Employee burnout: definition, causes, signs, and prevention

Employee burnout definition causes signs and prevention
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Employee burnout is a real problem.

The World Health Organization has officially recognized and classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”[1] For businesses, it can lead to serious unwanted repercussions, including disengagement, absenteeism, high turnover, and lower performance.

Offering employee well-being training and wellness apps are positive initiatives and show great leadership, but they’re simply a bandage to cover a larger wound.

Job burnout isn’t just an individual’s problem – it’s a far larger workplace issue stemming from toxic environments and poor practices.

Understanding how to avoid employee burnout is critical to employee retention and satisfaction – and it starts with your workplace culture.

This article discusses the root causes of employee burnout, its warning signs and symptoms, and how these can affect your company. We also share our top eight tips on how to prevent burnout by improving business practices.

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that usually stems from prolonged stress or frustration. It is linked to high employee turnover, disengagement, depression, and negative feelings toward work and the workplace.

Unfortunately, this issue is far-reaching and massively impactful and is common in the modern workplace.

A 2021 study revealed that approximately 17.9 million working days were lost cumulatively due to workplace stress, depression, or anxiety in 2019 and 2020 alone. Furthermore, 50% of work-related illness from 2020 to 2021 was caused by burnout.

Workplace burnout is a problem that’s regrettably getting worse with time. A recent Gallup study showed that from 2018 to 2022, active disengagement increased by over 30%.

engaged vs actively disengaged employees

Employee engagement hasn’t been this low in eight years.

Burnout is a serious problem that hurts your employees’ mental and physical health. But it also has a huge impact on your organization, namely on quality and productivity.

So why is employee burnout such a huge problem?

Let’s look into it.

What are the causes of employee burnout?

The main causes of employee burnout are rooted in poor company culture and a toxic work environment.

There was a time when the common belief held that only the employees themselves were responsible for their burnout. It was simple enough to recommend breathing exercises and yoga and leave the rest in their hands.

But the causes of burnout run much deeper, and it’s time that companies realized the part they play in it.

Causes of employee burnout

Here are the top reasons employees face burnout:

  • Unmanageable workload

  • Toxic organizational culture

  • Toxic workplace behaviors (i.e., unfair treatment)

  • Micromanagement or managerial pressure

  • Poor workplace conditions

  • Boring, repetitive tasks

  • Lack of role clarity

  • Lack of compensation or recognition

  • Outside factors (like family pressures)

Let’s talk about these factors in-depth:


In other words

Quick example

Unmanageable workload

Too much to do, too little time

John is the head of marketing at a tech company with an understaffed department.

He works 12-hour days to fulfill the responsibilities of the digital marketing manager, the social marketing lead, and the email marketing manager

on top

of his regular duties.

Toxic organizational culture

Unreasonable company values and practices

Maggie is a customer service representative scheduled for a 40-hour work week.

However, she knows her company expects 60- to 70-hours per week from every employee, so she must put in the extra hours to keep up with her colleagues and company demands.

Toxic workplace behaviors

Unfair treatment

Jaya is an IT professional at a medium-sized organization.

Whenever the department gives out kudos, she’s passed over due to leaders’ personal biases.

Micromanaging and managerial pressure

Nitpicking, pedantic superiors

Jordan is an excellent graphic designer at an agency.

He does outstanding work, but his manager relays the client’s smallest complaints with little balance or sensitivity.

Poor workplace conditions

Unsuitable or unsafe working conditions

Ahmed is an editor who works at the back of a small office.

He works with outdated technology, under poor lighting, and faces hazardous conditions such as the risk of electric shock.

Boring, repetitive tasks

No new challenges or stimulation

Sungmin has been working as a consultant for five years without change.

He hasn’t received any new challenges or responsibilities, which has made him detached from his current role – clock in, clock out.

Lack of role clarity

Workers are unsure of expectations and responsibilities

Tanya is a warehouse worker. She feels like every time she comes to work, she has a different set of responsibilities.

Not knowing exactly what her bosses expect her to do is tiring and frustrating, causing her to disengage from her work.

Lack of compensation and recognition

Not receiving an adequate reward for their work

Deshaun is a high-performing salesman who never receives the proper recognition for his work.

He grows restless in his current role because he’s never been offered the right

employee incentives

or uplifted with peer-to-peer recognition.

