If Evan James is enthusiastic about finding solutions for burnout, it’s because he once had to find them for himself. Throughout his career in mid-level management, one issue he consistently ran into was poor organizational time management — he often found himself in meetings that ran from eight in the morning to six at night, with little time left to complete the tasks his role required.
“Essentially, I was in meetings all day every day, while simultaneously receiving hundreds of Slack messages and emails,” he said. “If I wanted to get anything actually done, it had to occur outside work hours.”
James eventually became the SVP of marketing at New York-based collaboration software company Time is Ltd., a role he was attracted to because of the company’s dedication to time management and workplace efficiency. But that was only after taking a year and a half break from in-house marketing, during which he became a part-time marketing consultant.
For James, this extended break had felt like a long time coming. He wasn’t overwhelmed at his previous roles — he’d been burnt out.
5 Symptoms of Burnout
- Drops in performance quality
- Changes in behavior
- Working after hours or on weekends
- Increased, unexplained time off
- Disengagement from company culture
“I moved into a different direction, and wasn’t really ready to go full time in-house again,” he said. “That was definitely a result of being burned out.”
A year and a half may seem like a long time to some, but in terms of burnout recovery, it’s not out of the ordinary. It’s hard to say how long it truly takes to bounce back from burnout, but in some cases people have reported spent months and even years getting back to normal. Burnout isn’t a temporary feeling, but a critical point that takes a lot of work to heal. That’s why it’s crucial that company leaders are able to recognize the symptoms early, and reverse them before they do any major damage, James said.
“If you start to see an employee disengaging over time, as a manager you need to address it,” he said. “You can figure out what is hindering them and can get ahead of it, rather than waiting until they burn out and leave entirely.”
Burnout is an issue that can have major consequences for your business. If it isn’t addressed, your employees may not only quit your company, but step away from tech altogether. Here’s what burnout looks like and how you can help your employees.
Drops in Performance Quality
Michelle Eisenstat, chief people officer at the Arizona College of Nursing, has a lot of firsthand experience managing burnout. The healthcare industry is particularly susceptible to the phenomenon, and around 63 percent of U.S. nurses report feeling burnt out, according to a 2022 study from the International Council of Nurses.
The demands of the nursing industry may be more high-stakes than those of the tech industry, but in fact, both industries are being hit with similar rates of burnout — around 58 percent of tech employees reported struggling with burnout, according to a 2021 survey from cloud learning company TalentLMS. If Eisenstat’s experience tackling nursing burnout has taught her anything, she said it’s that we’re looking at performance all wrong.
“Often, we reward our high performers with more responsibility, or ignore them to coach employees that need more help. We need to take a more holistic approach and ensure all employees maintain balance, do enjoyable work, and feel appreciated.”
“Burnout is a difficult problem to address because traditionally, we have measured our workforce on productivity,” she said. “Often, we reward our high performers with more responsibility, or ignore them to coach employees that need more help. We need to take a more holistic approach and ensure all employees maintain balance, do enjoyable work, and feel appreciated.”
The more strenuous the workload, the more difficult it will be for your employees to keep up. Add burnout to the mix, and you might notice a dramatic dip in their work quality, even if they’re traditionally top performers.
“Look for behavior changes that are not typical,” Eisenstat said. “This could be missing deadlines, difficulty concentrating, making more mistakes or becoming easily frustrated.”
We traditionally think of poor performance as something to be admonished or even punished, but if you pressure employees to push through burnout and put work above their wellbeing, ultimately both will suffer.
What to Do About It: Approach the conversation about performance quality with compassion, rather than criticism. “Ask questions, show you care and make sure you know how to support them,” Eisenstat said. “Encourage them to take time off and be clear on priorities and deadlines. Constant feedback around what can be deprioritized is also helpful.”
A dip in performance quality isn’t always the employee’s fault. As a leader, there may be things you’re doing to hinder their productivity and drive burnout. For instance, while communication at work is great, James said over-communicating through digital tools like Slack and email can distract and overwhelm your employees.
“If there are constant meeting alerts and site bug updates going out company wide, all that does is remove you from focus time, and doesn’t make you better at your job in any way,” he said. “If you can remove some of those non-critical communication lines, you’ll decrease your employees’ stress levels.”
Burnout is a lot different from just having a bad day. Burnout is “chronic workplace stress” which, if untreated, can cause longterm exhaustion and dissatisfaction, according to the World Health Organization. Burnout lowers your productivity, affects your professional relationships, and can even physically manifest as changes in your behavior or appearance, said James.
“You might recognize stress within somebody’s face, or maybe notice negativity in their comments that wasn’t there before,” he said. “If you’re constantly tired, that’s also probably not a good sign.”
