Broadly explained by as ‘fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity’, the word ‘burnout’ was coined in 1974 by German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger.

While it isn’t strictly a mental illness, it does fall into the ever-widening ‘mental health issue’ chasm of stress, depression and anxiety that, according to ONS statistics, is affecting more and more employees every year.

In an age where productivity expectations are at an all-time high and competition is at its fiercest is coupled with stagnating salaries, it’s easy to see how frustration, cynicism, disengagement, apathy and fatigue can slowly creep in unawares until one day, there’s an explosion…

The problem that businesses have is twofold – not knowing what the catalysts are and managers not being able to recognise it when it’s happening. By the time it’s reared its ugly head, it’s too late.

With issues like workplace stress, the source of burnout usually manifests itself by a combination of internal and external factors but before we explain how to cope, it’s important to recognise the symptoms.

The Build-Up To Burnout

Have you ever said one (or more) of these to yourself?

  • I’m fine, I’m just tired
  • I’m happy to take more on
  • I’m the only one who can do this
  • My boss is depending on me
  • This is just temporary, it’ll pass soon enough
  • Once I’m back from a few days off I’ll be fine
  • If they would just let me get on with it
  • It’s not me, it’s them…

According to (amongst many other credits) New York Times bestselling author and one of President Barack Obama’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs Under 30 Neil Patel, we all know what burnout looks like:

‘It’s the stressed-out manager who proclaims they’ve ‘had it’ and books the next flight to Cancun.

The start-up co-founder working 130-hour weeks who claims he ‘can’t take all this bullsh*t anymore’ and goes on a week-long bender in Miami.

The boss who yells with such intensity you fear he might have a heart attack.’

That may be the extreme end of the scale, but in offices and organisations up and down the country, what happens on the journey to burnout, and what can managers do when this becomes that, according to

  • Competence becomes worthlessness
  • Top performance becomes underwhelming performance
  • A positive outlook becomes a negative outlook
  • Caring becomes apathy
  • Desire becomes a lack of motivation
  • Extraversion becomes isolation
  • One sick day a year becomes 12 sick days a year
  • Good physical health becomes poor physical health
  • A full day in the office becomes barely being able to make it through the day
  • Good ways of coping with stress becomes illegal or dangerous ways of coping with stress

Armed with the knowledge of what burnout is and being able to recognise the symptoms and stressors, there’s plenty you can do to steady the ship and it’s broken down into three categories – Communication, Motivation, Leadership.


Hold Regular Staff Meetings This comes in two parts. Full staff or departmental meetings gives you an opportunity to let your team in on what’s happening in the business. It gives them an opportunity to ask questions and get invested in what’s going on and it also allows an honest exchange of views and standpoints, many of which may end up being beneficial to the business.

One-on-one catch-ups are also an excellent way of staying engaged with your staff whereby they can let you know if there are any issues affecting their productivity or performance and you can let them know you’re their advocate, doing what you can to help them.

Push the Positives, Negate the Negatives Employees on their way to burnout will always look at the negative elements of their situation but it’s your job to push the positives. There’s no harm in recognising that every job has its boring bits but steer the employee towards the interesting and exciting aspects when you’re talking to them as well as acknowledging the vital work they’re doing as an integral part of the team. Practice inclusion and not isolation.

Clarify Your Expectations One root cause of burnout is employees being unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing and who they’re supposed to be doing it for. Make sure they know exactly what their job description is and vitally, who they report into. If these two elements aren’t clear from the outset, the business will waste time and money while it gets figured out and in that time, apathy will creep in.


What Motivates Your Staff? Well that’s something you’ve got to find out for yourself. If we were all the same, that would be easy but we’re not, so it isn’t and to compound the issue, you have to work within their needs, not yours. Will allowing them to listen to music help? What about Dress Down Friday? Letting them leave at 5pm on a Wednesday instead of 5.30? Bonuses or pay rises? (None of us would turn that one down…)

How about a mid-morning cake break once a week? Get an order into a local bakery for croissants, bagels and indulgent cream cakes and let everyone socialise in the break-out area for 20 minutes.

Whatever you uncover about what would motivate your staff, put it into practice.

Specific Stress Relievers It’s not just the job that contributes to burnout, it’s the associated factors such as commuting and long hours. If working from home is an option, it can increase productivity, relieve stress and demonstrate that you are prepared not just to pay them at the end of the month, you are prepared to look after them during the month.

Work to Live, Not Live to Work Employers need to recognise that for optimum performance, their employees need to strike a good work/life balance and while their spare time is their own to do as they please, there are some things that can help while they’re at work.

Encourage your teams to get some fresh air during the day. Leave the laptop, tablet and phone on the desk and get out and breathe fresh* air. If it’s practical, perhaps they can take a laptop and go and work outside for a while. Granted this is an ideal scenario but it’s all about the giving.

*If you’re in central London, the air may not be that fresh…

Another element of employee burnout is not taking all their holiday entitlement for fear of not getting everything done or worse, what people might think if they’re away for a couple of weeks. Guess what though? They absolutely should. It’s in their contract and no-one will think anything less if they get away to Spain for a fortnight to recharge. They will come back fresher, more motivated and ready.



Be a Leader It’s your job to not only bring the team together (that’s the easy part), but to also keep them together (that’s the hard part). Understand that burnout is a serious risk to the business and making sure you’re aware of the cause and effect will mean that you have the skills to handle it if and when it manifests itself.

  • Do your staff need job-specific training to reach their potential? Do they need pastoral-type training in things like stress management? If its even crossed your mind the likelihood is that they do
  • Do you have the ability to evaluate if tasks have been assigned according to skill-set? If a team member seems largely underwhelmed by what they’re doing, push their skill-set in a different direction. Rotate the tasks so everyone does something outside of their comfort zone. It will encourage creativity of thought and intra-team dialogue
  • Unless there are extenuating circumstances, very little work can’t wait until tomorrow. Send your employees home at a reasonable hour and give them the work/life balance they crave

Burnout affects everyone on the hierarchical ladder. From the CEO of a multi-billion pound corporation to the junior web designer straight out of technical college and we all react to it differently. That’s why it’s important to know what it looks like and how to deal with it when you see it.

For more information about how to cope with employee burnout, contact us today.




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