Employee Burnout: How to Recognize and Prevent It

Once you recognize the signs and symptoms of employee burnout, take proactive measures to support your workforce.

Written by Kate Heinz
Employee Burnout: How to Recognize and Prevent It
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Matthew Urwin | May 02, 2023

Employee burnout refers to the extreme stress employees feel that can eventually lead to their departure. Not only that, but burnout has huge implications for your bottom line — decreased productivity, depleted morale and significant product delays all cost you money. 

Burnout spreads like wildfire; it can wipe out your team if you’re not careful. Your employees are your most important asset, especially in today’s uncertain times. Making sure they have the support they need to be successful should be your number one priority. 

To help you get ahead of a wide-scale workplace burnout problem on your team, we’ve outlined common signs and causes of burnout, as well as tips to keep it under control.

Table of Contents


What Is Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout — also known as workplace burnout — happens when an individual’s physical, emotional and mental resources are spent. It’s unlike the occasional stress everyone feels at their job when the pressure’s on and stakes are high; burnout is the loss of interest in and motivation to work. Think of it like a flame — when the wick’s burnt out, it’s done.

Employee Burnout Definition

Employee burnout is when someone loses motivation to continue performing their job due to physical and emotional fatigue. Burnout typically happens when an employee endures extended periods of workplace stress without time to rest and recover.

Burnout at work often happens as a result of being overworked or poorly treated, and it’s a pervasive problem. Not only does it lead to additional burnout among team members, but it can result in higher turnover and impact your company culture on a broad scale. One frustrated employee can instigate a culture of negativity that demotivates top performers and deters exceptional candidates from joining your team. 

Keeping your employees happy and motivated is essential to your team’s long-term success. Employee exits can be extremely costly — totaling one-third of the employee’s salary on average — and result in more departures from team members. In short, making a concerted effort to improve your employee retention rate and reduce burnout is more important than ever for tech leaders.


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Causes of Employee Burnout

Employee burnout is caused by a range of circumstances, from dysfunctional workplace dynamics to a lack of job satisfaction and well-being among employees. Below are six of the most common causes of employee burnout in the workplace to watch out for.

Causes of Workplace Burnout

Workplace burnout can be caused by confusing or unrealistic goals, isolated conditions in remote work and an environment that discourages rest. The absence of manager support and proper recognition can also deflate workers and eventually result in job burnout.


1. Lack of Manager Support

Managers have a significant impact on their direct reports: 34 percent of workers leave their jobs because of uncaring or uninspiring leaders. In addition, 26 percent leave because their well-being isn’t prioritized. Managers can play a crucial role in increasing employee engagement. Giving employees someone they can turn to with questions and concerns provides them with a greater sense of security and makes it easier to prevent employee burnout.  


2. Unattainable or Unclear Goals

Working toward a goal that’s impossible to achieve will severely demotivate employees. Additionally, if employees don’t know what is expected of them or expectations are constantly being re-prioritized, they’ll struggle to develop a sense of ownership of their work, increasing the risk of experiencing burnout.


3. Remote Work Isolation

When personal and professional lives are so closely intertwined as they often are when working from home, employees struggle to unplug and avoid burnout. It’s easy to get sucked back into assignments and responsibilities when you’re just a few feet from your office. This can lead to longer work hours and additional stress. On top of that, remote employees are more susceptible to feeling disconnected from their managers and teammates. As a result, they may experience unnecessary pressure to perform well and consequently overwork themselves.


4. Lack of Recognition 

Acknowledging and celebrating achievements plays an important role in employee engagement. In fact, organizations that double the number of employees who feel recognized see a 9 percent increase in productivity and a 22 percent decrease in absenteeism. Failing to recognize employees will lead them to feel undervalued and unmotivated, simultaneously increasing their risk of workplace burnout.


5. Excessive Job Demands

Employees may simply be doing too much. If it’s all-systems-go all of the time, they’re going to quickly burn out. At a certain point, a high-demand workload starts to feel like a marathon without a finish line in sight. Employees need to be able to catch their breath before jumping back into their work in order to prevent employee burnout.


6. Lack of Positive Work Relationships

Having a friend at work can have a major influence over whether an employee is satisfied with their workplace. Employees with a best friend at work are 17 percent more likely than not to say they’re satisfied with their company as a place to work. And if an employee experiences other issues like bullying or discrimination, they may be even more likely to burn out and potentially seek a healthier work situation elsewhere.


Signs and Symptoms of Employee Burnout

Early intervention is key to getting ahead of employee burnout before the toxic cycle begins. To do that, you need to be familiar with the signs of burnout. Below are common indicators of employee burnout to watch out for within your team.

