Knowing how to spot and prevent employee burnout could not only help to improve productivity for your business, it can also avoid the temporary or permanent loss of a valuable member of staff due to work-related stress.
The COVID-19 crisis has placed unprecedented pressure on employees, and employers must ensure they are aware of their legal duties in this area, and take the required action to support their workers’ wellbeing.
Below we look at what employee burnout means and how employers can spot the signs. We also consider the legal and practical risks associated with workplace stress, and what steps you should take as an employer to protect the wellbeing of your staff.
What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout refers to an acute state of physical or mental exhaustion resulting from work-related stress, where even simple tasks feel overwhelming for an affected employee and they become unable to function effectively.
This syndrome has become so prevalent that it is now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as an occupational condition, describing it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
The causes of employee burnout can be varied, but will often build up over sustained periods of time due to an overload of pressures and the daily demands placed on an individual at work. This can include excessive workloads, constant deadlines, working long hours, being overburdened with responsibility, failing to achieve the right results and a desire for career progression.
Employee burnout can also be caused or contributed to by a lack of support from work colleagues or management, as well as conflict or confrontation with co-workers or line managers, including bullying and harassment.
What are an employer’s legal duties with employee burnout?
As an employer you are under a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees, so far as is reasonably practicable, including their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
As employee burnout is now widely recognised as a serious health and safety issue within the workplace, you are duty bound to treat this condition like any other health and safety hazard.
To discharge your statutory duty you must identify any health and safety risks to which an employee may be exposed at work, such as working long hours or overwork, and take appropriate measures to control these risks. This should include putting in place appropriate processes to offer support where needed.
You are also under a duty to consider any mental impairment that may amount to a disability, making reasonable adjustments within the workplace, such as reduced hours or amended duties, to ensure that an employee is not substantially disadvantaged in carrying out their job role because of this.
This could be because an employee suffers from a pre-existing health condition that is likely to be exacerbated by work-related stress, or where the work-related stress in itself has caused employee burnout for which the employee now needs long-term support, for example, with chronic anxiety or depression.
What are the legal risks relating to employee burnout?
From a legal perspective, employee burnout can often result in the forced resignation of an employee, followed by a claim for constructive dismissal where the employer has failed to identify and take steps to prevent this risk.
Equally, where an employee on long-term sick leave is no longer capable of performing their job role, you may need to consider terminating their contract of employment on grounds of capability, although this too could leave you exposed to legal proceedings before an employment tribunal.
Although you can lawfully dismiss an employee on long-term sick leave because they are no longer able to do their job, the onus will be on you to show why you were unable to make any reasonable adjustments. Any failure to do so could result in a claim for both unfair dismissal and unlawful disability discrimination.
What are the practical risks relating to employee burnout?
When employees are overworked and under pressure, especially without adequate support within the workplace, they will inevitably burnout. The most likely result of the mismanagement of employee burnout is much-needed rest and recuperation, together with the associated cost of an employee on short or long-term sick leave, including sick pay and temporary cover.
In serious cases, however, employee burnout could result in the loss of a key member of staff, with the additional cost of recruitment to replace them. This could either be because they resign or are dismissed on grounds of capability because they are no longer able to cope with the demands of their job.
Employee burnout can also cost employers in lack of employee engagement, high levels of absenteeism, low performance and lost productivity, as well as increased errors and higher incidents of compromised workplace safety.
What are the signs & symptoms of employee burnout?
Given the practical and legal risks associated with employee burnout, spotting the signs and taking steps to reduce the effects of work-related stress can be crucial in minimising its impact in the workplace and avoiding legal action.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for employees to feel fearful of reprisals or be worried about revealing any weakness, especially within a highly competitive working environment. This means that employers should never rely solely on their employees to let them know if they are struggling with work or suffering from severe exhaustion. You must actively and regularly check on the wellbeing of your staff and learn to spot the signs of employee burnout before it’s too late.
It is also important to bear in mind that no two employees will show the same symptoms, as employee burnout can manifest itself in several different ways.
Common signs and symptoms of employee burnout can include:
- Under-performance or a drop in performance at work
- Inability to carry out normal tasks or follow simple instructions
- Increased mistakes or accidents at work
- Increased levels of sensitivity and irritability
- Increased absenteeism or lateness
- Lack of engagement, motivation or enthusiasm
- Complaining about feeling consistently exhausted
- A change in attitude, such as signs of negativity or cynicism
- Self-isolation or social withdrawal from work colleagues
- Physical signs of fatigue, such as dark circles or a dull complexion
- Deterioration in appearance or personal hygiene
- Obvious weight gain or weight loss
- Signs of alcohol or substance misuse
How can employers prevent employee burnout?
