Employee burnout: What is it and what are the signs?

by The Smartsheet Team

Over the past two-plus years, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased stress on employees across the global workforce. Numerous industries have been upended, leading to massive job losses. 

In the meantime, workers have dealt with increasing job demands while kids are stuck at home, leaving them to juggle work and family life. They've responded by quitting en masse, with 4.5 million people leaving their jobs in November, the highest monthly total in at least two decades, according to The New York Times. 

To put it simply: Workers aren’t happy. And burnout is often the culprit. 

In a Conference Board survey released in October, 80% of the roughly 1,800 respondents expressed concern about their mental health, with 77% citing stress and burnout as their biggest challenges. Indeed, employee burnout has become an endemic part of the US economy. 

At Smartsheet, our goal is to make work matter. Part of that mission includes making day-to-day tasks bearable and big projects easier to complete. It's much harder to do that when feeling the effects burnout. So here are ways to identify the phenomenon and strategies to keep your  mental health intact. 

What is burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an “occupational hazard that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

According to the WHO, burnout symptoms include the following:

  • Energy depletion and exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism toward work
  • Reduced professional efficacy 

Pretty simple, right?

Well, not so much. Left untreated, burnout can increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and other similar mental health ailments, as well as negatively impact personal relationships, according to Healthline. And it can lead to substance abuse, panic attacks and more. 

Employee burnout has consequences from a business perspective, too. According to a Gallup poll, employees experiencing burnout have a 37% higher rate of absenteeism, 18% lower rate of productivity and a 15% drop in profitability. 

What causes burnout?

A variety of factors contribute to workplace burnout, including unclear job responsibilities, an overbearing manager, a heavy workload, tight deadlines, monotonous tasks, a toxic work environment, and more.

It can pop up anytime, anywhere before you fully realize it. It can manifest itself over a period of months or even years. And it’s often hard to pinpoint the exact cause creating the feelings of unease.

Burnout can have fairly serious consequences, including increasing feelings of hopelessness or depression. If one thing is clear, it’s that employees experiencing burnout should directly address the feelings by reaching out to a mental health professional. 

Signs of burnout

Here’s a scenario: You have a Zoom presentation scheduled for the end of the week in front of the entire company. You’re putting in extra hours to make sure you are extra prepared because you know the senior leadership team will be attending. You are nervous.

That is not burnout. It’s temporary stress. And it’s important to be able to recognize the difference. With that in mind, here are some signs that you really are feeling burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic.

  • You are overly cynical and critical
  • You can’t focus and overall productivity is down
  • You dread the thought of going to the office or even working from home
  • Even when you accomplish a goal or earn a promotion, you aren’t happy 
  • You are using drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings of disillusionment.
  • Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and more 


What are ways to cope with burnout? 

A quick Google search on tips to coping with burnout will provide no shortage of answers. But the key is finding the difference between finding a band-aid solution and a plan that will stick. 

Sure, exercising regularly, practicing gratitude, getting more sleep, and sticking to a set routine will likely lessen symptoms of burnout and may be enough to kick the phenomenon altogether. Another great tip: Always make your bed in the morning. That way, even if you have a terrible day, you can come home and sleep comfortably. 

It’s important to find meaning in your actual work, cut down on that amount of monotonous tasks, and instead focus on projects that make you excited to come into your home or work office. 

Achieving that may take a conversation with your manager about goals, expectations, and your career development. But don’t be afraid to speak your mind so you can find value in the day-to-day activities that dominate work life.  

Every job has its challenges. But finding a way to make your work more personally meaningful can be an effective way to stem feelings of burnout.