How to Help Your Employees Avoid Burnout

Burnout is on the rise, but here’s how HR can help

There is no denying that 2020 was a gruelling year for most organisations. With business leaders and the wider workforce having to adapt quickly to what at times has felt like, a never ending series of challenges to the ways in which people work. 

The usual start of a New Year, traditional holds great promise for what could lay ahead, the difference on entering 2021 of course, is that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, is showing no signs of slowing down just yet.  The result of this ongoing crisis has been that leaders and their workforce alike are feeling tired, stretched, stressed, overwhelmed and burned out. 

It is safe to say however, that many organisations have done many great things to innovate and respond to the challenges that the Pandemic has bought with it. These have, for many organisations, involved a switch to total or partial remote working. The reworking of supply chains, or switching to ecommerce from having originally been a bricks & mortar business.  

And whilst many of these organisations are keen to maintain the positives achieved from these changes, particularly the agility that has been reached and empowerment gained by employees to now work with greater autonomy, there are some concerning trends emerging relating to employee burnout that will continue to demand an enhanced focus over the course of the years that lay ahead.

What is Employee burnout?

Employee burnout is undoubtedly on the rise, which is an unsurprising outcome from a year of living and working alongside a global Pandemic. But what exactly is employee burnout, what are the tell-tale signs and what should you be looking out for amongst your workforce and teams?

1️⃣ Lack of Engagement

Disengaged employees can easily be confused as being stressed, but there is a subtle difference between the two issues. Stress is often the result of higher levels of productivity, where disengagement typically presents as employees who may be showing a level of disconnection with their work, their co-workers and the organisation as a whole. 

This disillusioned and detached response can present in manifest itself in employees as a lack-lustre performance or decrease in their overall performance. 

In situations where employees appear to be disengaged, it’s time for people managers or direct managers to step in, helping to determine the cause, whilst helping to provide supportive solutions. 

2️⃣ Higher levels of Absenteeism

An employee on the cusp of burnout caused by increasing stress or an overload of work, will often display emotional and physical symptoms, which in turn lead to higher levels of absenteeism. It’s not unusual to see an employee experiencing burnout, who has previously had a low level of sickness absence, become an employee who is taking increased or extended time out of the organisation. 

These employees may be giving a variety of reasons for having a need to take time off, from reporting issues with underlying & ongoing health conditions, through to falling ill as a result of other reasons. The key however is to not only look out for those employees taking more time off, but to also be mindful of those employees who may be unwell, yet still turning up to work. Potentially indicating an issue with presenteeism. 

3️⃣ Irritability & increased Sensitivity

As business leaders, it is essential to understand your workforce, what motivates them, what challenges them and ultimately what it is that makes them tick. These varied but many nuances in ways of working, personality and preferences are essential indicators in understanding how to get the very best out of your people. 

Yet recognising changes in behaviour, such as increased irritability and sensitivity are crucial in spotting employees on the cusp of burnout. Particularly if the employee has a manner and personality that is notably different to the ones that are being displayed, such as a typically relaxed employee becoming irritable, emotional and uncharacteristically themselves.  

These changes can be a key indicator that your employee could need additional support.

It’s worthwhile remembering that whatever is causing the burnout, could manifest itself in ways that can damage not only the individual short term, but also their careers on a long term basis. Therefore having an awareness of what to look out for is crucial for everyone concerned.

4️⃣ Depression or Low Mood

Employee burnout has the power to lead to low mood and depression in some employees. The tell tale signs of this can range from decreased confidence, behaving withdrawn, irrational or demonstrating an unpredictable thought process, or perhaps excessive worrying. 

Whilst it’s safe to assume given the context and challenges of the pandemic, that these behaviours could present themselves in a wide range of employees, it’s vital to stay attuned to your workforce and be prepared to intervene with the offer of additional support should these behaviours continue to present themselves.

