Employee Burnout: Signs, Prevention, and Recovery

Learn how to spot the signs of burnout and build a healthier workplace.

Employee burnout is on the rise across many professions, with three-quarters of employees experiencing burnout at some point in their career, according to a recent Gallup survey.

Most employee experience, human resources (HR), and benefits professionals are aware of job burnout and the toll it can take on engagement, productivity, and retention, but finding solutions is complicated. Employees can only do so much to combat work burnout on their own; the rest is up to their employers.

In this guide, we’ll explore the signs of employee burnout and offer tips for employers on how to prevent employee burnout, so you can help your people feel better and more engaged.

What is employee burnout?

Job burnout is a type of work-related distress that is more intense and long-lasting than everyday stress or fatigue. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout in its International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual. The WHO now defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

This type of work burnout is on the rise. In a 2021 Indeed survey, 27 percent of employees said they were unable to unplug from work at the end of the day and 53 percent of remote workers reported working longer hours than they did when they were in the office.

Burnout is a workplace issue

Work fatigue—another term for burnout—is gaining recognition as a workplace issue, not an individual problem that employees can be expected to address on their own. “Burnout is an organizational issue,” said Joe Grasso, PhD, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra Health. “It’s caused by a number of different factors, many of which aren’t fully within an individual employee’s control. That’s why everyone at all levels of the organization owns some responsibility around preventing burnout at work and doing something to correct it when it shows up.”

Stress vs. burnout

These issues have similarities, but there is a difference between stress and burnout in the workplace. With stress, people feel overwhelmed by too many pressures and demands. In most stages of burnout, by contrast, people feel exhausted, unmotivated, and hopeless. Here is a snapshot of the differences between stress and burnout:

Stress
Comes and goes
Overreactive emotions
Develops quickly
Can imagine feeling better
Usually aware it’s happening
Burnout
Intense and long-lasting
Blunted emotions
Develops gradually
Feels hopeless
May be unaware it’s happening
Myth

A day off or vacation will cure burnout.

Fact

Paid time off is helpful—especially with easing stress and fatigue—but it is not enough on its own.

Why workplace burnout prevention matters

Work burnout can have severe consequences for both employees and employers. Taking steps to prevent employee burnout can help employees feel better and improve the bottom line for businesses.

Effects of burnout on employees

Workers are more concerned than ever about job burnout. In a survey by the Conference Board, 59 percent of employees named stress and burnout as their top concern for workplace well-being. Here are some of the effects of burnout on employees:

  • Physical health problems such as fatigue, insomnia, and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, substance use, and other issues
  • Sadness, anger, or irritability
  • Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Accidents or injuries
  • Financial troubles
  • Difficulty fulfilling responsibilities at work or home
  • Isolation from co-workers, family, or friends
  • Job dissatisfaction

Effects of burnout on employers

Job burnout poses major challenges for employers as well. Work fatigue costs 550 million work days in lost productivity and $190 billion in burnout-related health care costs, directly impacting employers’ bottom line. Annually, the costs of burnout to the United States economy total more than $500 billion.

Employees dealing with burnout are:

63%

more likely to take a sick day

23%

more likely to visit the emergency room

2.6x

more likely to be looking for a new job

Managing burnout boosts employee engagement, which is good for employees and good for business. Research shows more than half of employees aren’t engaged in their jobs, which contributes to higher turnover. The cost to replace an employee is high—up to two times their annual salary. By contrast, companies with highly engaged employees can reduce turnover costs by 24 to 32 percent of their annual payroll.

Find out how burnout is costing your company money—and what you can do about it.

Download the guide

Risk factors for burnout

MYTH

Weak employees are most prone to burnout.

FACT

Your most engaged, hard-working employees are at highest risk of burnout.

