How to talk about burnout at work to better protect your people and organisation
Updated 12th November 2022
We recently posted an article on how to protect employees from burnout. But attempts to curb staff burnout often fall at the first hurdle: Getting employees talking about burnout at work in the first place. It’s not uncommon for there to be a taboo in professional cultures around admitting to stress and burnout. But when people are forced to conceal their struggles, workplace burnout can be a silent killer.
Even if someone doesn't drop dead from burnout, it can wreak havoc on their 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 PTO is too little too late.
Unless you take action, burnout will drive people out of your business. If it's bad enough, it may even alienate them from your industry altogether. To prevent that happening, management and HR have a responsibility to check in with employees and discuss burnout in the workplace.
How to talk about burnout at work as an employee
Firstly, you have our sympathy. Opening up about your difficulties at work can be extremely nerve-wracking, especially if your employer doesn’t actively encourage a dialogue 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 you’re struggling.
But secondly, we want to remind you that seeking support for your burnout is NOT an overreaction. While burnout has yet to be classified as a medical condition in and of itself, 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, and 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.
It can be difficult to open up about these things, but when you do talk to your manager, it’s important to not just talk about the things contributing to your burnout, but to also have an idea of possible solutions. Those might be taking a mental health day, a re-shuffling of work responsibilities, 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.
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.