Signs of Burnout in the Workplace

General burnout symptoms include stressed body language, a disinterested attitude toward work-related activities and a decline in physical health. For example, a burnt-out employee may take days off from work more often and exhibit frustration when they’re in the office.


1. Disinterested or Nervous Body Language

Over half of communication is nonverbal, so it’s vital that you pay attention to body language as much as you listen to your employees. Look out for cues of nervousness, disinterest or frustration, even when conducting video chats and phone calls remotely. If employees seem more irritable than usual, they’re probably testing the limits of their patience and you should talk to them immediately to avoid burnout.


2. Lack of Involvement in Social Activities

If your employees stop participating in your company’s social gatherings, that could be a sign of workplace burnout. Culture initiatives and social events should be a fun, lighthearted way to help employees relax and connect with their colleagues. If employees feel like they don’t have the time for it due to responsibilities at work or simply aren’t interested in joining in on the fun, they likely are feeling stretched thin or disconnected from the team.


3. Frequent Absenteeism

There’s a direct correlation between employee burnout and absenteeism. In fact, employees with fair or poor mental health take four times as many unplanned absences as employees with good, very good or excellent mental health. If your employees are frequently missing work, it’s likely because they’re reaching their limits and need to take a break to prevent employee burnout.


4. More Frequent Illnesses

Another reason absenteeism is a clear sign of workplace burnout: chronic stress can cause larger health complications and lowers the body’s ability to fight off infection, which means people are more susceptible to illness. Burnout directly contributes to employees’ deteriorating health, with 44 percent of burnt-out workers reporting physical fatigue, 36 percent reporting cognitive weariness and 32 percent reporting emotional exhaustion — all burnout symptoms that leave employees vulnerable to prolonged and more severe illness.    

Whether employees regularly need days off or are repeatedly out and too sick to work, there are likely deeper issues at play and burnout is on the horizon.

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5. Reduced Productivity 

If an employee’s output starts to dip, it might be a sign of a maxed-out bandwidth and job burnout. Alternatively, it could mean they’re feeling unmotivated and are struggling to tackle their work with the same energy. However, be cognizant of the fact that some days, weeks and quarters will be better than others; employees won’t always put up the same numbers. Use productivity as a sign, but talk to your employees to better understand the situation — there may be other factors at play.


6. Constant Sleepiness and Emotional Exhaustion

Employees who are plagued by stress or who lack work-life boundaries are more likely to lose sleep. While personal issues can affect a person’s sleep levels, it’s always better to play it safe and check in with an employee who’s tired all the time. Reach out to employees who are often exhausted when reporting to work. Letting someone practice unhealthy work habits can end up snowballing into a scenario where an employee falls further behind with their work due to emotional exhaustion and burns out before they receive help.


How to Address and Prevent Employee Burnout

During periods of uncertainty, employees are more likely to experience stress at work, which can lead to burnout. It’s vital that managers regularly check in on their direct reports and ensure they’re getting the support they need, both as employees and as individuals. High-impact roles that often work in silos, like tech roles, require additional supervision to manage employee engagement and reduce burnout. Below are 10 tips leaders can use to avoid employee burnout.

Tips to Avoid Burnout

Businesses can prevent burnout among teams by prioritizing wellness and mental health. This means encouraging feedback, setting manageable goals, making time for restful and fun activities and automating tasks to lighten workloads, among other initiatives.


1. Give Frequent and Actionable Feedback 

Give and collect feedback during regular one-on-ones with your direct reports to help them avoid burnout in the workplace. This helps build a stronger manager-employee relationship and provides individuals with a private opportunity to discuss challenges they’re facing. For remote employees, use a video conferencing platform so you can still speak face-to-face. 

Provide employees with feedback they can use to improve in their roles. Both constructive criticism and praise have a positive impact on engagement. In fact, employees who receive recognition are 2.7 times more likely to be highly engaged with their work.

Also, ask team members for feedback; listen to their concerns and brainstorm ways to improve communication and enhance their employee experience. More than half of employees who leave their jobs say their manager or organization could have stepped in to prevent such a decision. As a result, it’s crucial managers ask their team members for their input and take action accordingly to help mitigate voluntary turnover.


2. Prioritize Wellness and Mental Health

The physical and emotional toll of employee burnout costs roughly $300 billion each year due to factors like absenteeism, accidents, diminished productivity and employee turnover. It’s difficult to maintain work-life balance in a digital world where we’re always plugged in, but it’s even harder for remote employees whose home life and office overlap. 

Encourage your direct reports to take time for themselves as needed. Remember that each individual is unique and will require different forms of support to stay physically and mentally healthy. Allow your team to take advantage of the wellness programs offered in your employee benefits package as a way to boost your company culture and prevent burnout.


3. Normalize Taking Breaks

Some employees will be hesitant to unplug out of fear of missing an update or falling behind. Implement different activities into your team’s routine that offer a mental break from the grind. 

