In an era of hybrid and remote work, when more and more individuals are reporting feelings of isolation, suffering from work-life imbalance, or struggling with their mental health, burnout can creep up on anyone—even the most talented and driven of employees. Talking openly about burnout may be a relatively new experience for many, but it’s now become key to improving employee engagement, motivation, and productivity in the workplace.
Managers and workers both have a shared responsibility for maintaining mental wellbeing in the workplace, including identifying and mitigating burnout risks. But it’s often those in leadership positions that need to, well, take the lead. While a culture of psychological safety and self-care encourages employees to speak up, managers should also be on the lookout for the following indicators.
Signs of impending burnout
Burnout is usually characterised by three main components: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness. For managers who wish to prevent an employee from reaching breaking point, it’s important to watch for signs such as:
- Drop in work quality
- Increased absenteeism
- Reduced enthusiasm or involvement in team activities
- Subtle non-compliance with rules
- Higher sensitivity to feedback
- Openly negative or cynical behaviour
“When employees are unhappy, it’s hard to ignore,” says workplace culture consultant Heiki Lynne Kurter. “Their negative emotions manifest through cynicism and irritability toward clients, co-workers, and even their manager. Whether positive or negative, emotions are contagious and will impact the team which spreads throughout the company.”
The key here is to watch for trends—a naturally introverted employee may tend to be quieter during meetings, so it’s important not to conflate that with disinterest. This is why it’s important to establish a “baseline” for how employees behave at work, whether through regular face-to-face check-ins or quantifiable surveys.
On the flip side, there’s also a need to keep an eye on employees who are over-performing or exhibiting perfectionist or Type A behaviours. Because perfectionists have exceptionally high expectations of themselves, they tend to suffer from a “perfection paradox”—the setting of excessively high standards that leads to self-criticism, over-work, and burnout.
Be on the watch for employees who are consistently sending emails after office hours, haven’t taken leave in a long time, or are shouldering higher than average workloads compared to others on their team.
Preventing burnout through coaching
Focus on their strengths
Employees who work in alignment with their strengths are 57% less likely to experience burnout, says Gallup. If you notice an employee who’s struggling with motivation or productivity, it could be an issue of them not maximising their natural talents.
As an ICF-credentialed career coach and behavioural health consultant with Intellect, Julie Samuel is experienced in helping professionals deal with burnout. “I had a client who told me they felt most stressed at a particular time of the day, and I don’t think they even realised they were on the brink of burnout,” she shares. “Another client said they felt dissatisfied with their career but could not quite place their finger on the reason why. Working together, we realised that if they had not done something about it, their stress levels would have snowballed over time and possibly reached the burnout stage.”
In both cases, Julie’s clients realised that a big contributor to their stress was the fact that their job roles were not suited to their personality types.
“Though they were both doing well in their roles and not receiving any negative feedback on their work performance, they were both not working to their strengths,” she explains. “They were pretty much on overdrive as they had to put in a lot more effort into their work than if they were in roles that played to their strengths.”
Establish better boundaries
Encouraging self-care and mental wellbeing at work require that managers lead by example. This means addressing common bad work habits such as not logging off during vacations, working over weekends, or sending emails and messages after office hours.
The key is for managers to exemplify self-awareness and self-care in day-to-day work life. By modelling positive behaviours and inspiring their teams to do the same, managers can encourage employees to prioritise their wellbeing and work-life balance.
“For one of my clients, addressing burnout turned out to be a matter of self-realisation,” Julie shares. “She realised that in focusing all her energy and time pursuing her career goals and fulfilling the needs of others, she was neglecting self-care. She realised the need for her to connect with her inner self through creative arts and meditation, so incorporated these into her calendar. At the same time, she also realised the need to remove some work-related activities that were driving her towards burnout.”
In line with this is to make caring for mental and personal wellbeing a norm at the workplace. This means showing appreciation, having genuine concern over employee mental health, and not just throwing material perks such as gift cards or catered lunches in the hopes that this will re-engage employees.
Connect work with purpose
Employees often burn out when they feel disconnected from their work. As a manager, it’s important to help your team see how their contributions make a difference in the world. Even better is being able to help them align their personal goals with the company mission.
It’s understandable that many managers may feel unprepared to discuss issues related to purpose, or that employees may feel reluctant to open up about something so personal in a work context. In such situations, a neutral, third-party coach may offer much-needed support to help employees work through such issues and pinpoint the root cause of burnout.
Catch signs of burnout early
Monitoring employee stress levels has gotten more challenging in a time of hybrid and remote work, where physical cues and regular, off-camera behavioural patterns aren’t observable. This is where regular coaching sessions can be invaluable in mitigating the risk of burnout.
Even if this coaching process isn’t formalised and you’re just having regular check-ins with your employees, the key to having an effective conversation is to approach with a coaching mindset—one that’s more about active listening and collaboration than micro-managing and fault-finding.
While managers do play an essential role in reducing employee burnout, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are some factors, such as personal, home, or family-related matters, that are beyond their sphere of influence. What is absolutely within their control, however, is to actively listen to and support employees through burnout, and prioritise building a culture of self-care and mental wellbeing at work.