Contrary to common misconceptions, your top performers are at the highest risk of employee burnout. Here are some of the characteristics that make people particularly susceptible to burnout:

  • Ambitious, competitive, controlling, and perfectionistic personalities
  • Hard-working
  • High levels of engagement
  • Helping professionals, such as first responders and doctors, nurses, and mental health providers
  • Strong need for recognition
  • Tendency not to delegate tasks
  • Caregiver traits such as self-deprivation, compassion, and a strong sense of personal responsibility

Left unaddressed, work burnout can be contagious and spread through a workforce. Employees are more likely to face work fatigue if they’re around others who are burned out or work under conditions known to contribute to burnout. Since burnt-out employees are emotionally depleted, they can’t support their co-workers, which can have a ripple effect on the entire team.

Get tips for boosting employee engagement—without increasing the risk of burnout.

Read the blog

Causes of burnout

Myth

Burnout is a personal issue, so there isn’t much employers can do.

Fact

Burnout is an organizational issue that should be addressed by company leaders.

Job burnout is about the workplace, not just the employee. Many factors that contribute to burnout are within the employer’s control, not the individual employee’s. According to the Areas of Worklife model, the causes of burnout at work fall into six main categories:

1

Heavy workload

Productivity is essential for business success, but pursuing it at the cost of employee well-being can backfire. Employees’ workloads must match their capacity. Everyone needs adequate time to get their work done, take short breaks, and have opportunities for professional development.

When employees are expected to regularly work long hours or meet unreasonable demands, their health and well-being may suffer. People who work 55-plus hours per week have a 35 percent higher risk of stroke and a 17 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to people who work 40 hours or less, according to research by the WHO.

Some of the specific causes of burnout that fall under this category include:

  • Unrealistic or unclear expectations
  • Increasing responsibility
  • Lack of resources, such as staff, tools, or funding
  • Persistent time constraints that make it difficult to do quality work
  • Poor work-life balance
2

Perceived lack of control

It is empowering for employees to feel they can work independently, make decisions about their schedule and workload, and access resources they need to do their job. Some of the workplace challenges that interfere with this sense of control include:

  • Expectations to be available 24/7
  • Constantly shifting priorities
  • Lack of influence or opportunities to participate
  • Unclear expectations
  • Inadequate or unpredictable resources
  • Lack of clarity about roles
  • Lack of freedom to make decisions

Letting employees take ownership of as much of their work, environment, and schedule as possible can help with burnout prevention.

3

Reward

Jobs require a lot of time and energy, and your employees want to feel their efforts are worthwhile. Rewards can include raises and promotions, but other forms of validation—such as positive feedback, words of appreciation, and supervisor attention—can help too.

Consider whether the following issues impact your workplace:

  • Lack of perceived opportunities for promotion
  • Lack of tools to promote positive feedback
4

Community

A sense of community helps employees feel supported at work. Something as simple as asking how an employee is doing and listening to their answer can boost job satisfaction.

The following issues can make it difficult to build a sense of community at work:

  • Lack of collaboration or teamwork
  • Bullying
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of tools or channels to facilitate social support
5

Fairness

Biases that lead to unfair treatment can be another cause of employee burnout. For example, employees may feel they’re treated unfairly if their work routinely goes unnoticed or they aren’t offered similar resources as other employees without explanation.

These issues can contribute to a sense of unfairness:

  • Poor leadership
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Unjust or discriminatory policies
  • Favoritism
6

Values mismatch

Employees feel more intrinsically motivated when their values align with their employer’s. Companies that communicate their mission and values clearly may be more likely to attract and retain the right talent and prevent employee burnout.

The following issues may raise the risk of a values mismatch:

  • Frequently shifting values
  • Lack of transparency
  • Unethical behavior or lack of integrity
  • Unwillingness to listen to feedback and consider change
  • Monotonous or unchallenging work

These categories align with employee perspectives on the causes of burnout. In a Gallup survey of 7,500 employees, workers reported that the top causes of burnout are unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from their manager, and unreasonable time pressure. Many of these factors are best addressed at the leadership level, not the individual employee level.

Find out how you can enhance employee productivity while putting your people’s health and well-being first.