For example, before your first meeting of the day, get your entire team together for a virtual meditation session. This could include goal setting for the day, repeating a mantra or practicing guided breathing exercises. 

Incorporating wellness activities into the workday ensures employees know it’s okay to take time to recharge. Acting critical of their need to do so is not conducive to a healthy and supportive work environment, and can actually cost your organization money — one-third of employees have left their jobs for roles that provide less pay but more work-life balance


4. Set and Maintain Realistic Expectations 

Nothing will demotivate and disengage an employee faster than unattainable goals. Feeling like they’re chasing after a moving target and constantly missing the mark will shatter an employee’s self-confidence and potentially lead to workplace burnout. Goals should be both progressive and flexible; you shouldn’t expect a new hire to perform at the level of a two-year-tenured employee. 

Furthermore, you may come across bumps in the process that require you to shift your approach entirely. If that’s the case, employees should not be beholden to outdated or overly aggressive goals. Key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets should be adjusted as needed and especially as the employee progresses in their role.


5. Improve Your Onboarding Process

Your onboarding process is an employee’s first real introduction to your company, and a strong onboarding sequence sets employees on the path to success. According to a Glassdoor survey, employees are 18 times more likely to feel a commitment to their company if the onboarding process meets their expectations, and 49 percent of employees are then able to contribute during their first week. 

It’s a manager’s job to give employees the tools they need to thrive in their role, and that means clearly outlining their responsibilities and objectives. If employees know what’s expected of them, they’re more likely to take pride and invest in their work while setting boundaries to avoid and reduce burnout. Additionally, introduce new employees to members of your team and help them understand your type of organizational culture. Doing so will allow them to build a connection with other employees and cultivate a sense of belonging. Make sure to play your part in optimizing your virtual onboarding plan for today’s remote world.

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6. Offer Flexible Scheduling

Giving employees the freedom to adapt their working hours to their personal lives has a positive impact on engagement. Not only does it help them establish a work-life balance that meets their needs and helps prevent employee burnout, it also gives them a sense of autonomy, which enhances their overall employee experience.

Furthermore, customizing their work schedule enables employees to hone in on their most productive hours. If an individual knows they tend to check out after 4 p.m., they can shift their day to start earlier and sign off before productivity plummets. For remote teams, this is an easy way to avoid workplace burnout without overhauling your efforts; with everything online, employees can easily catch up on projects if their schedules don’t align.


7. Improve and Automate Processes

Sometimes freeing up an employee’s bandwidth is as simple as automating a process. For example, if a UX designer dedicates the first few hours of every project to recreating the same framework, take the time to create a template they can return to and modify as needed. 

Work to identify bottlenecks, whether that be individual contributors or process limitations, so you can mitigate them for your team. Sometimes removing a step or consolidating responsibilities through delegation can improve how employees work together, ease frustrations with a process and prevent employee burnout in the long run.


8. Encourage Passion Projects

People are naturally more engaged with their work if it’s something they enjoy doing. In addition to encouraging your team members to explore their interests — both at work and in their free time — provide them the autonomy to choose their tasks. If a software developer prefers working in one coding language over the other, allow them to work predominantly on projects that fit their interests.

Of course, every employee has responsibilities they may not enjoy that have to get done. As a team leader, it’s not your job to customize roles to the individual. Still, refocusing an employee’s priorities and task list to better align with their professional interests and goals is a productive form of employee development. Helping employees do work that excites them and allows them to grow in their careers reduces the risk of workplace burnout.


9. Make Time for Fun

Engaging social initiatives should already be in place as part of your company culture, but you can implement additional activities specifically for your team. Doing so helps employees bond as a collective unit and on a personal level. It also helps them blow off steam at the end of the work day and relieve stress to avoid burnout. 

Schedule happy hours, plan team meet-ups or simply eat lunch together. Anything you can do that offers an enjoyable break from work will infuse positivity into your employees’ days. Furthermore, it forces them to take a step back from their projects and relax, which is essential to avoiding workplace burnout. Adopt a few of these virtual activities to bring all of your employees together.


10. Offer Rewards

In addition to recognizing employees for a job well-done, give them a reward for their efforts. Incentives and prizes are common among sales teams, but also work well in motivating and engaging employees across all departments. Offering rewards makes employees feel appreciated and encourages them to take pride in their work. 

It doesn’t have to be a significant monetary prize or an all-inclusive vacation package, either. Employees will appreciate an extra day of PTO to prevent employee burnout, a gift card to their favorite restaurant or the chance to join an exciting industry event. When determining rewards for your team, ask them what they’d enjoy most. This makes them feel included in the decision-making process and increases the likelihood that they’ll be motivated by the prize.