How to Support Your People Through the Challenge of Burnout During Lockdown

Personnel Today have suggested there are five key ways that Human Resources teams can help to prevent employee burnout, that has increased risk of presenting itself during this current period of lockdown, but also beyond. 

1️⃣ — The first key way is to provide clarity on structure, whilst reaching an agreement on what this structure will involve. 

The reality for most people during our current lockdown is that there is a blend of life and home responsibilities. Some people are having to homeschool whilst continuing to perform their work duties. Many will be faced with the challenge of adapting to life again with enhanced restrictions, which lacks the usual interruptions of social contact and changes in scenery.

Leaders can learn a lot about helping employees in times of stress by looking at how individuals approach problems

It’s vitally important for business leaders to respond to these latest challenges by doing more of what has worked in previous lockdowns, with regards to structure. Or if the situation demands it, reviewing ways of working and HR policies, to improve and create new and enhanced ways of doing things that could prove beneficial. 

2️⃣ — The second key way is to have an awareness of your own personality and how this will impact your team or those you are HR business partnering.

Having an understanding of your own personality and management style is vital during times of increased stress. During this time, it’s all the more critical to be aware of our own individual problem-solving styles, along with having solid preferences for structure that could impact how our team’s are functioning. 

3️⃣ — Factor in personality styles against the context of the virtual environment, as our ability to control our virtual environments can have a positive impact on the ways in which we engage & function.

There will inevitably be team members or employers who don’t have the most optimised environment for working from home. These challenges could in turn impact their engagement levels and output, so it makes sense to be attuned to how the individual is responding to their virtual work environment, along with being prepared to support where necessary. 

4️⃣ — Managing the style gap is the fourth key way to provide support. The way in which leaders manage the gaps in problem solving style between themselves and others is crucial. Ultimately, as leaders it’s important that they are open to being prepared to model the good behaviours they want their people to adopt. 

It’s helpful to remember that adaptors and innovators will often feel stressed when working conditions fail to align with their individual preferences and as human resources professionals, we’re on hand to help managers identify and bridge those gaps where possible. 

5️⃣ — Switching on coping behaviors is the fifth and final key way to help ourselves and our teams in handling burnout. 

A coping behaviour is a way of operating that allows us to behave more adaptively or more innovatively than what can be a preferred & go-to problem-solving style.

During these times of increased stress and pressure it’s important to feel confident in identifying where there are issues, whilst at the same time, acknowledging people for doing their best. But by helping our people to adapt and innovate their preferences, they will have the tools to be able to cope better in this and future periods of stress. 

6️⃣ — Leverage the capability and efficiency wins to be gained by using a complete HR platform designed with your business in mind. Sage HR helps by making people management easier, all whilst allowing you to engage, manage, retain and get the very most out of your people.

Bringing It All Together

Mckinsey research into the implications for business and people following the ever enduring Pandemic has indicated that the real crisis in employees experiencing burnout will, based on this and previous research, come after the initial response. The aftermath is also likely to persist as an issue for up to two years following the COVID-19 crisis.

Executives still feel positive about the economy, advanced industrial companies are plotting their exit from the pandemic, and more.
Executives still feel positive about the economy, advanced industrial companies are plotting their exit from the pandemic, and more. –  McKinsey

The result is predicted to be an inevitable rise in absenteeism, increased employee turnover, attrition and for even the most high performing individuals, there is the prospective scope for periods of depression. 

A critical consideration in all of this, is that even the most seasoned and experienced senior leaders will be going through the same challenges being felt by their employees and teams. And whilst those in leadership positions tend to go through the challenges with increased adaptability and pace, they are not immune to the challenges that this present moment continues to bring.

As HR professionals, our role is to be mindful, empathetic and supportive of these challenges being felt in others, but to also be mindful of what we’re experiencing ourselves. 


Sage HR

For companies where people are paramount to success, Sage HR  helps businesses overcome the complexities of managing their people, so they can focus on growing their business.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.