A Crash Course on Employee Burnout and the Playbook on How to Prevent it

Burnout can creep up on even the strongest workers, undermining their productivity and mental health. Left untreated, burnout leads to disengaged employees that cost employers 34% of their annual salary. With 86% of employees expressing that they faced burnout in 2020, it is more important than ever to understand this problem, which typical wellness programs have not solved. Burnout comes in different forms, with preventable root causes, symptoms, and unique solutions. By understanding burnout at a deeper level, people leaders can create more dynamic policies to address it.

What is employee burnout?

According to the WHO:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:  

1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

In mello terms:

Burnout is the opposite of being mello, which is when team members are engaged and motivated at work, with a healthy work-life balance. Burnout is the side effect of prolonged workplace stress that is left untreated. It affects the physical and mental health of employees, leading to unhealthy and often unproductive teams. It occurs when we don’t pay enough attention to employee wellbeing or offer the support they need for a sustainable, mello workflow.  

Why is it important now?

Burnout is one of the biggest reasons why employees turnover or become disengaged from their work. We think the numbers speak for themselves, here are some quick stats on burnout:  

Burnout and Turnover:

  • 89% of employees said they faced burnout in 2020 alone (source)
  • 70% of employees say they would quit their job if another employer offered better practices around burnout (source)
  • Burnout is responsible for a significant amount of employee turnover, between 20% and 50% or more, depending on the organization. (source)

The Cost of Burnout:

  • Job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year. (source)
  • Burnout often leads to disengaged employees, who cost their employers 34% of their annual salary as a result (source)

Burnout from a DE&I Lens:  

  • 57% of women in tech feel burned out at work this year, compared to 36% of men (Source)

What are the different types of employee burnout?

The signs of burnout may not be obvious, and it often looks different depending on the employee. However, psychologists and professionals in behavioral science have seen trends in different types of burnout that can be summed up in three main categories.

Frenetic Burnout:

This employee continues working frantically, jeopardizing their own wellbeing and prioritizing work demands even when they are overloaded or exhausted.  

“The frenetic burnout type works increasingly harder, to the point of exhaustion, in search of success, and presents involvement, ambition and overload.” (source)

Under-challenged Burnout:

This employee is generally lacking learning t opportunities and feel unstimulated by their workplace environment. Because of this, they tend to build distance from work or are disengaged from their workplaces.  

“absence of personal growth experiences for individuals together with their desire to take on other jobs where they can better develop their skills and is markedly associated with cynicism” (source)

Worn-Out Burnout:

This employee feels a lack of motivation that they previously had in the workplace and behaves in a passive way . This type of burnout is associated with “neglect” or being avoidant of difficulty due to exhaustion.

“‘neglect’ refers to individuals’ disregard as a response to any difficulty and is strongly associated with inefficacy” (source)

Why do people burnout?

Just as burnout looks different depending on the employee, the reasons why people burnout can vary as well. Here are some of the most common reasons for burnout:  

  • Lack of control over work
  • Unclear or unexpected job expectations
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Extremes of an activity
  • Lack of social support  
  • Work-life imbalance
  • Time pressure  
  • Workload pressure  
  • Lack of growth opportunity  
  • Unclear communication between managers and employees

Read more about each of these causes and how to address them here.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

It is important to keep an eye out for symptoms of burnout so it can be addressed proactively rather than reactively. Here are some of the most common symptoms of burnout that employees face:  

  • Fatigue  
  • Isolation  
  • Irritability
  • Escapism  
  • Illness  
  • Exhaustion  
  • Reduced performance  
  • Alienation

(Learn more about these symptoms here)

What are the stages of burnout?

There are 12 stages of burnout as developed by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. These are:  

  • Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition)
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting own needs
  • Displacement of conflicts and needs
  • No longer any time for non-work-related needs
  • Increasing denial of the problem, decreasing flexibility of thought/behavior
  • Withdrawal, lack of direction, cynicism
  • Behavioral changes/psychological reactions
  • Depersonalization: loss of contact with self and own needs
  • Inner emptiness, anxiety, addictive behavior
  • Increasing feeling of meaninglessness and lack of interest
  • Physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening

How can you identify burnout proactively?

If people leaders can identify which of the stages of burnout employees fall under, they can better triage their response to burnout and be more successful in preventing it.  

The most sustainable way of doing this is have more frequent wellbeing focused check-ins. That’s why we built mello, the new standard for assessing, addressing and actioning on employee burnout. mello is slack integrated and meets your employees where they are (learn more here and try mello for free).

How do you support employees facing burnout?

At mello, we’ve identified 2 types of support employees might benefit from when facing burnout: internal and external. Internal support refers to the best practices businesses can adopt to ensure their teams are happy, healthy, and productive. External support refers to EAPs, wellbeing programs, suggestions of external resources that employees can access outside of work to help with their work-life engagement.  

Internal support may include:

  • Flexible breaks  
  • Re-prioritization of workload
  • Socials  
  • Mental health days  
  • Health insurance covering mental health and self-help apps/tools  
  • Free access to counselling  
  • Culture of check ins  
  • Over communication of responsibilities
  • Offering support to families  

External support may include:

  • Self-help  
  • Apps
  • Books
  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Meditation  
  • Journaling (Guided and unstructured)
  • Sleep help
  • Calming activities  
  • Professional Help  
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)  
  • DBT  
  • Psychological help  
  • Counselling sessions

Final Thoughts

At mello, we are constantly conducting research and learning more about workplace wellbeing and burnout prevention. To learn more about how mello can help both leaders and employees identify and address burnout feel free to get in touch with one of our wellbeing specialists or try our slack integrated product free here.

Arisa Mohiuddin
October 22, 2021
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