Outside factors

Difficulties in personal life, such as family issues, bills, and illness

Cathy is the chief executive officer of her company.

She often experiences stress and burnout due to struggles with past trauma and the resulting mental triggers.

With these factors being the most common and dominant causes of employee burnout, it’s clear that simple wellness programs aren’t going to do much. Systemic change is needed in your company.

Even the last point, outside factors, is not the sole responsibility of the worker and can be made more manageable by your company. For example, you can take steps to become a trauma-informed workplace or a supportive environment for working parents.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

Employee burnout is a slow process. If you notice the early signs and act on them, you can catch them before they degenerate into full-blown burnout.

McKinsey describes burnout as like a lightbulb, flickering and fading before it finally goes out.

If you spot the flickering and act before the bulb goes out, you won’t be rushing around in the dark.

The main signs of burnout include:

  • Sickness

  • Absenteeism (or taking more sick days than usual)

  • Mistakes

  • Cynicism

  • Depression or exhaustion

  • Anger or persistent irritability

  • Lack of motivation

  • Low job satisfaction

  • Poor customer reviews and scores

  • Working odd hours (logged out at 10:00 pm when they’re usually off at 7:00 pm)

Signs of employee burnout

All these signs affect your business.

Signs and symptoms of burnout like depression, exhaustion, and irritability can impact:

  1. Work quality and performance

  2. Productivity

  3. Teamwork and cooperation

Possibly the worst part is that workers suffering from employee burnout might be seen as uncooperative or low-performing rather than an individual in need of attention and help.

Some signs of burnout may be easy to spot, such as absenteeism, but others require you to be more proactive and take the initiative.

Try making discussions about mental health a normal part of 1:1 meetings. Frequent 1:1 meetings (for example, every one or two weeks) give you a chance to check in with each worker to talk about motivation, mistakes, and negative behaviors.

Implementing regular 1:1s will build a culture of communication, which is the best way to spot and deal with burnout.

It’s important to nurture a healthy company culture in which employees feel safe discussing issues and mental health. So even if you don’t notice the signs, your workers would be comfortable telling you.

How to prevent employee burnout: 8 tips

Learning how to avoid employee burnout before it has a chance to settle in is always ideal.

Implementing these best practices in your company nurtures an environment that naturally prevents employee burnout, so you won’t always be healing it after the fact.

Here’s a quick summary of our top strategies:



1. Build a better, more positive company culture

Nurturing a better work environment and company culture improves morale and prevents burnout

2. Encourage management to lead by example

Leading from the top encourages employees to remain aware of their mental health and limitations

3. Promote mental health breaks

Encouraging employees to take time off and keep work within the workplace gives them well-needed opportunities for rest

4. Consider alternative working arrangements

Offering flexible working arrangements helps employees work when they’re most productive and manage personal circumstances more easily

5. Involve your team and employees in important decisions

Allowing your employees to be involved in decisions shows them their opinions are valued

6. Put an end to multitasking and be mindful of workload

Manageable tasks and sufficient capacity ensure employees don’t get overloaded

7. Send out pulse surveys to catch issues before they result in absenteeism and turnover

Surveying employees helps assess engagement, satisfaction, and motivation without being too intrusive

8. Discover employee resilience through skills testing

Finding out which employees are vulnerable and most at risk of burnout helps you focus your attention where it’s most needed

Let’s discuss them in more depth.

1. Build a better, more positive company culture

The most crucial way to prevent employee burnout is also number one on this list: Creating a better company culture.

Your organizational culture is your company’s shared attitudes, practices, and values. It goes on with little interference or intervention.

Negative behaviors are bad enough in the workplace. But when they’re common practice or considered acceptable, a difficult job can turn into a constant source of burnout, exhaustion, and depression.

Here are a few toxic behaviors to prevent or discourage:

  • Screaming, shouting, and violent communication

  • Putting employees down, negative remarks, and passive aggression

  • Sabotaging

  • Expecting and pressuring workers to put in 60- or 70-hour work weeks

examples of toxic behaviors that should be prevented or discouraged

When these behaviors are normalized, it doesn’t just cause employee burnout. It could lead to lasting pain and mental triggers and even cause workplace trauma.

