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To know how to manage employee burnout, you must first know how to recognise the signs of burnout. Burnout is not a diagnosable mental health condition, though the World Health Organisation does recognise it as a syndrome in its own right.
Burnout is also not depression, even if many burnout symptoms overlap with those of depression, because burnout is only caused by factors to do with a person’s relationship with their work. Most notably, burnout is not just being a bit tired (or even very tired) as a result of normal everyday workplace stress. Burnout is something that affects people at the level of their identity and self-worth too.
The three symptoms of burnout
It can sometimes be challenging to identify the signs your employee is burnt out. Basically, if someone on your team (let’s call him Tom) is struggling with burnout, his work will feel to him both arduous and unimportant. Every working day, Tom will feel irritable, tired, cynical, short-tempered, slow, and about as sharp as a broken pencil. He'll look around at people and fail to understand why they look so animated. Everything will seem far, far away. He'll feel sad, indeed crushed, as if something critical and very deep inside him had simply... given up. In so far as he can think at all, he'll think "what's the point" and "I can't do this" and he will feel, because he'll be, broken.
Burnout is to humans what sand is to gears. If it doesn't bring the whole system to a halt, it will noticeably decrease its performance, and will introduce so much friction that carrying on gets more and more difficult as time goes on.
The three main symptoms of workplace burnout
The main burnout symptoms are characterised by the World Health Organisation’s 2019 definition:
When you feel tired, unfocused and lacking in energy a lot of the time. Other people might notice that you seem quieter, slower, or more withdrawn.
When you feel downbeat, cynical and hopeless about your job and work prospects. Other people might notice that you’re quick to see the worst in things or seem more self-critical than usual.
When you feel like you’re not getting much work done, or the quality of your work is lower than usual, even though you’re trying your best. Other people might notice that you’re dropping the ball at work more than usual, you’re missing things you usually wouldn’t, or the quality and speed of your work has dropped dramatically.
In short, while employee burnout is causing Tom to feel exhausted, hopeless, and overwhelmed, others will see him as lethargic, cynical, and stupider than before. His team will feel confused, worried, irritated, inconvenienced, and eventually demoralised.
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Early signs of burnout
The order in which people experience the three symptoms of burnout varies; some people first become cynical, while others start by noticing they are unusually exhausted. So whilst no one symptom acts as the canary in the coal mine, warning us that more severe burnout might be on its way, what we can try to spot early on are early indicators of any of the three symptoms. The best way to look for these early burnout symptoms is by paying careful attention to what employees are saying, how they’re behaving, and any other clues you can pick up from their body language or demeanour.
Signs of burnout in the workplace can be expressed verbally. It’s worth watching out for the kind of phrases you might hear people say, either in passing or in one-to-ones. These phrases are typical of someone going through burnout at work. You might also spot some behavioural changes — being slower to spot a problem or respond to a question than usual — as well as a general shift in demeanour, seeming more downbeat or withdrawn. Here’s some more detail on early warning signs to look out for.
Catch the signs of burnout early with Spill's weekly team check-in feature. Treat burnout before it requires time off by giving employees access to sessions with burnout specialists.
Burnout symptoms vs. depression symptoms
Employee burnout is commonly confused with regular emotional exhaustion and depression, which have overlapping symptoms but are characterised by some key differences. One of the critical factors distinguishing burnout from other types of poor mental health is that it can only be caused by work — not by genetic factors or by broader life events. (For more detail, read ‘What is burnout? A guide for employers’)
- Regular emotional exhaustion is often the result of overstretching oneself in both work and life: trying to juggle too many things at once. Its common symptoms include extreme tiredness, irritability, a lack of concentration and a lack of interest in everyday activities.
- Depression is a medical condition that often includes the symptoms of burnout (exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness), but can also include more general low self-esteem and, at its worst, suicidal ideation. Unlike burnout (which is caused primarily by work-related factors), depression can be triggered by life events (such as bereavement, losing your job or giving birth), influenced by your genetics, or can sometimes happen for no reason at all.
If an employee mentions to you that they’re feeling unusually exhausted, here are some questions to ask them that may help distinguish if this is specifically caused by work (as burnout is) or if this is down to wider external factors (as emotional exhaustion and depression usually are):
- Have you felt over-stretched both in and outside of work recently? Are you trying to juggle a busy job with lots of social activities, hobbies or commitments like childcare, etc?
- Do you often feel exhausted, irritable, and find it hard to concentrate — but can still get work done and still feel like you are good at your job?
- If you feel downbeat and cynical, is this mainly about your job and your ability to do the work — or does this cynicism extend to other areas of your life, like your ability to be a good friend or partner, or your ability to enjoy hobbies and social events?
Burnout symptoms test
So how can you diagnose burnout? Because burnout isn’t a medical condition, there’s no official ‘yes or no’ medical diagnosis. It’s not like being able to get an X-ray and objectively tell whether you’ve broken your arm. As with so much of mental health, burnout exists along a spectrum. So instead of “do I or don’t I have burnout?”, it’s a case of noticing the signs of burnout and asking “how severe are my symptoms of burnout?”.
In lieu of an official medical test, the Maslach Burnout Inventory is the most widely used tool for assessing burnout severity. It was created by Christina Maslach, who’s probably the world’s leading expert in the psychology of burnout, in 1981 and variants of it have been used widely ever since.
The theory behind the Maslach test is that the frequency, recency and severity of the three burnout symptoms are the best indicator of burnout risk. If someone has been feeling very exhausted, very cynical and very ineffective — very often and very recently — then their risk of burnout is extremely high.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory
The MBI involves asking people to answer how often they would agree with statements such as:
- I am chronically tired and often wake up exhausted
- I feel hopeless at work
- I feel that I am achieving less than I should
New research by Christina Maslach in 2016 found that the severity of a person’s three burnout symptoms can be used to place them on a scale of five ‘profiles’ of how work can be experienced:
We’ve condensed the Maslach Burnout Inventory down to three key questions for a quicker and easier version. This 30-second online test for burnout helps anyone self-assess their burnout risk and can be used to get a quick read on whether one of your employees is likely to be struggling with burnout.
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