Are you or your teammates burned out? Here’s how to tell, and what to do about it

2020 has seen fires, an ongoing climate crisis, a global pandemic and now an emerging economic crisis as the real unemployment rate heads above 13 percent.

It’s enough to make even the most resilient NFP staff member feel stressed, anxious, worried and potentially burned out.

Indeed even before the world-changing events of 2020, community sector workers occupied two of the top five positions in the list of occupations most at-risk of mental health stress.

So as a manager or HR professional, what can you do to help your staff – and yourself – avoid burning out?

What is burnout, really?

Caused by excessive and prolonged stress, burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion that results in feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet demands.

It differs significantly from mental illness, though many of the signs and symptoms can overlap, which can make it tricky to identify. And it’s becoming more prevalent across all workplaces – particularly in the support and care-focused parts of the not-for-profit sector.

A manager’s duty

Organisational psychologist Dr Sarah Cotton is the co-founder of mental health consultancy Transitioning Well. She says avoiding burnout is a key management responsibility in contemporary work life. 

“There’s a lot of information about mental health in the workplace but I don’t think burnout is talked about as much, and not all managers would know the signs and symptoms around that” says Dr Cotton.

She acknowledges that it’s not about expecting managers to be psychologists or to make diagnoses – rather, managers need to be able to see and understand the differences between a staff member having a bad day versus burnout versus a mental illness, and knowing staff well enough to pick up on subtle signs and changes in behaviour.

So what are the signs of burnout? Dr Cotton shares three key signs and symptoms – first identified in 1982 by Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson – that are important for managers to watch out for:

1. Chronic exhaustion

The first red flag is emotional exhaustion – a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion that can result from “excessive job, personal demands, and/or continuous stress.”

It appears as both physical fatigue and also a sense of being psychologically and emotionally “drained”.

“Some of the language I hear people talk about is ‘I just feel really spent’ or ‘I have nothing left in my tank’” Cotton says.

2. Cynicism and disconnection

Dr Cotton flags outward displays or admissions of resentment and disconnection as the second big sign of burnout. 

“What’s particularly good to look out for is if there’s been a change in behaviour – for instance, if you have an employee who hasn’t ever been a cynical person and then starts to become cynical.”

On top of that, she suggests managers look out for staff members who are suddenly distancing themselves emotionally from the organisation or team.

3. Reduced personal accomplishment

Finally, Dr Cotton says managers should look for any reduction in personal accomplishment and efficiency as a clear sign of burnout. 

For instance, if a staff member feels like they’re expending energy without seeing results or are finding it hard to stay focused.

Avoiding burnout

So what are some practical things both you and your staff can use to stay off the track to burnout? Dr Cotton offers three tips:

1. Know your personal warning signs

Dr Cotton says we should all watch for our own warning signs – and encourage team members or colleagues to the do the same. 

“As human beings, I think we’re really good at knowing when things are going well – when the light is green,” she explains.

“We’re also very good at knowing when the light’s red; when things are at crisis point. But we’re not so good at the amber.”

Your ‘amber’ might look like physical fatigue or pain – like a lingering pain in the neck or an unabating headache – or it might be more psychological in nature, like feeling flat.

“When you know yourself well and you know your warning signs – when you’re familiar with your amber – you’re much better equipped to pick up on those early signs before you reach crisis point” says Dr Cotton. 

2. Be clear on your boundaries 

In Dr Cotton’s experience, there’s one key practical thing people do to successfully avoid burnout: they’re very clear on where and when their work ends and their personal or home life starts. 

“People who are very good at avoiding burnout are actually very good at recognising and protecting their boundaries” between the different parts of their life she says. 

“That means they can make those ‘yes’ and ‘no’ calls much easier – and they’re not trying to do too much all the time, which is just not sustainable.”

That’s easier said than done, but some easy boundaries to draw are physical ones – making sure not to take work into the spaces where you live and spend time with your family – and also time boundaries – setting a clear start and end time to your work each day, and taking defined time for complete breaks.

3. Prioritise recovery time

Dr Cotton says that when things get stressful, it’s important for people to become intentional about recovery time. 

It can be easy to skip recovery time – especially as the demands and boundaries between work and home become increasingly blurred for many roles – but Dr Cotton argues that you’ve got to give your brain and body space to recover.”

“Firstly, you’ve got to have what is called ‘internal recovery time’ – that is, taking your lunch break or going outside for a few moments to get some fresh air during the day,” she says.

“Then, external recovery time is just as important – that’s making sure you have ‘off-job recovery time’ where you’re actually switching off and not checking emails 24/7.”

Helping staff avoid burnout 

So you’ve now got the tools to avoid burnout yourself. But what can you do to help your team or colleagues stay out of the danger zone?

1. Recognise and acknowledge good work

Research shows things like improved communication, clear expectations and frequent recognition are extremely important in helping staff avoid burnout.

“We’re so quick to jump on things when they go wrong, but we’re often so busy we don’t have the time to acknowledge the good” she says.

We need to be better at that – and often, all people want is a ‘thank you’ for the effort they’ve put in.”

Recognition can also have a wider impact: one study found that publicly presenting some staff with awards – for example, an award for ‘x years of service’ could increase in all staff the sense that the organisation cared about their contribution.

2. Connect everyday work with your broader purpose

A critical strategy for helping staff avoid burnout is to help them connect to their purpose.

“We need to be better at helping people draw those connections and understand their part in the vision or mission” she says.

Some easy ways to connect staff with your organisation’s purpose include:

  • Unearthing past feedback;
  • Inviting clients or beneficiaries to share their experiences;
  • Finding beneficiaries internally; and
  • Recording and sharing stories on your organisation’s website, intranet, or social media.

[For more on connecting your team with purpose, check out People want to do meaningful work: how connecting staff with clients and beneficiaries can supercharge your organisation.] 

3. Look out for behavioural changes

Dr Cotton stresses the importance of knowing your team, which will allow you to pick up any early signs of burnout.

“If someone starts showing signs of becoming more cynical, is exhausted and has a reduced personal accomplishment, then you’d be able to pick that up pretty early rather than waiting until crisis point,” she says.

4. Lead by example

Managers need to model proactive strategies to mitigate burnout, like taking leave days and breaks, and avoiding working and sending emails or messages at all hours.

“It’s important to think about the example you’re setting and the culture that’s built around that in your teams and organisation” she says. 

What to do when burnout hits

Trying to catch burnout before it happens is all well and good – but what happens if you’ve identified that a staff member is already in the throes of it? 

The answer is simple: talk to them about it – and connect them to the resources your organisation has available to help them, whether it’s a formal Employee Assistance Program, taking the time to create a Wellness Action Plan for them, or even just suggesting they take a day – or a week – off.

Have a conversation” says Dr Cotton. “The worst thing you could do if you notice someone’s not okay is nothing.”

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