To tackle a toxic culture, you have to be proactive in generating workplace positivity:

  • Encourage supportive behaviors

  • Give positive feedback alongside constructive criticism

  • Foster inclusivity and belonging in the workplace

  • Support employees working their scheduled hours with no pressure for overtime

how to be proactive in generating workplace positivity

Cisco Systems, a security company, takes crucial steps to maintain a positive work culture.

Cisco prioritizes clear workplace standards, supports a system of positive and timely recognition, and aims for continuous improvement with its regular employee pulse surveys.

We highly recommend employee pulse surveys to improve workplace culture and employee burnout. But more on that later.

2. Encourage management to lead by example

People do what they see leadership doing – that’s why they’re leaders.

Employees think certain behaviors are par for the course if they see senior leadership working long hours, coming into the office when they’re sick, or ignoring abusive, toxic co-workers.

However, the opposite is also true. The more workers see leadership taking care of themselves, the more they naturally do the same for themselves.

Here are a few things managers and leaders should practice to lead more effectively from the top:

  • Take mental health days

  • Be open and transparent about burnout and its effects

  • Discuss their experiences with it

  • Discuss what they do to manage it

  • Discuss their workplace boundaries

encourage management lead example

A key part of your coaching and mentoring should be burnout management. Give your workers advice on how to deal with burnout, using personal examples if possible.

Here are a few tips to coach employees on burnout management:

  1. Do what you’re paid for, and no more

  2. Learn to say “no” when you can’t handle something

  3. Prioritize your tasks and get the most important things done first

These sessions can be easily incorporated into 1:1 meetings with your workers, setting aside time just to discuss mental health, burnout management, and any necessary accommodations.

3. Encourage mental health breaks

Even with positive company culture and supportive leaders, work is work, so your employees need mental breaks.

Prioritize work-life balance and recovery time for all employees. Set rules in your workplace policies to promote time off, such as requiring real vacations and setting a “no emailing on weekends” rule.

Besides an official policy, it’s also important to encourage an atmosphere in which employees feel safe to ask for breaks. It’s hugely beneficial if your staff feels comfortable enough to request time off when they’re struggling with their mental health.

One study found that employee engagement, work ethic, and motivation significantly increase when employees regularly take one-week vacation breaks.

The international coffee chain Starbucks recently made headlines when they announced their new employee mental health plan as part of their healthcare benefits for employees and their families. 

This mental health plan allows employees to book up to 20 therapy appointments annually, supporting both digital and in-person coaching.

Further displaying Starbucks’ connection to its employees, the company created this wellness plan based on employee feedback.

The plan includes mandatory mental health breaks and offers well-being and stress-management training.

Yes, we started this article saying that well-being training and wellness programs alone can’t solve employee burnout – and it’s true.

However, it’s a great idea to supplement good work practices and a positive company culture with additional benefits that can help reduce stress.

4. Consider alternative working arrangements

Flexible work arrangements can help employees deal with many causes of burnout.

Employees stress less about family-related issues, tight schedules, and long commutes when work is more accommodating regarding when and where you can get it done.

Here are a few examples of alternative working arrangements:

Examples alternative working arrangements

Implementing a flexible-working policy in your company helps many employees, but it could be a lifesaver for working parents.

Balancing work demands with your children’s needs can cause massive amounts of stress and burnout. One study showed that 45% of people who recently quit their jobs cited the need to take care of their family as an influential factor in their decision.

Flexible work enables these employees to work around school and childcare schedules, get work done when they’re most rested and productive, and spend those crucial moments with their children.

Although they’re an important demographic, working parents are far from the only employees to benefit from flexible hours and remote work.

Students, people with alternative lifestyles or health conditions, and employees working multiple jobs all find relief from burnout with more relaxed and flexible schedules.

5. Involve your team and employees in important decisions

When too much happens around your employees with little to no input from them, they begin to feel unimportant or like a cog in the machine.

Employees who feel valued and heard are more engaged and connected to their work and the organization itself. They feel the company trusts and values their opinions.

Here are a few things you can discuss with your workers to involve them in company decisions:

  1. How to spend the improvement budget

  2. Which policies should be prioritized

  3. What benefits and incentives to offer

  4. Which problems need to be solved and how

You can raise these points during meetings to discuss the decisions openly, giving every team member a chance to be heard. You can also get input from employee surveys.

Involving your employees in decision-making makes them feel heard and respected, and it also benefits the company.