Visit the blog

Signs of burnout at work

Recognizing burnout symptoms is a critical first step toward managing burnout in the workplace. Work burnout signs fall into three main categories—exhaustion, mental distance or cynicism about work, and reduced professional efficacy (feeling unable to make the desired impact). Look out for these signs of employee burnout:

#1 Feeling exhausted or overwhelmed

When employees feel overloaded with stress, they can get locked in a state of being “always on.” This makes it hard to relax and sleep well, which can lead to fatigue. Managers may notice their employees having a hard time remembering, focusing, or having energy to get through the workday.

What your employee may feel:

“My job drains me. I think about it constantly, even in the middle of the night and on weekends. By the time I get to work, I’m already worn out.”

#2 Physical symptoms

Burnt-out employees are at higher risk of developing physical signs of job burnout such as fatigue, headaches or stomach aches, sleep disorders, and unhealthy weight gain, as well as mental health issues like depression and increased alcohol use. As a result, it can be difficult for workers to be as productive as usual.

What your employee may feel:

“I’ve been going at 100% for so long, I feel rundown. Even a simple cold knocks me out and I can’t seem to recover, so I end up taking more sick days than I used to.”

#3 Anger or irritability

Employees may no longer feel satisfied with work they once enjoyed, or stop feeling like the work they do matters. When under a lot of pressure, employees may have trouble getting along with others or be quick to anger.

What your employee may feel:

“My frustrations have piled up over the past few months. Now, even the littlest things annoy me. I feel like I might blow up at any time.”

#4 Cynicism

People may become disillusioned or highly critical of their working conditions or co-workers, or they may feel numb and “checked out.” Often, this is because they feel they can’t make a meaningful impact. Employees may mistakenly blame themselves for organizational problems, believing they lack the necessary abilities to succeed. Having a manager that doesn’t show appreciation can reinforce these feelings.

What your employee may feel:

“I’ve tried my hardest at work and it’s still not good enough. There’s no point in caring anymore. This place is never going to change.”

#5 Nervousness and uncertainty

Worry, tension, and feeling “on edge” are common work burnout symptoms. These feelings may be accompanied by physical employee burnout signs such as a racing heartbeat or tense muscles.

What your employee may feel:

“I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about all that’s on my plate. I dread coming to work.”

#6 Low motivation

Workers may seem disengaged or less productive than usual. It may become so hard to meet the challenges of the workday that employees show up late or stop coming to work.

What your employee may feel:

“​I want to make a bigger impact at work, but I can’t seem to make it happen. I feel deflated. My boss is frustrated. It’s getting harder to give it my all.”

#7 Sadness

When people aren’t able to devote time to life outside of work, they may feel their job doesn’t align with their personal values. As a result, they may feel sad, hopeless, numb, or withdrawn from friends, family, and co-workers.

Some work burnout signs overlap with depression. While work fatigue can increase the risk of depression, it’s important for employees to get an accurate diagnosis so they get the right treatment.

What your employee may feel:

“I really like my co-workers, but lately I just don’t feel up to interacting with anyone—even my friends and family. I’m too down in the dumps to be good company.”

#8 Difficulty concentrating

Employee burnout affects people’s ability to take in and retain information or recall it when needed. They may be easily distracted, which drives some people to work longer hours to make up for their lost productivity. This, in turn, fuels a cycle of burnout.

What your employee may feel:

“I still show up at work, but my head isn’t in the game. I forget important details and have a hard time staying focused, so I make mistakes. Then I get frustrated with myself.”

Learn more about the signs of burnout at work and what you can do to help.

Download our guide

Remote employees and work-from-home burnout

With more people working remotely, it can be harder for managers to spot job burnout signs. Yet remote workers, who tend to put in longer hours, are at high risk of burnout. Employers need to be on the lookout for work-from-home burnout signs, such as:

  • Reduced level of engagement or contribution
  • Being online or accessible beyond their usual working hours
  • Diminishing work quality or volume
  • Taking dramatically more or less sick days

Stages of burnout at work

Employee burnout is a process, not a single event. What starts as hard work and high engagement can become a progressively serious problem. Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have outlined 12 stages of burnout:

  1. Excessive ambition
  2. Working harder
  3. Neglecting personal needs like eating well and getting enough sleep
  4. Directing frustration toward the wrong person
  5. Not finding time for needs outside of work
  6. Denial of the problem
  7. Withdrawing from family or friends, or becoming cynical
  8. Behavioral changes, such as becoming unusually irritable
  9. Feeling disconnected from themselves and their needs
  10. Feeling empty or anxious
  11. Feeling disinterested, hopeless, or like life has no meaning
  12. Physical or mental exhaustion that may require treatment

It’s important to understand the stages of burnout at work and intervene as early as possible. Ignoring the problem can lead to bigger issues later on.

