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How to recognize burnout and save your employees

Christian Fernsby |
Organizations often attempt to gauge burnout with annual wellness surveys, which have several important limitations.

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First, these surveys only assess the passive forms of burnout and ignore the more active forms, Margaret M. Luciano and Joan F. Brett write for HBR.

Second, they capture a snapshot in time and may not be administered when employees are actually facing high burnout.

Finally, we’ve observed that employees experiencing burnout often don’t complete them.

There are two types of passive burnout: internal passive and external passive.

The most common form, internal passive, is the hardest to see, which is why companies often use surveys to detect it.

The early warning signs include weariness accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and sadness.

Passive burnout can harm productivity by contributing to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety.

We all have setbacks at work, but they can feel insurmountable and become internalized as personal failures for employees experiencing burnout.

External passive forms of burnout are easier to observe if you know what you’re looking for.

Are your employees lowering their usual standards of performance, withdrawing effort, relaxing the rules, missing deadlines, or expressing more cynicism? These are side effects of burnout-related apathy.

If allowed to fester, burnout can result in extreme avoidance behaviors, such as sidestepping interactions with coworkers, not speaking up when they have an idea or when something’s wrong, or letting problems slip by that they would usually address.

Employees become dismissive as they become too burned out to help fix any more problems.

Burnout also lowers self-regulation.

The resulting active behaviors are easier to notice if you pay attention to departures from routines.

Internal active forms of burnout include erosive behaviors — for example, using negative coping tactics like adopting unhealthy eating and drinking habits or neglecting healthy routines like workouts and hobbies.

These behaviors are challenging to spot in most workplaces, but they can result in easier-to-identify mental and physical impairments and absences from work.

The warning signs of external active forms of burnout include being easily annoyed and expressing impatience and discontent.

For some employees, these behaviors are standard fare, but they may indicate burnout in people who are usually patient and diplomatic.

If left unchecked, this can lead to more insidious behaviors like incivility and blaming and even explosions like angry outbursts and frequent, unprompted crying.

Although it’s natural to experience frustration at work, it’s important to notice if your employees are losing their cool more frequently.

People experiencing this form of burnout may speak up more often, as every mole hill feels like a mountain to them.

Active external expressions of burnout, especially if they turn into explosions, can generate even more stress for colleagues, severely damage work relationships, hinder productivity, and lower team morale.


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