Whilst it is important that businesses have adequate processes in place to support employees suffering from work-related stress, it is even more important that you focus on preventing employee burnout in the first place. There are various ways in which you can help to prevent employee burnout, including:
- Workplace culture: you need to create a culture where employees are able to talk to you about their concerns and feel confident that action will be taken where necessary. By encouraging open lines of communication, without fear of reprisals, this can help to keep stress levels in check. You should also foster an open-door policy where talking about mental health is normalised and employees are aware of the available support.
- Work/life balance: many employees will still come to work when they feel unwell, take work home at night or check their emails when out of normal office hours, often due to work-related anxiety or stress. These are all key contributors to employee burnout as employees take less time to switch off and recharge. By encouraging a healthier work/life balance you will help to promote a less stressful and pressured environment. This could include ensuring staff use their full annual leave entitlement, limiting overtime and offering flexible working arrangements.
- One-to-one appraisals: by scheduling regular appraisals this will provide you with the perfect opportunity to inquire after an employee’s wellbeing. Equally, the employee will be given the chance to voice any concerns and discuss any professional or personal matters that could be affecting their performance at work. Employee appraisals are also a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of an employee to your business.
- Wellbeing programme: it is important to create a positive working environment in which employees feel valued and supported. By implementing a wellbeing programme this will show your employees you care about their health and happiness, often leading to reduced levels of stress. This could include lifestyle assessment and wellbeing days, or health incentives such as discounted gym memberships.
- Mental health training: by putting in place mental health training this can help line managers spot the signs of employee burnout and address this early on before it’s too late. Adopting a proactive approach towards mental health and offering potential solutions to alleviate stress may help to prevent this from escalating into anything more serious.
- Harassment and bullying policy: by having a zero-tolerance for harassment and bullying in the workplace, this can help to safeguard the wellbeing of your staff. Any form of conflict and confrontation at work can add a significant amount of stress to the normal working day, making it hard for employees to work productively, even where they themselves are not directly on the receiving end of any unlawful conduct.
How should employers deal with cases of employee burnout?
How you best deal with cases of employee burnout will often depend on how these come to your attention. In many cases, the poor health of an employee will become apparent following a period of sick leave and the provision of a fit note.
If an employee is absent from work through illness for a period of more than seven consecutive days, they are obliged to provide you with a statement of fitness for work from their GP. This can be a useful starting point in identifying signs of employee burnout or deciding how to deal with this issue.
The fit note can provide you with invaluable insight into the short or long-term health condition of an individual employee, from the nature of their symptoms to how long they are likely to be on sick leave. It may even set out ways in which you can support their return to work, such as reduced hours or amended duties.
By carefully assessing any guidance given in the fit note, you can work together with an employee to ensure their health and welfare needs are met to help with their return to work and prevent recurring issues.
In some cases, you may also want to consider an occupational health assessment to provide more detailed insight in the context of their specific job role and ways in which you can reduce the risk of habitual burnout moving forward.
DavidsonMorris’ HR specialist HR consultants can help with all aspects of workforce management and engagement, including helping to identify and avoid employee burnout. Working closely with our employment lawyers, we provide comprehensive guidance on how to approach and implement policies and best practice approaches to provide optimal support for your employees to maximise performance and minimise legal risk. For help and advice, speak to our experts.
Employee burnout FAQs
What are the 5 stages of burnout?
There are five stages of burnout: the honeymoon phase, the onset of stress, chronic stress, burnout and habitual burnout. The phases range from an employee experiencing excessive drive and ambition to suffering long-term health problems such as depression or anxiety as a result of work-related stress.
What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout is an acute state of physical or mental exhaustion resulting from work-related stress. This has been recently recognised by the World Health Organisation as an occupational condition, describing it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
Can you take time off work for burnout?
Burnout is a recognised health condition for which an employee can take time off work on either short or long-term basis. Employee burnout can also lead to chronic conditions such as depression and anxiety for which an employer will need to make reasonable adjustments within the workplace, such as reduced hours or amended duties, to support an employee’s return to work.
How do I get over burnout at work?
Typically, burnout at work arises as a result of workplace stresses and demands over sustained periods of time. That said, with proper rest and recuperation, and a return to a less stressful and more supportive working environment, it is possible to make a speedy and successful recovery from employee burnout.
Last updated: 2 May 2020