How to prevent burnout

Myth

Burnout only happens at unhealthy workplaces.

Fact

Burnout affects most companies.

Employees are increasingly looking to their employers for solutions to work fatigue, yet research shows most companies aren’t meeting this need. In a FlexJobs survey, only 21 percent of workers said they could talk with HR about the problem. The majority of employees (56 percent) said their HR departments didn’t encourage open conversations about work burnout. Here are a few tips on how to prevent burnout in the workplace:

Create a culture of wellness

“Since burnout is an organizational issue, we all have a role to play in preventing and addressing it,” said Grasso. “People leaders and managers have an especially big role to play because they’re holding the most cards around shaping company culture.”

It’s important to react to employee distress with empathy and care, but it’s equally important to create conditions in the workplace that reduce burnout. Ask yourself, “How can I make this a healthy environment for employees to come to every day?” Workplace burnout prevention strategies can help alleviate the sense of disconnection and anxiety your employees may be experiencing, and give them the resources they need to maintain their well-being. For example:

  • Ask employees how they’re feeling about their workload, resources, and career development
  • Encourage employees to voice concerns—without fear of reprimand or disciplinary action—if they’re feeling overworked or under-appreciated
  • Encourage managers to share their challenges with job burnout or work-life balance, so others feel comfortable speaking up as well
  • Provide role clarity, realistic job demands, career development opportunities, and adequate resources
  • Show empathy for the challenging circumstances employees are working in, which can help them feel heard and understood
  • Offer acknowledgement that focuses on effort and milestones not just outcomes, always connecting the employee’s contributions back to the company’s mission so their work feels meaningful
  • Be as transparent as possible by communicating often, explaining the rationale behind decisions, and offering employees the opportunity to provide feedback

“Managers don’t have to have all the answers,” said Grasso. “In fact, being vulnerable enough to admit that you don’t have all the answers, that you make mistakes, and that you sometimes need help too creates psychological safety. But the next step for a manager after that disclosure should be to identify and appeal to stakeholders in the organization who can offer answers and accelerate change.”

Discover ways to foster psychological safety in your workplace.

Read the blog

Provide mental health training

Provide mental health education and training for all employees and managers. This will help prepare employees to prioritize their mental health and develop useful resilience skills, while also helping managers identify the signs of employee burnout and connect employees to resources that can help.

Build a sense of community

Managers are often the first to notice when an employee is struggling. It’s important for these frontline leaders to make themselves available as safe, nonjudgmental people so employees can ask for help if they need it. If the employee opens up, managers should validate how they’re feeling by conveying that their feelings make sense, and connect them to resources that can help.

Managers can also help create a work environment that nurtures teamwork and support, which helps build cohesive teams. They can ask team members for their opinions and feedback so they feel included and valued. Regular check-ins can help employees feel cared for on a personal level. Social connection enhances people’s resilience to stress. Even an instant message to ask how an employee is doing can be a boost for someone who’s struggling.

“People need to know they’re not on an island,” said Grasso. “One of the best predictors of job retention is having a sense of community at work. Help employees feel connected by dedicating time to activities that are purely for the purpose of social connection and getting to know each other on a human level.”

Be as flexible as possible

In a FlexJobs survey, 56 percent of workers said having flexibility in their workday is the number-one way their employer could better support them. This can take on different forms, and could include:

  • Letting employees decide how to structure their day
  • Asking if employees have preferences on negotiable parts of the workday such as meeting format (e.g., telephone vs. video conference)
  • Making changes in work assignments, hours, deadlines, or working conditions, if possible

“Don’t wait for employees to ask for flexibility,” said Grasso. “If you know there are things you can do to make their lives easier, help them set healthy boundaries, or prevent work from taking an oversized role in their lives, proactively offer them.”

