Skip to content

Employee Burnout: Overcoming the Pandemic Wall

Managing employee burnout should always be a top priority for any organization. With the pandemic affecting people and organizations in unexpected ways, burnout has become even more of an issue. Employee burnout, a feeling of exhaustion, resentment, or cynicism toward work, often manifests as a lack of motivation or a feeling of dread. The Harvard Business Review explains the cause of burnout simply by saying “burnout occurs when the demands people face on the job outstrip the resources they have to meet them.” Today, three out of every four employees have experienced burnout in their job and one out of every four is planning to leave their job once the pandemic passes. 

Employee burnout is a complex issue that doesn’t always have an easy answer. But there are strategies to help manage it. Understanding common causes of burnout, learning to recognize the signs, and implementing preventative care are all ways to combat employee burnout.

Understanding the Causes of Employee Burnout

The past year has been an anomalous situation for organizations that will have long-lasting effects on business and employee interactions for years to come. While a pandemic by itself is enough to cause stress, one of the major ways it can affect employees is by accentuating the factors that have been causing burnout for years. Here are some common causes of burnout.

1. Misalignment of job expectations and the reality

Misaligned expectations are a leading cause of employee burnout. It can lead to several issues for employees, including an unmanageable workload and the feeling of a lack of support. Often as new tasks come up an employee will take them on at the request of a manager for fear of saying no. This can lead to another issue: a misunderstanding of job responsibilities. If on-the-job expectations are different from what an employee believes was communicated to them when they accepted the role, they can harbor resentment leading to burnout. COVID-19 has accentuated these issues as extra sick time for some employees leads to more work for others and the virtual workspace has been an adjustment for everyone.

To prevent these issues create clearly outlined responsibilities for all employees. Whenever new responsibilities are added, managers and employees alike need to understand how the responsibilities will fit into an employee’s schedule. As absent employees’ responsibilities are redistributed, divide work evenly and in a way that is manageable for everyone.

2. Bad team chemistry

Team chemistry is important. While misaligned expectations lead to the most burnout, working with other people causes the most stress – 92% in fact. A negative work dynamic will hurt both team and individual productivity. If employees have to spend extra mental and emotional energy to deal with team members it leaves them with less energy to deal with other responsibilities. Evaluate how team members work together – adjust teams and use good conflict resolution techniques as needed.

At first glance, team chemistry would seem to have a smaller footprint in a virtual workspace. Yet teams are still working together. Don’t assume that teams that worked well in person will continue to do so virtually and go out of your way to provide opportunities for chemistry to develop.

3. External factors

Sometimes burnout can happen due to factors outside of an organization. Dealing with an ill family member, a new baby, or even something like searching for a new place to live can all add stress to the workplace for employees. Many of these stresses can be short-term (which means they won’t develop into burnout) and as they aren’t always related to the job, may not have as much of an effect as stressors related directly to the job. Still, there are situations where these external factors develop into on-the-job burnout.

Organizations are always limited in how they can impact external stressors, but it’s important to be aware that they exist, and if an employee shares a situation with you, providing flexibility within the job can go a long way with employees. Of course, the pandemic has provided the ultimate external stressor, not only from the way it has impacted how work is conducted but also how individuals live their day-to-day lives.

While these are some of the top factors for employee burnout, there are many others. No matter what’s causing employee burnout, if you can recognize and deal with it before it reaches its peak you’ll not only be more likely to retain your employees but build loyalty and trust with them.

How to Spot Employee Burnout & What to Do When You Recognize it

Employee burnout can be difficult to spot, primarily because it looks the same as an unproductive employee. A burnt-out employee is disengaged and unmotivated, which is reflected in the quality of their work. Pay particular attention if a normally exemplar employee suddenly produces less or not as high-quality work. Here are some signs to look for:

1. Decreased levels of engagement

To spot employee burnout, you need to be familiar with your employees and how they operate. Some employees will naturally be more outspoken than others. Other employees are better at recognizing issues and taking the initiative to solve them. Constantly evaluate employees and look for any decreases in their normal levels of engagement. This could be an indicator of extra stress, a lack of focus, or being overworked, which can all lead to burnout.

2. Increase in missed workdays

Life happens, and employees should be encouraged to use their sick days and paid time off. However, time away can be a way to cope when an employee feels overwhelmed at work. While it could be external factors versus job stressors that are leading to the time off, keep in mind that external factors can still lead to issues on the job. Check-in regularly with employees about their workload and stress levels.

3. Late or missed tasks and assignments

Any signs of a decreased quality of work should be a red flag for managers. Assignments that are consistently completed late or missing can be an indicator that an employee is overwhelmed or simply disengaged and unmotivated.

With any of these issues, it is tempting for employers to sever ties with an employee. An employee that isn’t completing work or contributing to the organization puts managers in a difficult situation. However, as a first step, it is more beneficial to dig into what is going on with the employee versus immediately firing them. If it is a matter of the employee being overworked, a lack of clarity, or one of the many other reasons that lead to burnout then you may be parting with an individual that can still be a valuable member of your team.

Strategies for Preventing Employee Burnout

Ultimately, employee burnout is an organizational issue that manifests as decreased individual performance. Dealing with burnout after it has occurred can be difficult. If you don’t recognize the signs or if an employee has reached a level of cynicism toward the job, the relationship may be beyond repair. By implementing practices to prevent burnout, organizations can reduce the risk of burnout among their employees.

1. Foster communication between managers and employees

One of the biggest reasons burnout becomes unmanageable is a lack of communication. Employees often don’t feel comfortable communicating if they feel overworked or are uncomfortable turning down extra job assignments. By creating a culture where communication flows all ways and relationships are developed between managers and employees you open the door for an employee to speak up if something isn’t working for them. Being made aware of the problem is the first step in being able to address it. 

2. Schedule regular checkups

Having regular checkups with your employees is a good way to stay in sync with them. Discussing upcoming projects and tasks, building outlines and performance goals, and answering questions are all ways to not only prevent burnout but help your employees be more productive. Allow employees to discuss any issues or obstacles they are facing, and help them strategize how to overcome them. 

If you notice any signs of burnout, dig into it with the employee to see if it is burnout or another issue. When some employers sense an employee they want to retain is on the verge of burnout, they simply offer them a raise to try and keep them. While this may help, often it is a temporary band-aid. If you identify an employee dealing with burnout, it is important to identify the issue as well as what motivates them to create an effective resolution.

3. Adapt benefits as needed

COVID-19 shifted the way organizations operate. Along with that shift, employee needs have changed. This is why many organizations are adjusting the benefits packages they are offering. Tim Allen, the CEO of Care.com says “‘Work-life “balance’ has always been a lie. Work and life are not independent entities fighting for 50/50 equilibrium. They’re interconnected, and one affects the other.”

Benefits offered by businesses should help keep that interconnectedness operating as smoothly as possible. Increased mental health coverage, remote or hybrid work positions, and changes in child and senior care options are all benefits being considered by many large organizations. Having the right resources in place gives employees the tools needed to combat stressors that may come along.

It’s an uphill battle to climb, but to manage employee wellbeing and company culture, it is the organization’s responsibility to help limit and manage employee burnout. Preventing and dealing with burnout requires a comprehensive organizational plan and effort.

As you focus on managing employer burnout, HR professionals need to protect themselves as well. Read our tips on managing mental health for HR professionals.