It gives you access to a more diverse range of opinions and expertise, including the possibility of hearing the opinion of someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Employees are substantially motivated by benefits, work directly with customers, and know the day-to-day grind better than anyone. They can provide deep insights that positively impact the business and their fellow employees.

6. Put an end to multitasking requirements and be mindful of workload

“David can finish those reports at the same time as he touches base with the client… right?”

This is called multitasking, and we rely too heavily on it.

If you keep up with psychological news, you’re probably already aware that efficient multitasking is practically impossible, and it takes the human brain around 15 minutes to reorient itself between tasks.

Expecting employees to do multiple tasks at once can be an enormous strain on their mental health – and the same goes for an overloaded capacity.

Try to be mindful of every employee’s workload and how much they have on their plate. Regularly reviewing their capacity helps you:

  1. Remain aware of how much they’re currently handling

  2. Determine whether or not they can take on additional tasks

  3. Arrange their schedule, so they aren’t doing too much at once

It’s easy to let an employee’s workload multiply, especially if you’re scheduling them between periods, such as from one month to the next.

A worker’s schedule may look fine for February, but it’s only because you didn’t consider that January’s end-of-month schedule may bleed into it, causing them to be overbooked.

This strategy requires you to be proactive in reviewing capacity, delegating work, and scheduling because many workaholic employees will tell you they’re fine for another project when in reality they’re burned out and struggling.

7. Send out pulse surveys to catch issues before they result in absenteeism and turnover

What better way to ease burnout’s underlying issues than to ask your employees what’s getting them down?

Pulse surveys help you gather actionable insights from your employees themselves and enable you to use real information to make better decisions.

For a few ideas of what to include in a pulse survey, try asking about:

  • Employee engagement

  • Employee motivation

  • Job-satisfaction factors

  • How clearly defined their role is

  • How satisfied they are with the tools they have to perform their job

  • How recognized they feel

  • How comfortable and safe they feel communicating with senior leadership

send out pulse surveys to catch issues before they result absenteeism turnover

Microsoft runs an employee pulse survey called the “Daily Pulse.” They send this out daily to a handful of randomly selected Microsoft employees, aiming to gather employees’ thoughts on the work culture and how they feel working for the company.

This survey contains around 20 questions that rotate each month to stay current with updated topics.

Two sample questions from Microsoft’s survey include:

  • “In what ways do you think Microsoft is different today than it was one year ago?”

  • “What is the biggest change you’d recommend your leadership make to allow you to be more effective in your job?”

Employee pulse surveys enable you to learn what your employees need most, without relying on guessing or consulting experts. You get the information straight from the employees through the simple act of reaching out to your people and asking.

Plus, when employees see their suggestions coming to life and taking shape, they feel like they work for an organization that genuinely cares about them.

8. Discover employee resilience through skills testing

Some employees are more vulnerable to burnout than others, and it helps you to know which ones.

Assessing which workers are most susceptible to burnout enables senior leadership to prevent it or mitigate it once it’s already there.

A great way to discover employee resilience is through online skills testing.

Using personality tests, like the Big 5 Personality test, enables you to assess your employee’s emotional stability and gives you insights into how likely they are to succumb to intense burnout.

Tests like these can be a part of your employee pulse survey, so you can spot development opportunities and gather employee feedback simultaneously.

You can support vulnerable employees through coaching, mental-health discussions, and mentoring to help them build useful skills.

Online skills testing can also inform your hiring efforts by enabling you to build a more resilient workforce from day one. 

Whether you have an open role or you’re starting from square one and hiring for a startup, hiring resilient employees with time-management and problem-solving skills gives you a leg up on avoiding burnout in the first place.

Employee burnout doesn’t have to rule your workforce

Taking the right steps to manage employee burnout helps prevent burnout from overwhelming your company, improves the employee experience, and boosts your organization’s overall quality and performance.

The biggest move you can make is to improve your company culture and work environment.

Encouraging mental health days, stopping the practice of multitasking, and downplaying long work weeks and hustle culture will always help promote a positive workplace and reduce employee burnout.

For more reading on company culture and tips to improve it, read our article on assessing organizational culture.

And use our Culture Add test in your next pre-employment assessment to ensure all your new hires add the right elements to your company culture.


  1. “Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases”. (May 28, 2019). World Health Organization. Retrieved November 1, 2022. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

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