How to Spot Burn-Out on Your Team – Before It’s Too Late

Frustrated business person overloaded with work.

Burn-out – a sustained feeling of frustration, fatigue, and hopelessness – can be devastating to a team’s productivity, morale, and long-term retention of good employees. Here are four key signs of burn-out to watch out for on your team, and what to do if you spot them.

1. A good performer’s work plummets – and the drop is sustained. Everyone has bad days, even bad weeks. But when a good employee’s work quality or productivity dips and stays there, something’s wrong. It’s not necessarily burn-out; it could be something going on in their personal life or even a medical issue. But it’s worth reflecting on whether burnout could be at the heart of it, and talking with them to see if you can figure out what’s going on. For example, you might say, “You’ve always been an excellent performer. For the last few months, you’ve seemed distracted and your work hasn’t been the same as it used to be. I know you’re talented and your work ethic is excellent, but I also know lots of things can impact people at work. Is something going on that you’d be willing to share with me?”

2. The person looks exhausted all the time. Hey, we all get to look tired now and then, and when it happens, we usually don’t want people commenting on it. But when someone is consistently looking worn out, take some time to think about their workload and the last time they had a vacation (meaning real time off, where they truly disconnected – no answering work emails while away). You can also talk with them about how they’re prioritizing projects and how they might push some things back if needed.

3. The person has a noticeable drop in interest and enthusiasm. If someone who used to be engaged in meetings and seemed invested in their work starts to seem disengaged and uninterested, something’s wrong. Burn-out often manifests like this because the person no longer has the emotional energy to stay invested – sometimes because they’re convinced it won’t matter (possibly because they feel that in the past it hasn’t made a difference) and sometimes because they’re just exhausted. In this case, you might check in and see how the person is doing, and try to make it safe for them to open up if they are indeed feeling burned out.

4. The person gets much more emotional, and more often. If an employee who used to have a relatively even keel is suddenly getting easily upset, frustration and burn-out could be the cause. Burn-out can make people’s “immunity” to normal workplace stresses very low, which can leave them upset or even teary much more easily. If you notice that someone is getting emotional and upset more often, try asking what’s going on. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed that a few times lately you’ve seemed very upset by things that I don’t think would have impacted you that way a year ago. I know that can be a sign of frustration or fatigue, and I’m worried about how you’re doing.”

So what if you do have a burned out employee?

  • First, be brutally honest with yourself about your management style and whether it might be contributing to the problem. For example, do you email people at all hours and expect quick responses, say things like “just find a way to get it all done” when someone is concerned about their workload, or discourage people (explicitly or more subtly) from unplugging from work on weekends and in the evenings? Do you create a positive culture where input is welcome, or are people working in a tense environment where over time they might become cynical?
  • If the person’s workload is too high, help the person re-prioritize. Can you delegate tasks to someone else, shift due dates back, remove work from their plate altogether, or otherwise find them permanent breathing room in their schedule?
  • Push people to take time off – real time off, where they fully disconnect from work.
  • In extreme cases, consider whether it’s possible to give the person an extended break – longer than the typical one or two weeks of vacation.

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