How to talk about burnout at work to better protect your people and organisation
Attempts to prevent staff burnout at work often fall at the first hurdle: getting employees to talk about it. There's still a taboo about admitting to feeling stressed or burnt out. But when people are forced to conceal their struggles, workplace burnout can be a silent killer.
The cost of burnout
Burnout can wreak havoc on a person's physical and mental health. Prolonged stress erodes the immune system and increases the risk of heart disease and other conditions. And trying to treat the mental health impacts with a bit of paid time off is too little too late. And can actually exacerbate the problem.
Unless you take action, burnout will drive people out of your business. To prevent that happening, management and HR have a responsibility to check in with employees and discuss burnout in the workplace.
Aside from its impact on individuals, the cost of burnout is astronomical. It costs US businesses between $125 billion and $190 billion a year. In the UK, nearly 60% of employees feel burned out by work. It cost British businesses £26 billion in mental health and work-related stress costs. And a further £9 billion to transition 460,000 employees from work onto sickness and disability benefits. And those are just the traceable, direct costs. Given how stress and poor mental health damage engagement and productivity, it's likely that the true price of employee burnout is even higher.
How to talk about burnout at work as an employee
Telling your boss that you're struggling can be extremely nerve-wracking. Especially if they don’t actively encourage open discussion about these things, and you’re not sure how they’ll react. So, we don’t blame you for not knowing how to tell your boss how you feel.
But secondly, we want to remind you that seeking support for your burnout is not an overreaction. Surprisingly, burnout has not been classified as a medical condition in and of itself. However, the World Health Organisation has classified it as a legitimate occupational phenomenon and a clearly defined symptom of unmitigated job stress. People aren’t robots. Job stress will wear you down.
It’s easy to assume that your boss doesn’t care about your stress, and is uninterested in talking about burnout at work. But it’s quite possible they just haven’t picked up on it, especially if they seem really busy. In a good workplace culture, you should be able to trust your manager to have your best interests at heart.
You need to be able to talk to your line manager about these issues, but if that’s too daunting, work up to it. If you’re experiencing burnout, then in all likelihood, others are too. Work friends can offer a sympathetic ear and can be used as a practice run before you talk to your boss.
When you do talk to your manager, it’s important to think about solutions, not just talk about the things contributing to your burnout. Those might be taking a mental health day, having better defined responsibilities or re-shuffling them, or even working from home a couple of days a week to give you back some control.
How to talk about burnout at work as a manager
If you’re a well-meaning manager, you might be a little confused as to why talking about burnout at work with your employees is so difficult. After all, you’re just trying to help them, right?
Well, try to understand. As a manager, to employees, you’re basically a living distillation of the company, its ethos and its goals. You’re the person who decides if they have the right stuff to advance in the organisation, and they’re worried about seeming whiny or fragile, which could mess with their career plans.
This is a classic example of how employees can have difficulty trusting their manager. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to building a trusting relationship. This means starting a dialogue. And not just about burnout, but one that personally engaged with your team members as people. That's the only way to prove employees can trust you with honesty about their workplace wellbeing.
Then you can use that dialogue to normalise talking about job stress and burnout. As a manager, one of the most normalising things you can do is to lead by example. Talk about your own difficulties, that you know you’re not the only one experiencing them, and show an interest in finding solutions for everyone.
How you react when an employee opens up to you is very important. If you respond with disbelief or contempt, chances are that they’ll never talk to you about these issues again. It’s good to ask questions, but make sure they’re exploratory, not accusatory, with a focus on establishing your employee’s needs.
Spotting the signs of your own burnout
Whether you’re an employee, a middle manager, or the founder and CEO of the whole company, anyone is susceptible to burnout. In a survey by Deloitte of 1,000 people, 77% of respondents said they had experienced burnout in their current job, and 91% say they have unmanageable amounts of stress and frustration.
It might seem like a given that you’d pick up on your own burnout, but you’d be surprised how well some people ignore it. You might be burning out due to stress if:
- You often feel tired or drained.
- You’re more irritable/short-tempered than usual.
- You feel cynical and negative.
- You feel trapped or isolated.
- You’re finding it difficult to focus.
- You feel overwhelmed.
If you want to catch these things early, it’s important to be able to self-reflect. Have you been feeling worse? Is your work suffering? What’s different now compared to what you see as your “normal”?