One of the biggest physical symptoms of burnout is reduced energy or enthusiasm for your work, according to the WHO. Everyone has weeks that are more taxing or challenging than others, but if you’re feeling depleted by your work on a regular basis, you might want to consider if it’s more than just exhaustion.
What to Do About It: Pay attention to your employees energy levels — if you’re noticing physical signs of exhaustion, consider lessening their workload or encourage them to take time off. Tend to your physical and emotional needs too, before it’s too late.
“If I don’t feel good physically, I don’t do as well at work,” said Eisenstat. “I must watch my sleep habits and make sure I am getting exercise. I think sleep is such a big part of reducing burnout, so I ask myself if I am getting enough sleep and if it is restful.”
The Sunday scaries are just part of life for a lot of people — around 80 percent actually, according to a report from LinkedIn. “I think we have all had that ‘work stress dream,’” Eisenstat said. But if it’s a nightly occurrence, then it might be a red flag, he said.
“If someone is consistently working after hours or working on weekends, then the likelihood of burnout is much higher,”
When you’re feeling burnt out and drained by work, the last thing you want to do is think about your job after hours. But at the same time, if your workload is intense, you may be anxious about leaving it on your desk overnight. Workplace tasks bleeding into non-working hours is part of why 66 percent of employees have poor work-life balance, according to research from software company TeamStage.
“If someone is consistently working after hours or working on weekends, then the likelihood of burnout is much higher,” said James.
What to Do About It: Most of the time, the work that gets done after six on a Friday night isn’t worth the cost. Keep an eye on when your employees are logging on to work on projects, and encourage them to step away from the computer by doing so yourself. Avoid Slacking your employees outside their regular working hours except in urgent cases, and make sure you’re not assigning them a workload that extends into the weekend. To further enforce healthy work-life balances, some companies have implemented four-day work weeks to give employees more time for themselves. Consider where you can introduce more balance — maybe it’s makes sense to have team-wide days off once a month.
Taking Time Off (or Not)
An employee that feels worn out and stressed by work may want to take more time off than usual to clear their head. With that in mind, a spike in vacation time requests from certain team members could indicate that burnout is coming to a head.
When workplace stress reaches a boiling point, taking frequent time off could be the final step before an employee burns out entirely, James said. Time off isn’t by itself a problem, but it can become one if employees are taking large chunks of PTO without explanation.
“I’d more want to understand why, and see if there’s an underlying issue that we need to talk about a little bit more,” said James. “I think it goes back to having that really, really good strong communication between manager or employer. If you just see an employee taking a lot more time than they used to, that might be a symptom of something wrong, and therefore you should address it.”
What to Do About It: When the issue driving burnout is a poor work-life balance, time off could be part of the solution. In fact, unlimited and flexible PTO is becoming an increasingly popular method of combating burnout within the tech industry.
However, sometimes unlimited PTO can backfire — the HR tech company Namely found that employees with unlimited PTO actually take an average of 13 days off annually, while employees with standard plans take 15. If you’re considering implementing unlimited PTO, set guidelines around minimum numbers of days off so your employees can feel comfortable taking advantage of this benefit.
The signs of workplace burnout may not have anything to do with work at all. Your coworkers’ performance might be fine — but they still could be dealing with burn out. Burnout symptoms can manifest in many different ways, and detachment from company culture is an often overlooked sign that something could be wrong.
“Building a company culture where employees feel supported and engaged is vital to reducing burnout,” said Eisenstat. “That means welcoming new ideas and other points of view. If ideas and dissenting opinions always get shot down, getting discouraged and burnt out is easy.”
There is a social component to work — friendships, happy hours, team-bonding events. It might be a red flag if you have an employee who once participated, but is now skipping out.
What to Do About It: In such cases, recognizing your employees’ achievements and decreasing their workload may encourage them to participate more actively in team building, James said.
“Let them know it’s not because they’re performing poorly, but because you’d love to have them feel more connected to the company culture and to avoid a situation where they’re going to get burnt out,” he said. “I think most people would respond positively to that if it’s framed in the right way.”
“Be open to sharing your own struggles with burnout and what has helped you. Encouraging an open dialogue about burnout will make it easier to discuss solutions.”
Being candid about stress and burnout may be uncomfortable for your employees, but bottling those feelings up only makes them worse. Burnout is more than just a personal issue, but a community issue that can impact your whole business. Creating an environment where burnout is talked about openly, and talking about how it has impacted you, is the first step toward stopping it in its tracks.
“In the past, we have avoided talking about mental wellbeing,” Eisenstat said. “Be open to sharing your own struggles with burnout and what has helped you. Encouraging an open dialogue about burnout will make it easier to discuss solutions.”