Nov 17th 2020

5 tips to help you spot burnout in your team — and beat it

Workplace burnout happens everywhere. People want to strive to do their best and deliver, but that can sometimes come at a detriment to their personal health. The important thing as an employer is to recognise it in your team members and to know how to put a stop to it. 

We recently partnered up with Spill, an all-in-one mental health support platform that operates through Slack, to write this blog to help employers prevent burnout in their teams. 

Here are 5 top tips taken from our talks with Spill on burnout and how to beat it:

Understand what burnout is (and what it’s not)

Burnout is generally defined as the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness. 

Its root cause is psychological, centering on our goals and our expectations. 

Will Allen-Mersh, Partner at Spill says, “Burnout is fundamentally about how healthy our relationship is with what we do for a living.”

As for its impact, burnout is a perfect storm which is increasingly devastating UK workplaces. In fact, 43% of all sick days in the UK are currently attributed to burnout which leads to a productivity loss of £5bn per year.

Many people think that the main cause of burnout is a heavy workload. But this is actually incorrect, it’s more about how that workload is managed. This is also the case with depression and tiredness, and whilst the symptoms do overlap, burnout is different.

Let’s take a look at the sense of exhaustion we feel after running a marathon or painting our living room. Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen points out that the exhaustion felt from these activities are very different from the exhaustion felt from burnout. 

“The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety which cannot be silenced.” 

Put simply, when you’re burnt out, everything feels unwinnable. But burnout is not just a necessary byproduct of running a business – it is completely avoidable. When both the employees and employers understand what burnout is, they can be ready to spot it when it starts happening and take action against it. This way you will see happier and more fulfilled employees and a more effective business. 

Catch burnout early

Sherrie Bourg Carter, a psychologist explains that “You don’t wake up one morning and all of a sudden ‘have burnout.’ Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak … which means that the earlier you recognize the signs, the better able you will be to avoid burnout.” 

The order in which burnout symptoms — exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness — manifest will differ from person to person. However, negativity can often be the easiest to identify at an early stage. 

The following exercise will help you spot any red flags in your employees however developed the burnout may be.

Ask yourself:

  • Do they seem more irritable?
  • Do they see the worst in everything that happens or is suggested? 
  • Are they quick to shoot down other people’s ideas?
  • Does every piece of work you give them feel like a burden?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, it’s worth doing a more thorough stock-take of the other symptoms of burnout:

  • Do they seem to be regularly exhausted? 
  • Do small tasks at work feel insurmountable? 
  • Are they dropping the ball at work that they usually wouldn’t? 
  • Are they producing fewer ideas or are they slow to respond?

If you think your employees might be experiencing burnout and you want them to have access to a more comprehensive health check, try taking Spill’s one-minute burnout symptoms test.

Practice burnout first aid: take time off

If you have caught the signs of burnout in your employees, then the first step is to give them time off to recover. Think of this as first aid for burnout. We’ll talk about the longer-term recovery next. 

It’s important they take time for themselves sooner rather than later, not least because prolonged burnout can easily turn into depression. What’s more, to make their time off as restorative as possible, encourage them to spend time with those closest to them and highlight the importance of outdoor exercising, playing games, or learning something new. You could even offer them workshops on meditation or mindfulness. 

However, taking time off is often easier said than done. Fear and worry too often stop people from taking a break. If you manage an employee who needs time off, there are a few ways you can help put their mind at rest. 

Firstly, to help dispel anxiety around taking this time off, make sure managers are setting a good example by taking time off themselves. You might want to establish a minimum quarterly holiday allowance, too. 

Secondly, to ease potential FOMO, make sure that work progress and socials are shared on Slack, and offer to check in on them via text or WhatsApp during their time off. 

Finally, employees often fear the knock-on effects of their colleagues being off work. To offer reassurance here, push back on work where possible, and communicate a clear plan for how the work will get done without causing unnecessary stress for others.

Make changes to their work-life

The aim of taking time off is to return to a state of mind where people can then productively address the root causes of burnout. Once they’re back at their desk, it’s important to consider what it was, psychologically, that created this burnout in the first place. Once you have both identified this together, you should both agree on the next steps in making changes to their work-life to prevent this from happening again. 

So why might work feel ‘unwinnable’’? Below are some common psychological reasons:

  • Their goals and targets feel genuinely unachievable
  • The goalposts for success keep moving
  • They don’t have enough autonomy
  • They don’t feel like they’re mastering new skills
  • Rewards, recognition, and workload feel unevenly distributed
  • The work culture feels competitive or unsupportive
  • The requirements of their job don’t fit with their personality and strengths
  • The requirements of their job don’t fit with their values and dreams

A useful exercise is to get your employees to go through each of these reasons and mark whether they would disagree, agree, or strongly agree with each of them. Next, address any statements with which they ‘strongly agreed’. 

You can make a number of changes at an employee-manager level which can make these issues manageable. For example, if they don’t feel they have enough autonomy, why not explore co-operative goal setting? If they feel there’s a mismatch between the job requirements and their strengths, it might be time to find a new role that is better suited for them. Why not get them to chat with their co-workers in different roles to get an idea of what they are looking for and what role would be a good fit. 

Burnout-proof your workplace

In order to create a work culture where burnout is rare and engagement is high, the key is to make it possible for all employees to feel like they’re making meaningful progress towards valued goals. That’s no small task, and likely won’t be achieved with one-off interventions like training sessions or away days. 

However, the good news is that it doesn’t call for big-budget interventions either. To tackle the root cause of burnouts, the key is to adopt small, fixed habits. Then, when you consistently apply these at a company-wide level, they will generate happier, more productive workplaces. 

Let’s take just one of the causes of burnout – the idea of unachievable targets. Below are a couple of small changes you can start making today to prevent this problem.

  • Make it okay to flag when they feel overstretched, and get your team leaders to be role models for this. 
  • Praise under-promising and over-delivering, and encourage people to be clearer about their boundaries.
  • Be aware of your team’s diaries and therefore what are realistic goals for everyone, making sure you build holiday time into execution plans.
  • Encourage people to turn off email/Slack notifications, and try ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’ or something similar where they can really get heads down on the task at hand. 

There are small but meaningful changes your company can make today to prevent each of the causes of burnout and create a highly engaged working culture. To learn more about how to burnout-proof your workplace, check out Spill’s guide to preventing burnout.