August 16, 2022

Demystifying burnout: The who, what, and why of work burnout symptoms

Burnout is an ever-present issue in the workplace. Here’s the who, what, and why of work burnout symptoms and how you can address them at your organization.

A common burnout story

James sat in his car in the parking lot staring at the sign he’d seen most days for the last 25 years. He dreaded the thought of going into the building. He was tired and he already felt angry anticipating the questions customers and peers would ask him today. He rubbed his aching head, sighed, and opened the door to start his work shift for the day.

What James was feeling illustrates the symptoms of burnout. Burnout is a psychological syndrome in response to continued stress on the job. It consists of three components: high exhaustion, high cynicism (defined as a distant attitude toward the job), and low efficacy (either realized by people around them or an internal declining sense of professional capability).

Who is burning out?

While James’ story may feel familiar, this is just a small example with infinite variations. So many people in the North American workforce are experiencing burnout, but who exactly is burning out?

According to our de-identified data from over 100,000 employees in North America – removing any identifying information to look at the data anonymously – 20% are experiencing burnout.1 Hourly employees (18.8%) are less likely to be burned out than salaried employees (23.6%). One possibility could be that hourly employees might set more boundaries than salaried employees, using their contracted hours to help prevent exhaustion.

When we looked at specific industries, our data showed some interesting details. For example, in the hotel and supermarket industries in the United States, men in salaried positions are almost 40% more likely than women to be burned out. The supermarket industry is also seeing a higher rate in general of employee burnout with 22.7% compared to hotels with 13.6%.

The higher rate of burnout with supermarkets currently makes sense due to the COVID environment. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the percent of burned-out employees in the supermarket industry increased from 13.5% in 2018 and peaked at 25.8% in 2020. Supermarkets are also currently experiencing a worker shortage and salaried employees are being asked to take on more hours, or hours they wouldn’t normally work to make sure the organization can continue operating.

How to address work burnout symptoms

As a leader, what can you do about the work burnout symptoms you see all around? The ideal situation is to act before workers experience full-fledged burnout. Once an employee is burned out, it is very unlikely they will become engaged without a change in team, role, or organization.

But sometimes, you might not notice the burnout signs before it’s too late.

The best thing a leader can do is talk to their burned-out employees to understand what the cause of the burnout is. Take stock of their knowledge, skills, and experiences to see if they can be moved to a new role or leader. Being as proactive as possible once you see the work burnout symptoms is the best thing you can do.

While some employees are already burned out, you can go back to basics to keep others from burning out, too. Here are six ideas for avoiding future employee burnout.

1. Revisit compensation and benefits packages

Make sure compensation and benefits are competitive. This helps employees feel valued. If employees are worried about how they are going to make ends meet while working for you, that constant stress is going to breed resentment and cynicism.

2. Revise roles and build boundaries

Make sure employees have a defined job description that they can reference, with clear roles and responsibilities. This helps the employee set boundaries to help prevent exhaustion. Knowing what they’re responsible for and what they can de-prioritize or delegate elsewhere gives employees the power to say “no” – something that’s especially hard to do in a busy, over-burdened work environment.

3. Create opportunities for time off

Monitor employees’ schedules for those who have not taken time off or are being asked to work longer, such as shifts over more than five consecutive days or consistently scheduled weekends. This helps identify those who are at an increased risk of experiencing exhaustion. In some cases, the workload in an employee’s area is so overloaded that people cannot take time off. To offset burnout risk, consider hiring additional employees if the budget allows.

4. Recognize, celebrate, repeat

Promote a culture of recognition, including recognizing leaders. Often, as people move up the ladder, they stop being recognized. Make sure you understand the how, when, and frequency of people’s recognition preferences. Think about your Senior Vice President who received praise frequently as they climbed the ladder, and then it stopped when they hit that SVP level. This can result in your leaders doubting themselves and feeling unappreciated. Whether it’s an individual contributor, middle manager, or C-suite executive, recognize their accomplishments.

5. Personalize engagement activities

Not all recognition is created equal. When creating engagement activities, make sure they’re personal to the specific employee. If you recognize your employee in a way that isn’t meaningful to them, it can be disengaging. An example of this would be rewarding a very introverted employee with a trip where they’re surrounded by co-workers all day, every day of the trip. They are likely to leave that trip feeling more drained, like it was work instead of a reward. Understanding how each employee experiences recognition can reduce unintentional burnout.

6. Rewrite goals over time

Having realistic, attainable goals that are updated throughout the year helps the employee and leader set boundaries and deprioritize low-priority work. Rewriting goals over time also helps managers understand employee workload, giving them the opportunity to assess and restructure unreasonable workloads.

Burnout is not inevitable, and it’s up to leadership to mitigate burnout risk. Look for ways to actively work against this preventable problem to keep it from overrunning your organization.

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[1] Methodology: At Ceridian, we’re assessing anonymized data from clients that have opted into a program where we can use their data for research purposes. This data has been further segmented using the NAICS code to group clients into industries to look at industry-specific trends. The data used in this article represents over 100,000 employees across three industries (Civic organizations, Hotels/Motels, and Supermarkets) in 2021 and 2022.

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Brittany Schmaling

A gifted storyteller, Brittany has a wealth of experience making sense of volumes of data to help business leaders solve real world people problems. She holds a Masters in Industrial Organizational Psychology and an ACC credential from the International Coaching Federation. Currently, Brittany combs through millions of employee datapoints collected through Dayforce, Ceridian’s always-on people platform, to create easily digestible and actionable insights to drive quantifiable business value.

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