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3 Ways to Tell If Your Employees Are Burning Out—and What to Do About It

3 Ways to Tell If Your Employees Are Burning Out—and What to Do About It

In a year when a global crisis has substantially affected mental health, employee well-being is more vital than ever. While running a design firm is a massive endeavor—and you might personally feel the need to hustle 24/7 in order to keep your business running—it’s crucial to create a healthy and positive work environment for both yourself and your staff. If things go wrong, you might find your employees suffer from burnout.

“Burnout is defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization,” says Dr. Ash Nadkarni, an associate psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “People lose their sense of meaning, joy, and purpose at work.”

It’s commonly caused by prolonged exposure to stressors that leads employees to feel that the hard work they’re putting into their job isn’t yielding worthwhile results. “Burnout has three different components: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness,” says Stephanie Harrison, who has a master’s degree in positive psychology, and is founder and CEO of consultancy The New Happy.

It’s important to note that stress won’t definitively lead to burnout. “Your team won’t burn out after a one-time intensive push toward a deadline, but if your business cycle is set up in a way that repeats those stress cycles frequently, burnout is almost a given,” says Laura Weldy, a women’s leadership coach.

If you’re worried that your employees might be suffering—or you simply want to prevent them from reaching their breaking point—here’s how to identify and fix burnout.

How to Identify Burnout in Employees

Your employees might not directly tell you that they’re feeling burnt out, so checking in on their well-being via one-on-one meetings is crucial. But even then, an employee might not want to disclose their true feelings. You can also take a less personal approach that gives employees more privacy—say, by surveying employees via the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which they can respond to anonymously.

Keep an eye out for behavioral or emotional signals that might indicate your staff is burning out. “I can always identify employee burnout when I notice a lack of communication, lack of attention to detail, and lack of interest,” says designer Megan Grehl. “I’m lucky that within my small team of five people, we can notice and feel each other’s emotions and moods, even remotely.”

Not sure to look for in your employees? Here are a few key indicators of burnout.

1. Your employees start acting distant.

If you’re not seeing much of your employees, or you’re not hearing from them as frequently as usual, that could be a sign that they’re burning out. Distancing can manifest itself in many ways, from showing up late to meetings (or, during the pandemic, turning cameras off for Zoom meetings) or not responding to messages. “Someone who is burned out will likely feel more cynical about the work and people they are surrounded by,” says New York–based clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff. “In turn, they may dissociate from work to cope and become more distant.”

2. There’s a decrease in the quality of your employees’ work.

You might notice that your employees are making more mistakes than usual. “Burnout can drain emotional energy, leaving individuals tired and depleted, which means more energy is required to complete the tasks that once were done with ease,” says Dr. Romanoff. “This also leads to reduced performance, not because a person loses competency, but because perception about their tasks becomes overly negative.” In essence, they’ve become careless due to apathy or indifference.

3. Your employees exhibit negative changes in behavior.

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