Burnout was a hot topic before COVID-19, but the pandemic has taken it to a new level. Not only have employees reported feeling more burned out during this time, they’re also taking action: many are leaving their jobs, triggering what some experts call the “Great Resignation.” 

Employers are in a bind, struggling to hold onto their current workers while facing challenges with finding new hires — and burned-out workers aren’t willing to settle.

So why is burnout so insidious, and what can employers do to stop it? Paula Davis, author of Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience, explains that “burnout is the manifestation of chronic workplace stress,” and it goes far deeper than simply feeling tired or needing a break. We spoke with Davis to learn more about how to spot early signs of burnout and stop it in its tracks. 

Burnout is different than stress or exhaustion

Davis’s interest and expertise in burnout isn’t just academic, it’s personal. Before founding the Stress and Resilience Institute she had a career in a completely different role — as a lawyer. Despite the long hours in this challenging field, she was successful, but after several years, signs of burnout began to emerge.

“I didn't know what it was and it was a very isolating, very confusing and frustrating experience,” she recalls. This was in the early 2000s, a decade before the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an official “occupational phenomenon,” and Davis was unable to put a name to her struggles. She assumed she was to blame, wondering what she had done wrong and why her own stress-management techniques weren’t working. 

All burnout is stress, but not all stress is burnout.

Unsure of what else to do, Davis made a hard pivot: she left law to continue her education, pursuing graduate school in positive psychology. Eager to resurrect her college studies in psychology, Davis wanted to learn how to help others avoid the challenges she had faced while practicing law. 

“Across the board, people, professions, companies and organizations started to realize we really have to prioritize well-being and mental health,” Davis says, and she is heartened that workers and employers have learned a lot about burnout in the years since. However, she cautions that awareness is only one piece of the puzzle. 

Many don’t understand that burnout goes beyond feeling busy, tired or needing a break, remedied by a few days off or a relaxing vacation. In contrast, burnout is a chronic condition and can’t be solved by such “Band-Aid” approaches. 

I think about burnout as the individual manifestation of a workplace systemic or cultural issue,” explains Davis. This stems in part from common misconceptions that equate burnout with stress: “All burnout is stress, but not all stress is burnout,” she cautions. The difference is that while stress and exhaustion are temporary, burnout is chronic and ongoing.

Cynicism, not exhaustion, is a hallmark of burnout

The symptoms of burnout are more than feeling tired, though that can be part of it. People who are burned out often feel and act annoyed, and cynicism is one of the biggest signs.

In particular, Davis says to watch out for changes in behavior: “Do you notice people who are crankier than usual? Are they snapping at people a little bit more?”

Decreased productivity and changes in sociability are two more red flags. Looking back on her own burnout, Davis remembers how she started procrastinating and taking longer to complete even simple tasks like sending emails. 

She describes herself as someone who loves organizing office get-togethers and lunches, but burnout changed her demeanor: “I showed up to holiday parties late and left early,” she recalls.  

Last but not least, she says to look out for workers who think that “every curveball is a crisis.” In other words, this is when someone is asked to do a small task that provokes a tremendous response, “as though you’ve just asked somebody to move a mountain.” 

Chronic overwork and lack of recognition can cause burnout

So what causes this insidious condition? According to Davis, there are four main causes.

Unmanageable workloads. Davis cautions that unmanageably large workloads can be a trigger for burnout; while it’s normal for work to ebb and flow, Davis says that it’s time to reassess if employees “feel like they’re drinking from a firehose all the time.”

Burnout is also associated with a lack of recognition.

Lack of recognition. Burnout is also associated with a lack of recognition, such as when employees feel like no one notices their work or says thank you for lending a hand. It can also happen when workers don’t see a path for career advancement, believing they’ve outgrown their current role. If employees don’t feel valued, they’re likely to lose steam — or abandon ship.

Weak connections. Davis also stresses the importance of high-quality connections with company leaders and team members. These bonds provide social glue within and across teams and help people feel more engaged with their work communities. When workers lack these connections, it’s easy to feel unmoored.

Davis also emphasizes that people also want and need to know how their work impacts others. 

“Do you have a sense of meaning about what you're doing?” she asks. “Often the answer is a drastic no.” 

Lack of autonomy. Finally, she says employers should be mindful of workers’ having agency. This is particularly timely now, since remote work during the pandemic has given many employees increased autonomy over how, where and when they work. This is likely why nearly half of workers would prefer to have a hybrid arrangement moving forward, preserving independence while bringing clearer separations to work and personal life. 

Celebrate small successes to keep burnout at bay

Acknowledging a problem is the first step in treating it, and the good news, says Davis, is that the pandemic “gave us a unique window to talk about [burnout as a] collective experience.” Luckily, there are ways to address this problem:

Manage and communicate expectations. Davis encourages employers to manage expectations and deadlines, giving workers time to breathe and recover. Communicating about these things appropriately also goes a long way toward building psychological safety and trust across the workplace and within teams. 

Build a safe foundation. People need to know that their coworkers have their backs. When teams have psychological safety, employees are more willing to take smart risks, propose new ideas and help move their teams forward in new ways. They also know they can speak up if they need help or have concerns, without fear of retribution or judgment. 

Davis calls on leaders to “help build that foundation for resilience and high performance and engagement within teams.”

Acknowledge small wins. Calling out “tiny, noticeable” wins can help build engagement and support morale at both the individual and the team level, Davis says. “Paying attention to those small things and sharing them within the context of a team really promotes motivation and resilience … and can slow burnout down.”

Track your progress. The sooner employers can take stock of the problem, the sooner they can work to improve it. When it comes to assessing burnout, Davis suggests informal assessments, such as a short survey where people rate their feelings of cynicism or being overwhelmed, how often they’re working beyond their scheduled hours and whether they’re enjoying themselves at work. 

Reducing burnout is an ongoing process

As Davis reminds us, burnout isn’t just an individual experience, nor is it synonymous with stress or exhaustion; it’s chronic and cumulative, and it can wreak havoc on hiring and retaining workers.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that employers can reduce burnout. The first step is to understand what burnout is, why it happens and how to spot it. Look for telltale symptoms like cynicism, decreased productivity and less socializing. Informal surveys are another great tool. Finally, managing expectations, creating psychologically safe work environments and celebrating wins help employees feel engaged, supported and valued.