Spotting the stages of burnout before they escalate

Everyone has a limit to how much they can produce. Some reach that point earlier than others, but once walking into work becomes a challenge of willpower and persistence, you’re probably on track to experience burnout. When it happens, careers can screech to a halt, souring relationships with bosses and coworkers as seemingly simple tasks become insurmountable obstacles.

For employers, being able to spot and—more importantly—prevent burnout can save great workers from leaves of absence or the pursuit of greener pastures.

The causes of burnout are myriad. Unmanageable workloads, low pay, lack of upward mobility, lack of recognition, poor team dynamics, and other issues all contribute to a person’s job feeling more and more like a waste of time and energy. Whether or not the complaints are well-founded is irrelevant—burnt-out workers don’t stick around for long.

Knowing how to avoid burnout is crucial for employers and employees alike in building a successful career or business. The first step in that journey, is knowing what it looks like.

Exiting the honeymoon phase

Starting a new job is exciting. That fresh new chance to prove yourself appeals to the optimist in all of us, especially when it’s a move up from a less desirable job. With new skills to learn and interesting people to meet, new hires often throw themselves into work in pursuit of approval, and sometimes throw self-care out the window in the process. It doesn’t last forever, though.

Difficult People D

The compulsion to overwork is considered the first of 12 signs of burnout syndrome, called the honeymoon phase by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. It is in the obsession to prove oneself that physical symptoms of burnout begin to manifest themselves, often without the person realizing it.

During the honeymoon phase, signs of burnout can look like:

  • Going out of the way to prove oneself to others
  • Increased commitment to goals
  • Staying late on a regular basis
  • Skipping meals to work
  • A dwindling social life

Let’s be honest: work culture doesn’t exactly discourage these kinds of behaviors. Some toxic workplace cultures encourage their teams to prioritize their jobs over their own needs, only advising them to take a break once they’ve reached the limits of their physical health. Once workers burn out, they not only lack the desire to work, they simply can’t work anymore.

What habitual burnout looks like

After the honeymoon phase of burnout, it’s a small step into the blurry fog of chronic headaches and emotional exhaustion. The professional healthcare community hasn’t named burnout as a dangerous health condition, opting instead to leave it as a mere occupational phenomenon (burnout doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in English). Thus, it’s unlikely that suffering workers will ever feel good about choosing medical attention instead of simply powering through it.

Instead, they keep working until stress levels become unmanageable, leading to more serious problems like social isolation or even total physical collapse (yes, it happens). Those who have experienced this kind of stress often wonder if there’s something wrong with them. Maybe if they had a stronger will, they’d be able to keep at it.

Obviously, this is bad! Encouraging a healthy work-life balance is critical not only for preventing troubling workplace spectacles, but also for retention and productivity. After all, who performs their best work when their attention is focused on their own inner emptiness?

Chronic fatigue, constant headaches, and a feeling of being overwhelmed are all things that can cause people to quit doing good work, and they’re all symptoms of burnout.

Both employers and employees alike benefit from recognizing the signs of burnout syndrome. For employers, being sensitive to this issue can guide workplace policies and culture so as to prevent future employees from experiencing burnout. For employees, it can provide a map of stressors to look out for and communicate to managers.

Habitual burnout can include symptoms such as:

  • Depersonalization: No longer seeing others or themselves as valuable
  • Depression: General hopelessness about the future
  • Social withdrawal: Neglecting their social life, possibly looking to drugs, alcohol, or sex instead
  • Overeating: Sudden noticeable weight gain
  • Physical fatigue: Appearance of fatigue or difficulty staying on task
  • Behavioral changes: No longer acting like themselves

For most compulsive behaviors, those who experience burnout are rarely eager to admit that they have a problem or that their mental health is suffering. This is why it’s so important for managers and executives to be proactive about creating a culture where physical, mental, and emotional health are prioritized over maximum quarterly returns.

Overworking from home

Like many workplace issues, the COVID-19 pandemic changed things. Before, workers could forget about work once they left to go home. Now, work occupies its own room in the house (or sometimes the same room as non-work). It’s much more difficult to say, “I’m done,” and walk away when both the employer and the employee know that any extra tasks are only a few steps and a laptop power-up away from completion.

Spending extra time working from home appeals to the part of us that seeks to please others. It feels good to know that when everyone else clocked out for the day, we chose to go above and beyond—even if we’re not in the right state of mind to be productive.

Alcohol consumption has increased across the board, and the pandemic is likely at fault. It’s a lot easier to take the edge off the end of the day when there’s a liquor cabinet nearby. That kind of self-medication tends to delay the mental rest needed to recharge and prepare for another day of work. One study claims a third of American workers drink on the job at home, making it even more tempting to do a little more work and get a little further ahead for tomorrow.

Working from home doesn’t endow superhuman endurance to get more done. Managers need to recognize that working in one’s PJs (even with a drink in hand) doesn’t make work any less of a time constraint. Respect working hour restrictions, and impose boundaries so workers aren’t tempted to constantly work long or unusual hours.

Creating a healthy workplace culture

Avoiding employee burnout isn’t easy. It takes planning and effort, which is precisely why so many young, naïve companies suffer from high turnover. Rather than take time to plan and budget for manageable, realistic workloads, bright-eyed executives opt to go full throttle no matter the cost. If they want it, we’ll make it happen, they say. Unfortunately, those impacted most are the ones most susceptible to burnout.

Humans like recognition, and some will go to great lengths to get it. When the boss says we’re pulling an all-nighter to deliver on our promises (extended by caffeinated salespeople), people see an opportunity to show what they’re made of. If they have to neglect their loved ones to prove they’re in it for the long haul, so be it. Again, this is unsustainable.

Managers and executives have a responsibility to create the following:

  • Finite, realistic expectations about how much work should be completed in a given time frame.
  • Clear objectives, the goalposts of which don’t shift or elongate once a task is done or an objective met.

Encourage regular working hours

Employee handbooks should make it clear that work is expected to start and end at consistent, predictable hours (where possible, of course). Yes, tardiness and absences can be made up, but you don’t want people showing up to the office with a sleeping bag to catch up early tomorrow morning.

This is more difficult to enforce in some industries than in others. Many software companies release updates in two-week or monthly sprints where spending some late nights at the end of the cycle is just common practice. As you might guess, burnout is high in these industries.

Managers can offset chronic stress by giving time off commensurate with those long days, or even by offering cash bonuses for going the extra mile. At the very least, don’t take it for granted that people are spending from dawn to dusk delivering on your promises.

Establish clear, achievable goals

It is the job of the employer to identify what needs to be done—not the employee. One cause of burnout is the old adage, “find something to do.” This philosophy preys on the need to rest by supplanting it with a dull urgency to do more work, regardless of its actual value. It punishes people who work quickly, and it’s the reason people feel anxious to tap away on their keyboard when the boss walks by.

Here’s an idea: How about when managers don’t have something for employees to do, they let them go home early? Why not reward workers for being efficient instead of pushing them to hunt for unimportant tasks to work on?

On top of that, people can become resentful of co-workers when objectives aren’t clearly established. No two workers are equal, and some get things done a lot quicker than others. They may ask, “Why am I working so hard to find something to do while that guy over there kicks back once the job’s done?” And they’re right—someone is being lazy, just not their co-worker.

Make sure employees know what’s expected of them. When they achieve those expectations, recognize it.

Preventing burnout is good business

Employees are the most valuable asset of any company. Their health and well-being should always be the priority, and the resulting dividends are worth it. Healthy workers do better work and have better attitudes which spread around the office. If you want a healthy workplace culture, focus on worker health by being mindful of the signs of burnout.