Start a conversation

If you notice signs of distress in your employee, avoid jumping to the conclusion that work exhaustion is the cause. Many burnout symptoms can also be signs of other issues, such as mental health disorders, physical illnesses, or even medication side effects.

The most helpful approach is a private, empathetic conversation about what you’re seeing and asking how you can help. Stick to open-ended questions and statements like, “How are you feeling about your work?” and “Tell me more about that.”

Then listen attentively. One survey showed that employees are 62 percent less likely to be burned out when their managers listen to their concerns. Workers need to feel respected, heard, and cared about as people.

“Managers don’t have to be 100 percent certain that burnout is the source of the problem before they ask the employee how they’re doing,” said Grasso. “It’s more important to tune into signs of distress and talk to the employee so they can tell you what’s going on, rather than trying to read between the lines.”

Hear about other key steps you can take to prevent burnout.

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Dealing with employee burnout

Myth

The only solution to burnout is changing jobs.

Fact

If the employer takes steps to address burnout, employees can re-engage without changing jobs.

Burnout prevention is the most effective approach to dealing with this work-related mental health issue. However, if you notice the signs of burnout in your workplace, here are a few additional tips about how to reduce employee burnout:

Look inward

Employees can work on mindfulness, resilience, self-care, and other ways to manage stress. But individual actions alone won’t solve what is ultimately a workplace problem.

“What looks like a people conversation is ultimately a business conversation,” said Elena Arecco Bridgmon, PCC, chief administrative officer at LUMO. Leaders need to ask themselves “why?” and take a hard look at workplace contributors, stretching beyond their own perspective.

Discourage overwork

Most employers highly value hard work, but it’s important to remember that a consistently heavy workload and long hours are major causes of burnout. You can discourage a company culture of overwork by:

  • Encouraging short breaks throughout the day
  • Increasing paid time off and/or encouraging employees to use their time off, including taking mental health days
  • Evaluating and changing work distribution, if needed
  • Prioritizing and planning work to ensure deadlines are reasonable
  • Evaluating whether you’re incentivizing overwork explicitly or implicitly, for example by rewarding only employees who work long hours

Offer comprehensive mental health benefits

If you notice signs of employee burnout in your workplace, you have an opportunity to support and re-engage with your team by investing in a strong well-being strategy. Offering a mental health care benefit can help combat issues like burnout. In Indeed’s survey, 82 percent of virtual and 70 percent of onsite employees said adjusting benefits was at least “somewhat effective” in helping them combat stress.

Look for a mental health benefit that can meet the diverse needs of your workforce by offering:

  • Support for the full spectrum of mental health needs, from day-to-day stress to suicidal thoughts, and everything in between
  • A diverse, vetted provider network that can meet the needs of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ employees
  • Flexible care options including onsite support, virtual sessions, and ongoing engagement for those who need support in-between sessions
  • Guidance on strategies to help change corporate culture, react to disturbing events, and other issues
  • Evidence-based approaches that lead to measurable symptom improvement

“Now is the time for all of us to show ourselves compassion and for everyone who is a manager or people leader to show grace, empathy, appreciation, and flexibility,” said Grasso. “That’s how we get closer to countering burnout in the future.”

Learn more ways to foster a mentally healthy workplace.

Read the blog

Help your employees feel better

Employee burnout is progressive, which means the effects often multiply if employers don’t take action. Your people are the heart of your success, and today they’re facing unprecedented mental health distress. With your support, your employees can bring their best selves to work and your business can thrive.

About the reviewer
Keren Wasserman

Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.

About the author
Meghan Vivo

Meghan Vivo is a content marketing strategy manager at Lyra Health, where she helps transform mental health care through education, outreach, and storytelling. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Irvine, with a minor is psychology and a juris doctor degree from Syracuse University. Meghan has worked in health care marketing for 15 years, specializing in behavioral health.

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