employee with burnout

10 Signs of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent It

Customer service professionals often face demanding situations and challenges – especially those who work on the frontline. Most people who go into to a customer care role are naturally empathetic and service-minded. They understand that a certain level of stress goes with the customer service territory. However too much stress, if left unchecked, can lead to employee burnout.

Stress, bad days and an ebb and flow of energy are all a normal part of a customer service professional’s life. However, if there are more lows than highs, then there may be a more serious issue.  Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, this blog will focus on a mental health challenge for many employees: Burnout.  

What is Burnout?

According to Mental Health Matters authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A, Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.”

In a 2018 Gallup study of a pool of nearly 7,500 employees: 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, and 44 % reported feeling burned out at least some of the time. The 23% in 2018 almost doubled in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic and continued to increase in 2021. This means that more than half of your workforce will experience employee burnout at some point in their career! With increased awareness of the importance of mental health, more progressive companies seek to detect and reduce burnout in their workforce. Knowing the signs is the first step so let’s go over them.

Signs of Employee Burnout

Signs of burnout can range from what is known as “passive burnout” – which has subtler symptoms that are not as easy to detect – to “active burnout” – which is when employees have a decreased ability to regulate their behavior and appearance at work. 

Passive Burnout

Signs of passive – or more subtle – burnout include:

  1. Lack of motivation, waning energy and weariness
  2. Low self esteem
  3. Body language that conveys resignation and depression
  4. Increased cynicism and feelings that “nobody cares”
  5. Decreased connection with co-workers

Active Burnout

If burnout has progressed to the active stage, the signs are a lot more obvious and easier to detect. These include:

  1. Angry outbursts, anxiety or crying spells
  2. Disheveled appearance 
  3. Poor performance at work
  4. Frequent illness or absence from work
  5. Unhealthy eating habits or alcohol/ drug abuse

Causes of Employee Burnout

While there are many personal and professional factors that can contribute to burnout, the most common causes in the workplace can be summarized as:

  • Poor Culture – If teamwork, respectful communication and both an internal and external customer service mindset is not emphasized, the chances for bad management, office politics and low employee morale are increased.
  • Unclear Expectations – If managers are unclear or inconsistent about their expectations, or expect too much, employees are likely to feel overwhelmed and confused.
  • Heavy Workload – Too much work, last minute directives and unreasonable deadlines will contribute to burnout.
  • Unfair Compensation – Employees who aren’t properly compensated will not only feel undervalued, they will be preoccupied with meeting their living expenses which can detract from their performance at work.
  • Lack of Recognition – If employees do not receive recognition for their hard work and sincere efforts, they will feel defeated. According to a Forbes study, 79% of employee resignations are due to lack of employee appreciation.
  • Less Opportunity for Growth – If employees are kept in the same role for years and are not given promotions, or other opportunities for development, they will start to feel professionally stagnated.
  • No Work/Life Balance – A lack of work/life balance is a major contributor to mental health issues that can lead to burnout.
  • Unhappy Customers – If a company has a bad culture and/or lack of customer service training for their staff, customers will experience it. And it is the frontline staff who typically take the brunt of customer frustration. Being on the receiving end of customers’ anger and shouting day in and out is bound to affect one’s mental health!

Preventing Burnout with Empathic Leadership

Knowing the subtle and obvious signs of burnout are the first step in preventing it. This requires a different level of listening and empathy. It’s very important to keep the lines of communication open – whether your employees work in person or remotely. 

virtual meeting

To quote Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic:

“The key word here is empathy. In my communication with leaders, I encourage them to rethink the definition of empathetic leadership — particularly as it pertains to preventing burnout. We tend to connect empathy to the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But I don’t believe that goes far enough. If you authentically want to demonstrate empathy you must “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” That requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing, and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action.”

In summary: Employee burnout is an issue that leaders need to bring out in the open and address in the workplace. They should ideally keep an eye out for passive and active signs of burnout on a daily basis – in addition to conducting annual or semi-annual employee surveys. They should also train teams and managers on how to recognize the signs. Of course, the best way to deal with burnout is to try to prevent it from happening in the first place – by creating a positive and supportive culture where people feel valued.

The long-term solution to employee burnout – as pointed out by Jennifer Moss – is empathic, people-focused leadership. Managers will make it a point to get to know know their teams and understand their needs so that they center their policies and actions around them. A company culture rooted in this level of caring and connection will make employee burnout very rare – if not non-existent. The end-goal is to not only prevent burnout but maintain an environment where employees thrive on all levels. After all, thriving employees who take great care of each other and their customers are what most successful businesses have in common.

Additional Resources:

The Vital Role Of Purpose And Meaning In Employee Engagement

7 Ways Customer Care Has Been Changed By The Global Pandemic

Are You Losing Your Passion For Customer Service? 10 Ways To Rekindle The Spark

Customer Care Begins At Home

Tips To Take From Zappos’ Customer Service

8 Examples Of Effective Listening

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Customer Service Institute of America