Burnout Indicators

As a leader in 2021, you’ll no doubt have welfare concerns for your team. After 2020 (may it rest in peace) and events that preceded it, coupled with the emerging ramifications of COVID-19, there is much to be concerned about. A quick analysis using Google Trends indicated that the search term “burnout symptoms” was used twice as often in 2020 as in 2016 and has ramped up consistently since 2017 (when did Trump become president again?). 

It took seven years to settle our Christchurch Earthquake insurance claim and another year to prep our house for sale. After this epic battle of attrition, I personally experienced and recovered from burnout, mild PTSD, complex grief, anxiety and a heaping helping of mental fatigue. I know the cycle people go through, and I have to say I’m very concerned for society as a whole post-COVID. We’ve had the initial shock, followed by the “we’ve got this” phase. As 2021 kicks off and the pace of change remains unrelentingly high, the cracks are beginning to show. 

The real problem with burnout is it’s hard to spot, even if you’re the one going through it. It starts with everyday stress, which if prolonged becomes chronic, which if untreated becomes burnout, but it’s a smooth slippery slope with no clear signposts. 

So, as a caring and effective leader, it’s important to know the signs. Assuming your team members were in good shape when you hired them, here’s some tell-tale behaviour changes to watch out for. (No one tell-tale is a sure sign.)

1.  Increased Sick Leave

Burnout and chronic stress have physical effects on health and energy levels. Increases in sick leave can indicate physical changes or an increased burden when caring for family members, which can increase stress. Chronic headaches, pill-popping, muscle tension, disturbed sleep are all common signs. Depression and anxiety are also common associates.

2.  Simple Mistakes and Performance Issues

Mental fatigue and difficulty staying focused are common symptoms of burnout, and these can lead to mistakes, omissions and delays. Easy tasks seem hard. This was my biggest challenge because I didn’t want to admit I was struggling to perform. After all, my current job, future employability, mortgage, family happiness and whole future was at stake, or at least that’s how it felt.

3.  Apathy, Pessimism and Doubt

Changes in attitude for the worse, frequent expressions of doubt, attempts to reduce effort or workload, avoiding taking on more responsibilities, dropping career goals and a generally pessimistic outlook are all signs of significantly reduced energy levels associated with burnout and the need to protect oneself from overwhelm.

4.  Withdrawal and Escapism

If previously social people start taking breaks alone, surfing the web all lunchtime, checking their phone more and more during meetings, binge watching Grey's Anatomy, joking about drinking a bottle of wine each evening, smoking more, or taking more coffee breaks, you know they’re escaping from something. Occasional escapes are normal, but habitual escapism is one of the key signs of burnout. Ask “is the behaviour the exception or the rule?”

5.  Lapses in Professionalism

Personally I detest the term “professionalism.” For me it conjures memories of cultural taboos and expectations that were far from inclusive or healthy. In fact it was professionalism, or the pretence thereof, that prevented me from acknowledging my struggles. That said, when someone consistently lowers their standard of dress, turns up late, or behaves irritably towards customers or managers or seems indifferent to other cultural norms (good or bad), this indicates a degree of apathy toward the organisation and possibly burnout.

If You Suspect Burnout

Employers’ duty of care requires leaders to act responsibly and in the employees’ interest. If you suspect burnout, gently share your concerns and what you’re noticing with the employee. Add objectivity by asking them to complete relevant online tests (below) in private. Remember, they don’t have to tell you the result, but it’s helpful if they do.

* I do not recommend the free online burnout tests - they’re not evidence-based and they have a tendency to report false positives or have a wide grey zone which is quite unhelpful.

If the test confirms burnout (or depression or anxiety) then the employee should seek professional support - EAP, a GP, counsellor or therapist. That’s not you, me or ODI, but what we can do is provide training and coaching around preventing and supporting others with burnout, and provided they’re getting professional support, a coach can be very helpful in supporting the implementation of life changes. 

An Ounce of Prevention 

With burnout, the old adage holds true - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I caught it late, and as a result it took me a year to be completely free of symptoms. During that time I worked part-time and renovated the house, and fortunately we were in a financial position to afford this. But what if we weren’t? So if you want your teams to remain fully productive through 2021 and beyond, I strongly recommend you proactively mitigate burnout before it becomes an issue. 

Authored by Owen Woollaston, consultant, facilitator and coach.

If you’d like some help with recognising burnout and supporting your staff, contact Nicky or Kyran - 03 943 2373 or info@odi.org.nz