Employee burnout: The what, the why, and how to manage it


We’ve all been there: everyone who has ever been employed has had a bad day, or even a stretch of them. And as responsible adults do—or so we’ve been told—we move through it, beyond it, and forge ahead. Keep calm and carry on, as they say.

But what happens when the days turn into weeks or even months and years? What if the stresses that arise between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. start to affect other areas of your life? What if keeping calm so you can carry on is becoming increasingly difficult or altogether impossible?

According to Forbes, the pandemic has driven employee burnout to significant levels, with over 70% of employees admitting to experiencing extreme physical and emotional exhaustion and feeling that their employers are not doing enough to address it.

What is it?

Burnout, once referred to as a “stress syndrome,” was recently redefined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) to “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s categorized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

The WHO reiterated that this syndrome specifically relates to occupational phenomena and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of the individual’s life.

Why is it?

Employee burnout does not happen overnight and is often the result of several factors, including feeling a lack of control in your job or over your schedule or workload, and even the inability to advance within the company. Unclear job expectations could also be a contributing factor. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics, for example, your boss micromanaging your work or your colleagues undermining you, can add to the pile. Maybe the environment is one that seems to focus on penalizing mistakes rather than rewarding jobs well done, resulting in fear-driven productivity.

To further compound this stress is the perception that you must also be a team player: chin up, smile, don’t bring everyone down, and don’t be the weak link. The term “toxic positivity” has been popping up everywhere lately, and while I generally hate trendy buzzwords, I happen to agree with this one: insisting employees put a positive spin on every situation because “no bad vibes allowed” does nothing more than create a staff of Stepford folk who are afraid to ask for help or admit that they might need a break.

The warning signs

How can you tell if you’re experiencing burnout? The Mayo Clinic suggests that you start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better (or to simply not feel)?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may be experiencing burnout. However, the Mayo Clinic adds that talking to a doctor or a mental health professional would also be a good idea because these symptoms could be an indication of other health conditions.

Regardless of whether these symptoms are related to employee burnout, extended episodes of untreated stress may lead to other long-term problems, including poor physical health, clinical depression, or self-medication with alcohol and other substances. And so far as the effect on the workplace, these episodes can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, elevated risk of mistakes and accidents, poor morale, and an upsurge in turnover.

What you can do as an employee

If you suspect that you are struggling with employee burnout, there are steps you can take to gain some control. Once again, I turn to the Mayo Clinic, which makes the following suggestions:

  • Evaluate your options. Schedule time to discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Perhaps there are ways to re-prioritize or even delegate certain tasks, or maybe compromises can be arranged.
  • Seek support. Reaching out to co-workers, friends, or family can provide a wealth of support. They might not be aware that you’re having difficulty bearing the load on your own. By letting them know what you’re going through, you may find solutions that you otherwise wouldn’t have considered.
  • Get some exercise. Regular exercise is certainly good for us long term, but even taking a short walk when you start to feel anxious or overwhelmed can have an immediate positive impact.
  • Get some sleep. (I mean, if possible.) Sleep is a crucial component in our overall well-being, not only mentally, but physically as well.
  • Practice mindfulness. The Mayo Clinic’s definition of this last point is “the act of focusing on your breath flow and being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgement.”
  • Focus on the task at hand. A great deal of stress and anxiety come from concern about situations that either happened in the past or that have yet to happen (“Did I mess up in that meeting?” or “That report is due tomorrow, I need to wrap it up as soon as I finish”). Dealing with one responsibility at a time will shut out all that “what if?” noise, allowing you to be better equipped to carry out the job at hand. While multitasking is often revered in the workplace, it’s okay to have limits, and downright enlightened to know what they are.

Overall, asking for help, taking care of yourself, and establishing boundaries will help ease the effects of employee burnout.

What you can do as an employer

When it comes to employee burnout, being proactive is the way to go. Forbes suggests the following 4-step action plan:

  • Foster a healthy workplace culture. Taking into consideration the aforementioned sources of employee burnout, this step could involve anything from actively mitigating overwhelming workloads, to periodically revisiting office policies to create more flexibility for your employees, or even something as obvious as encouraging employees to use their earned vacation days. While workplace and employee situations vary, company leaders need to be on the lookout for employees who are nearing burnout.
  • Embrace a culture of emotion. This point ties back to my earlier mention of toxic positivity: insisting on positive emotions only can be detrimental to your staff and their productivity. Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing how they feel or what concerns them can have an impact on their performance, decision-making, creativity, and overall commitment to the company, which can only be beneficial in the end.
  • Take care of your employees. Workplace burnout is compounded by external stressors like financial problems, difficulties within their families or relationships, social disadvantages, bereavement, or personal health issues. Making sure that supportive resources are available to your employees can be a tremendous help. These include benefits, mental health programs, and accessibility to telehealth options. Some companies are even offering pet sitting and grocery delivery services to their employees.
  • Ditch the “9 to 5” work schedule. Many companies are beginning to recognize that traditional working hours don’t necessarily serve each employee. While giving your entire staff carte blanche for scheduling might be a recipe for chaos, offering more flexible schedules might appeal to some as a way to better balance their work and their life. Another possible option: periodic “meeting-free days” or even just afternoons when your staff will know to expect an uninterrupted stretch where the focus can be on job completion.

The takeaway

Remember that your employees are human, that everyone has their limits, and that sometimes life makes it impossible to “leave it at the door” when employees enter the office. Support your staff, and they will in turn support the company.

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