Journaling can be a great way to get thoughts out of your head, and it gives you something concrete to look back on. But you could also try talking to your colleagues. If you’ve been at risk of burnout, there’s a good chance people might have noticed and not said anything out of politeness. Sometimes, it’s as simple as taking some time off and seeing if the release of pressure makes you feel better.
The causes of remote work employee burnout
Different jobs can be stressful for all sorts of reasons. But when it comes to remote workers specifically, there are some common problems that can affect wellbeing. One of the most common issues experienced by hybrid worker is a decline in work/life balance.
Remote working should improve the amount of control we have over our professional and personal lives. But a survey found that four out of five HR managers believe that remote work is encouraging "presenteeism". It also found 86% felt they needed to prove to bosses they are working hard and deserve to keep their jobs. A poll commissioned by the hotel brand Novotel found that almost a third of staff said it was more difficult to switch off from work. And a quarter report working longer hours from home.
Another aspect of remote work that contributes to burnout is the sense of isolation. According to Novotel's survey, almost half of respondents reported missing the social interaction normally involved in their jobs. And a third admitted that they struggle to motivate themselves away from the office. Aside from the toll that loneliness takes on our mental health, feeling isolated from your colleagues impacts productivity. That's because it's harder to feel like part of a team working towards mutual goals.
What are the signs of burnout in my team?
If you’re a manager, then you have a broad duty of care to the employees in your charge. This means talking about burnout at work and trying to prevent it are your responsibilities.
Unfortunately, as we’ve established, employees can be understandably reluctant to talk about their difficulties with job stress. You need to have the emotional intelligence to see when someone is struggling. So, the signs you need to watch out for include:
- Their work quality suddenly declining.
- People becoming socially isolated.
- Sudden or unusual absenteeism.
- Protracted and unhealthy presenteeism
- Cynicism and negativity.
- Poor physical wellbeing.
Left unchecked, stress and burnout only get worse. Burnout especially can have a lasting impact on someone’s personal wellbeing, so it’s vital to focus on burnout prevention, rather than just treating its symptoms.
Predict burnout and act on it to prevent long-term damage
Staff at online dating app Bumble were working full-tilt for a good year and a half. Inevitably, its employees started to feel the burn. This is what spurred the company’s founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, to grant all 700 of her staff a week of paid holiday with no obligation to be accessible online. The sole exception was a team of support staff to keep the service running. But they were reported to be guaranteed an identical break once the others come back.
When done pre-emptively, this is a great example of how to prevent employee burnout. But when burnout progresses too far, it can take employees more than a few days off to bounce back. And, according to one executive, it sounds like Mrs Wolfe Herd made her move at just the right time. According to them, she ‘...correctly intuited our collective burnout.’
How to prevent employee burnout, whenever or wherever they work
Trust your employees to work autonomously
We can't stress enough just how important it is to have trust in the workplace. High-trust workplaces are happier and more productive, and that applies when the workplace is technically your living room too.
Micromanagement is frustrating at the best of times, and can often be the sign of an unconfident boss. Software that tracks clicks, mouse movements, and time spent on different apps are popular. But boy do they smack of distrust! They're often a source of undue stress rather than a motivator.
Encourage staff to step away from their work
A major source of work from home burnout is when employees feel compelled to stay at their desks after hours. It's still important to know when to stop. Given that remote employees are racking up almost thirty extra hours overtime a month, check in and make sure your team members finish when they're supposed to.
Keep your team members socially connected
Your employees probably miss getting to catch up with their colleagues, and this lack of connection will impact the work they do. So as a manager, it's in your best interest to keep them interacting with each other. Firing up Microsoft Teams for a regular video stand-up can go a long way towards keeping everyone connected. Aside from enabling you all to stay aligned goals-wise, video calls also give people a chance to emulate face-to-face conversation.
Prioritise good mental health practices
The last few years have taken a toll on everyone's mental health. Supporting your staff's mental wellbeing is absolutely essential for preventing remote work employee burnout. That's why good managers need to be emotionally intelligent, despite EQ being a so-called soft skill.
Establish good mental health practices. Prevent remote work burnout by providing access to educational resources. Support struggling employees and give staff the flexibility to work around appointments or family life. Mental health stigma is still prevalent, so it's essential for managers to lead the charge.
Managing remote, flexi or hybrid teams? Grab a copy of our latest best practice guide: Employee Engagement in a Remote Working World to better support their mental health. Download your copy here