Burnout: how to recognize it on time

Burnout is a term first used by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, and it refers to a type of psychological, work-related, stress that is conditioned by long-term exhaustion, frustration, and lack of motivation and enthusiasm.

Burnout syndrome is manifested through emotional, psychological, and physical difficulties which interfere with work tasks and obligations, but also with the person’s everyday functioning. For a long time, burnout was considered a personal problem, so many companies have decided to ignore it. Today, it is clear that this problem doesn’t originate from the individual, but from the organization, and that it largely impairs productivity, leading to significant financial losses.

According to the data of the American Psychological Association, companies without a support system for their employees have lower productivity, higher fluctuation, and even 50% higher healthcare costs. Besides, a study published in Harvard Business Review shows that the stress in the workplace is costing the American economy around 500 billion dollars and 550 million workdays lost, each year.

This was enough of a reason for the World Health Organization to officially recognize burnout as a problem of modern society. While, at the same time, the responsibility for “curing it” has been switched from the individual to company executives, whose strategies for reducing stress in the workplace largely impact the success of the modern business.

Causes of burnout

Based on the results of a research involving over 7500 employees, Cristina Maslach, a social psychologist and professor emerita of psychology on the University of California, has pointed out the five causes of burnout:

  • the feeling of injustice at work
  • insufficiently clear work role
  • inadequate communication and the lack of manager’s support
  • unreasonable task deadlines
  • too big of a workload

We can see that none of these factors are related to a specific personality type, but rather to the company’s organizational structure. Hence, with preventive activities of managers or employers, it is possible to avoid problems like burnout and reduced employee productivity.

What do companies with high burnout rates have in common?

In the book “Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team s Productive Power”, three common factors of companies with high burnout rates are pointed out:

  • too much teamwork
  • inefficient time management
  • work overload of the most experienced employees

If you thought that there can never be too much teamwork, you are wrong. Excessive cooperation, manifested in countless meetings and messages exchanged with colleagues working on the same project, can lead to burnout. According to the authors of the book, Michael C. Mankins and Eric Garton, employees spend over 80% of their work time in meetings, on the phone, and replying to emails, because of which they are struggling to finish their tasks. This brings into question the productivity of the large number of meetings, which are often held just to comply with the organizational culture.

The problem connected with the above-mentioned is inefficient time management. The employees are expected to finish a large number of tasks, and meet deadlines which are often not set rationally. When deadlines are defined, the unforeseen work responsibilities, meetings, and communication through virtual channels are often not taken into consideration, yet they take up a lot of work time. Because of this problem, employees end up working overtime, which gradually leads to burnout.

Employees with the most knowledge and experience are often, besides their own responsibilities and meetings, given the task of training new employees. However, instead of using their expertise, research shows that more work hours and more responsibility lead to feeling “worn out”, reduced productivity and quality of the work done.

How to prevent burnout

If you have detected in your company some of the potential causes of burnout previously mentioned, you should know how to prevent this problem by using the right organizational measures.

Observe your employees

The first step in preventing burnout is discovering what makes your employees unhappy, “worn out” and unsatisfied. Through observing and conversation, you can find out a lot of what needs to be changed in the workplace to unleash your team’s creativity. This will help you with the creation of new corporate norms which will improve satisfaction and productivity.

Reduce processes and practices that lead to burnout

Many processes that you are implementing to “make it easier” for your employees are in fact unnecessary procedures that lead to burnout. For example, the management of Dropbox tested whether everyday meetings are actually needed. They eliminated all team meetings that repeat during two weeks, and, based on that, made a schedule of only those that are absolutely necessary. As a result, Dropbox has tripled its number of employees in just two years, and the meetings have become less often, shorter and more productive.

Apart from decreasing the number of meetings, using agile work principles significantly prevents burnout, because it makes it much easier for employees to work on projects together. Every team member has the space to achieve individual results and take personal responsibility. This way of working is important for motivation, the feeling of personal achievement, and the reduction of unfair treatment in the workplace. Furthermore, the agile principle significantly takes the high workload of the most experienced employees, and enables all team members to work both independently, and within the team, all while focusing on the priorities.

Ensure better time management

One of the ways to reduce the overwork of your employees is adequate time management. This means that, together with your team, you need to set realistic expectations and align them with the time necessary for meeting them. Each employee should be supported in creating individual schedules, so that they feel independent and in control of their own time.

Bonus advice: Create a balance between motivational and hygiene factors

A prerequisite for satisfaction in the workplace is a pleasant and incentive work atmosphere. Skillful work organization and the creation of a friendly work climate, with the right to make mistakes and ask questions, will significantly reduce stress in the workplace. When creating a strategy that cares about the employees’ satisfaction, managers can start with Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory. The core of this theory is in reaching an ideal balance between motivational and hygiene factors. Motivational factors are recognition, career advancement opportunities, participation in the decision-making process, and the feeling of being important to the organization. Besides that, hygiene factors are also important, and they include common work conditions such as pay, administration, company politics, work relations, status and security.

If we take this theory into consideration, burnout can be prevented with optimal organizational hygiene, motivation, and by caring for the employees’ wellbeing.


Educating managers on the problem of burnout is the first step in its prevention. By recognizing potential problems, implementing work redistribution and organizational changes, the stress that your employees are feeling can be significantly reduced. Skillful management and listening to the needs of the people you work with are key to achieving greater productivity, efficiency and satisfaction.

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