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Hannah Taylor

11 Signs of Burnout: How to Identify When Your Team Needs Support

Do you think you could spot the warning signs of burnout in your team? Here's what to look out for, so you can tell who might benefit from some extra support.

Preventing work burnout begins and ends with the support of team leaders. This occupational phenomenon is about much more than being a little ‘stressed out,’ as burnout has harmed countless employees’ health and costs businesses billions of dollars in lost productivity each year.

As a leader, it's your responsibility to understand employee burnout signs so that you can identify those experiencing job burnout and help employees manage its effects. So, what are the early signs of burnout you need to be aware of?

What is workplace burnout?

The term ‘burnout’ was first introduced by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1970 to describe the consequences of excessive stress and high standards in “helping” professions, such as nursing. Since then, our understanding of burnout has evolved, and in 2019, it was officially recognized in the International Classification of Diseases as a syndrome resulting ‘from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’

The World Health Organization defines burnout not as a medical condition but as an ‘occupational phenomenon,’ with three key characterizations:

  • Energy depletion and exhaustion
  • Negative feelings towards your job, including frustration or a lost sense of purpose
  • Reduced professional efficacy at work.

However, these are not the only signs of employee burnout, which negatively impacts employees' mental health, leading to decreased productivity, low employee morale, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, reduced productivity, and a poor work-life balance.

Job burnout versus anxiety and stress

There’s a lot of misunderstanding around what ‘burnout’ actually is, which makes identifying its signs challenging. For example, 'anxiety,' 'stress,' and 'burnout' refer to three distinct experiences, yet these terms are often (and mistakenly) used interchangeably.

In one study by Mental Health UK, 85% of UK adults correctly identified symptoms of burnout, while 68% mistakenly identified symptoms of anxiety. This goes to show how important it is for team leaders to understand how the signs of burnout differ from anxiety and stress.

  • ‘Anxiety’ is the human response when we feel threatened and can result in panic attacks.
  • ‘Stress’ refers to how we react to being put under pressure, either at work or in our personal lives.

Whereas anxiety and stress are natural feelings everyone experiences now and then in their work and personal lives, ‘burnout’ only refers to the collection of symptoms caused by chronic stress at work.

What are the tell-tale signs of employee burnout?

As burnout is a collection of symptoms rather than a diagnosis in and of itself, it’s essential to differentiate between employees experiencing short-term anxiety or stress and those struggling with true workplace burnout.

Here are twelve common signs of job burnout to watch out for when looking to prevent employee burnout.

1. A change in attitude

When job burnout starts to take hold, many employees display a change in attitude. How their attitude has changed will vary depending on their personality traits and individual challenges — what's important is that you look out for drastic shifts away from their usual temperament or attitude towards work.

A burned-out employee may become irritable, react sensitively to criticism, take less care over their work, or appear detached from their team entirely.

Such a change in attitude is most noticeable when a previously vibrant employee known for being cheerful, fun, and social starts to spend time alone more often than not. They may even stop participating in social events altogether.

2. Physical symptoms

Unsurprisingly, workers experiencing burnout may struggle with physical manifestations of stress. They may complain of persistent headaches, exhaustion, or muscle tension — all physical signs of chronic work-related stress.

Even if they don’t admit to feeling stressed, there are many physical symptoms associated with stress that you should watch out for:

  • dark circles under the eyes could suggest that they’re struggling with sleep problems caused by a work-life imbalance
  • a reliance on caffeine
  • regularly taking painkillers to tackle aches and pains

3. Lack of enthusiasm

When a formerly high-achieving employee's enthusiasm for their job begins waning, it can be easy to label them as lazy or complacent. In reality, a lack of enthusiasm is a red flag for job burnout, with common behaviors including:

  • the unenthusiastic employee making little effort in their work
  • speaking negatively about the business’s processes
  • showing an unwillingness to offer social support to colleagues

Under-challenged burnout — one of three types of burnout — often causes previously passionate employees to become disengaged. They may view the challenges they once enjoyed as arduous tasks and perceive a gap between their personal ambitions and their commitment to the company, leading to a decline in job satisfaction.

