Addressing Burnout in the Workplace

Your star employee is coming to work late, seems detached from her job and exhausted on most days. While illness or personal issues may be the culprit, there’s another possibility: she may be burned out.

The World Health Organization recently classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon or work hazard in its International Classification of Diseases. The organization says burnout is characterized by the following three symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Although WHO doesn’t label burnout as a medical condition, its consequences are still harmful, says one workplace expert.

Employees who are burned out may call in sick more frequently, says Jaime Vinck, CEO at Sierra Tucson, a behavioral health organization that supports 450 employees. Likewise, the quality of their work may decline. They may miss deadlines, make careless mistakes, lose interest in work tasks or projects they were once passionate about or grow more irritable when dealing with colleagues.

“Employers are waking up and realizing this is real and they get to do something about it,” she says, adding that burnout can also negatively impact employee retention, productivity and engagement. “Work needs to be a place where people can feel good about their contribution, not exacerbate any other mental health issues they may have.”

HR departments can put in place training for all employees, not just managers, to recognize these symptoms in each other and themselves, she says, adding that individuals can also be encouraged to empower their peers to confront them when they spot signs of burnout.

Once identified, Vinck says, managers need to demonstrate concern and compassion rather than hand out criticism. Inform the worker about specific, noticeable changes in their behavior and then ask how they can help.

Consider temporarily reassigning the employee to less stressful projects or those that offer different perspectives of the company or industry, she says. Also review your communication policies. Are employees expected to respond to phone calls, texts or emails after work and on weekends? It’s important to “be present” when speaking with employees, she says, adding that managers should be paying attention to the affected worker, not to their cell phone or laptop.

Burnout can be reduced or possibly prevented by reinforcing overall wellness activities involving the body, mind and spirit, says Vinck. HR leaders can encourage employees to take short walks during the work day, meditate or engage in breathing exercises, as well as offer time off for self-care to help build their resilience.

Although HR can train employees on preventing or managing burnout, Vinck says, the real challenge is persuading resistant managers to acknowledge it. HR professionals can get their attention by addressing the financial impact it has on employee turnover, productivity, employee morale and engagement in their department or throughout the company.

“It’s very important to develop an environment of connection and support,” says Vinck. “Anything you can do to prevent burnout will help employees in the long run with their mental and physical wellbeing.”

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at