of time. This will give them a chance to step away from their work and hopefully come back feeling refreshed. Also, make sure to encourage team members to take breaks throughout the day. 

2. Create a healthy work environment

Creating a healthy work environment can help prevent burnout. This includes things like setting realistic expectations, providing adequate resources, and fostering a positive team culture.

3. Help manage workload

If your team members are feeling overwhelmed, see if there's anything you can do to help them manage their workload. This could involve reassigning some of their tasks or providing additional resources.

4. Promote a healthy work-life balance

Encourage your team members to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This means making sure they're taking time for themselves outside of work, and not working excessive hours.

5. Offer support

If your team members are struggling, offer them support. This could involve having regular check-ins, providing resources, or simply being there for them.

6. Lead by example

As a leader, it's important to set the right example for your team. This means being mindful of your own stress levels and taking care of yourself. If you're burned out, it'll be harder for you to help your team members.

Things to take-away

  • Burnout can be a serious problem for any team member. By being aware of the signs and taking steps to help, you can prevent it from happening or mitigate its effects.
  • Burnout can present itself in physical, mental and emotional symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, apathy, and exhaustion.
  • To address a burnout, it's good to have a one-on-one conversation to better understand the situation. Professional help can further support and advise the colleague.
  • You might not be able to completely prevent burnout, but there are some steps you can take to help mitigate it, such as enabling time off, creating a healthy work environment and promoting a healthy work-life balance.
  • Finally, as a leader, it's important to lead by example and take care of yourself too.

About me

Hi, I’m Lilian. I’m currently the head of a design team in a digital agency in Amsterdam and love to write about leadership and share tips based on my experience over the past couple of years.

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I decided to start this blog as a way to share my thoughts on leadership. I’m passionate about helping others learn more about leadership and how to be a good leader, so I hope this blog will be helpful to those who are looking for tips and advice on leadership.

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