4. Decreased focus and attention

Overly stressed workers often experience diminishing cognitive performance, causing attention spans to shrink and the frequency of mistakes to rise.

If an employee is struggling with their focus, they may:

  • regularly forget simple instructions
  • appear not to be paying attention in meetings
  • find completing tasks they usually breeze through incredibly daunting
  • make repeated errors
  • overlook or forget details
  • display a general decline in work quality

5. Frequent illness

Chronic stress is known to impact the immune system, revealing a connection between job burnout and illness.

Highly stressed employees will likely get sick more often, displaying early indicators of employee burnout well before they've realized the extent of the issue. We recommend checking in on employees who regularly show signs of illness, such as unshiftable coughs, sniffles, or fatigue.

6. Increased irritability and negativity

Burnout can drastically shape an individual’s response to tension. If they’ve been pushed to their wit's end — or are sleep deprived — their tolerance for negative feedback, project delays, and other minor irritations may plummet. Increased irritability and negativity may look like:

  • perceiving all feedback as criticism
  • clashing with colleagues
  • failing to mediate minor disagreements
  • reacting with excessive anger
  • regularly complaining or displaying a cynical attitude
  • focusing on obstacles rather than solutions

While everyone will complain about work from time to time (it’s impossible to always look on the bright side of life), a consistent negative attitude is a worrying sign of employee burnout.

7. Missed deadlines

If a member of your team is regularly missing deadlines, they may be struggling to keep on top of their work due to mental overload preventing them from working as fast as usual or a poor workload balance forcing them to overwork.

Burned-out employees, especially those who have been overworked, often struggle with time management, leading to missed deadlines. They may underestimate task durations, procrastinate to avoid negative feelings associated with work, or lack time to complete their to-do lists.

8. Decline in work quality

If a previously diligent member of your team begins delivering substandard work, this is more likely due to burnout than a sudden loss of ability.

Mental exhaustion, an underlying cause of job burnout, could prevent them from doing their best work. Signs to look out for include:

  • delivering assignments that lack thoroughness or innovative thinking
  • missed details and mistakes they would usually catch
  • the impression they’re phoning it in rather than giving a task their all 

9. Appearing emotionally exhausted

While other employees may disconnect from or lash out at their co-workers, those exhausted by long hours can feel as if they're running on empty.

Emotional exhaustion differs from physical exhaustion as it's typified by a loss of the resilience needed to effectively navigate work challenges. Emotionally exhausted employees may appear numb or voice feelings of hopelessness about their work.

10. Reduced creativity

Once creative thinkers, burned-out employees may struggle to take an innovative approach to problem-solving due to diminished mental energy. A lack of energy can suppress creative thinking, preventing them from exploring ideas they’d usually find invigorating.

Reduced creativity can show up in different ways, depending on the employee's job role. Creatives such as designers may prefer to play it safe with concepts and artwork, while strategists may stop bringing exciting suggestions to the table. Over time, this will impact their job satisfaction and the team’s forward momentum.

11. Increased absenteeism

Burnout = increased harm to employees' physical and mental health = more time spent away from work.

Too many unplanned days off work is a clear warning sign of burnout. Burned-out workers will call in sick more often due to illness or severe anxiety associated with their job. Think the Sunday Scaries, but on steroids.

When your absent team member does show up to work, they may arrive late, leave early, or struggle to engage with their work effectively.

Recognizing the warning signs of employee burnout as early as possible will make a significant difference in how effectively you can support your employees’ mental and physical health.

What’s next: addressing burnout

As employee burnout is specifically caused by workplace stress, it can only be mitigated by a change in the work environment. As a manager or leader, it's your responsibility to lead the charge.

With Runn's resource management tools, you can identify the signs of job burnout, from missed deadlines to declining work quality, before they become a problem for employees.

Learn more ➡️ How to balance your team's workload with Runn.

By understanding who is struggling with job stress, you can address employee burnout, prioritize your employees’ well-being, and create a happier company culture that champions the importance of work-life balance.

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