Avoiding burnout essentially boils down to this: Listen to your employees. When asked, they’ll tell you what it is they need to feel more confident about their work and to be successful in their role. Be vigilant against the signs of employee burnout and take action immediately to retain top performers and entice great job seekers.


Benefits of Addressing Employee Burnout

Snuffing out employee burnout and taking care of your workforce has its upsides — and not just for employees. Below are some of the benefits companies can enjoy when they establish proper measures to support their employees and stave off employee burnout.   


1. Better Employee Well-Being 

Mental health measures that address employee burnout can have a positive effect on employees’ well-being in the workplace. Having conversations around mental health and offering benefits like mental health days and wellness programs make employees feel more comfortable taking time off to rest, recover and refresh themselves before diving back into their work. 

In fact, a 2022 research study found that providing a workplace mental health program results in employees taking fewer days off and greater return on investment for employers. When employees are given mental health support, they are in a much better mental state to take on the workday and contribute to their company. 


2. Higher Employee Engagement

Employees can tell when their companies make their well-being a priority or not, and this heavily influences employee engagement levels throughout a business. According to a Gallup survey, one of the most important employee engagement elements is “feeling cared about at work,” and it’s also one of the elements that has seen the biggest drop between 2019 and 2022. Companies that ignore this issue may risk pushing their employees to the brink of leaving. 

To reverse this trend and improve employee engagement in their workplaces, employers can invest in mental and physical health benefits, plan company outings and offer flexible work schedules. This way, workers can fulfill their socio-emotional needs and feel more motivated to contribute to company goals.   


3. Increased Workforce Productivity

Taking steps to raise employee engagement — flexible work schedules, remote work and passion projects — has a similar impact on productivity. Employees who want to show up to work and have the energy to complete tasks are bound to deliver higher-quality products and get more boxes checked off their to-do lists.  

Organizations that offer their employees maximum flexibility see the number of high-performing employees rise by 40 percent, showing that cultivating employee engagement can lead to higher productivity levels. Companies may then want to consider respecting employees’ personal needs to boost their productivity levels instead of placing more expectations on their shoulders.   


4. Less Absenteeism Among Employees

When there are more support systems in place and fewer stressors in the workplace, employees are more likely to show up for work. The impact when employers don’t support their employees’ mental health is glaring: workers with fair or poor mental health usually have 12 days of unplanned absences, compared to two-and-a-half days for employees with good, very good or excellent mental health. 

Mental health benefits and other employee benefits make space for employees to address their physical, mental and personal needs. If you want to reduce absenteeism in your workplace, consider steps to prioritize your employees’ well-being and work-life balance. 


5. More Inclusive Workplace

Employee burnout doesn’t affect all members of the workforce equally. For example, working women are much more likely to have to shoulder caregiving duties at home compared to men while still fulfilling their typical job responsibilities. By addressing the causes of employee burnout, you can simultaneously tackle issues around diversity and inclusion

Benefits like parental leave, unlimited PTO and hybrid work situations allow for greater autonomy and flexibility, catering to a broader range of workers. You can make your workplace not just healthier, but also more inclusive by developing policies that put employees’ well-being before deadlines and profits. 


6. Lower Turnover and Higher Retention

A company that treats its workers well and respects their work-life boundaries is a company that employees will want to stay at. That’s why it should come as no surprise that uncaring bosses, unsustainable expectations and a lack of support for employee well-being are a few reasons 40 percent of employees are unhappy in their current jobs. 

Benefits like sabbatical leave enable employees to decompress, pursue goals meaningful to them and return to work feeling more energized. To retain top talent, organizations may want to pad their employees’ benefits with other perks that show workers they’re seen by leadership as whole people, too.  


7. Stronger Brand and Recruiting

When you invest in your employees, your employees are more likely to become brand ambassadors and spread the word about your comprehensive benefits. This makes it easier to stand out from your competitors. With 61 percent of employees looking for greater work-life balance and better personal well-being in their next role, being able to showcase a slate of benefits can help you draw in top-notch professionals and expand your talent pool. 

No company workforce operates within a vacuum. So, if your employees are asking for or raving about certain benefits, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to strike a chord with potential candidates by advertising these same benefits in job descriptions and career pages.   


8. Larger Company Profits and Revenue 

Companies can place themselves in a much more stable financial position when taking steps to reduce burnout. Filling open roles when employees leave can be costly, with the average cost per hire being roughly $4,700. On the other hand, companies with the highest employee engagement levels are 23 percent more profitable than companies with the lowest levels. 

Measures designed to prevent employee burnout and foster better employee well-being can have major financial implications for businesses. Removing burnout symptoms like higher turnover creates fewer distractions and allows team members to focus on their jobs while feeling more secure in their workplace.


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