Employee Burnout: It’s Not An Individual Problem, It’s a Collective One.


Burnout. It’s a term that’s thrown around all the time…and with good reason. Because more than ever before, people are physically and emotionally exhausted. And the solution? It calls for a bold shift in our work culture.

Real-life examples of employee burnout are all around us: A co-worker leaving the workforce for a well-needed mental health break. Ariana Huffington collapsed from exhaustion two years after launching Huffington Post. Celebs like Beyonce canceled shows and took a one-year hiatus over exhaustion. …Stories like these have become more and more common.

Now don’t get us wrong, because the workplace culture has come a long way when it comes to employee wellbeing. But recent studies tell us that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Employee Burnout Statistics

In a 2021 survey of full-time employees, a whopping 49% said they felt at least somewhat burned out – a number is likely underreported. Another 2021 survey showed that nearly three in five employees had experienced negative impacts of work-related stress in the past month, including a lack of interest, motivation or energy, difficulty focusing, and a lack of effort at work.

But how did we get here?

Let’s be honest: these past couple of years have been a lot. Arguably, too much. And there’s no doubt that the COVID pandemic exacerbated employee burnout, but it wasn’t the cause. The term ‘burnout’ actually dates back to the 1970s when it was first coined by Herbert Freudenberger.

At the time, Freudenberger was volunteering at a clinic, working grueling hours with a population in dire need. He found himself – and other volunteers – go from idealistic workers to depleted, drained, and resentful ones. So he conducted a study and discovered that they were experiencing burnout.

So now what?

It’s safe to say that high-pressure jobs, ineffective management styles, and heavy workloads had already been dragging down workers pre-COVID. And now? The worldwide pandemic has turned an already struggling workforce upside down.

We find ourselves amidst uncertainties, constant change, and even social uprisings. But what if COVID became the biggest opportunity for employee wellbeing in the workplace? What if we listened to the startling employee burnout statistics? Well, we could possibly have a revolution in the way we work. One that benefits employees, businesses, families, and society as a whole.

But first: What is employee burnout exactly?

Let’s start by defining what it isn’t: Burnout isn’t considered a medical condition. According to the WHO, it’s actually classified as a syndrome or occupational phenomenon. And some scientific studies show that burnout may actually be a form of depression instead of a distinct illness of its own.

Although there is still an ongoing debate on how to classify burnout, the definition of it – a condition caused by chronic workplace stress – remains somewhat constant.

It’s characterized by three dimensions within the work context:

Exhaustion. Feeling depleted and emotionally and physically fatigued.

Cynicism. Feeling negative towards one’s job or more mentally distant from it.

Inefficacy. Feeling less accomplished and less capable at work, and becoming less effective at one’s job.

The Telltale Signs of Employee Burnout

It can be tricky to correctly diagnose burnout because:

1) Employee burnout signs overlap with other conditions like depression and plain old stress

2) Employee burnout can express itself in many different ways depending on the individual, environment, other health conditions, and degree of impact. But one thing is for sure: burnout symptoms are chronic, long-lasting, and nothing that one or two days of rest can cure.

Here are some common employee burnout signs that show up physically, emotionally, and behaviorally:

Physical Signs of Burnout

  • Exhaustion and fatigue.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Sleeplessness.
  • Shortness of breath.

Emotional Signs of Burnout

  • Less interest and motivation at work.
  • Accomplishments at work feel meaningless.
  • Increased self-doubt and a feeling of failure.
  • Overall less satisfaction with work.
  • Detachment or no longer caring about work and results.

Behavioral Signs of Burnout

  • Frustration or impatience with others.
  • Procrastinating on work tasks.
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol as coping mechanisms.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Being overly critical of oneself or others.
  • Becoming cynical at work.

So Why Does Employee Burnout Happen?

Burnout expert, Dr. Christina Maslach of University of California, Berkeley, has found that there are six common drivers of burnout: Workload, Control, Reward, Community, Fairness, and Values. These six factors are also the keys to creating a healthy workplace that promotes employee well-being. An employee is less likely to burn out when the employer provides them:

  1. A sustainable workload
  2. More choice and control
  3. Recognition and reward
  4. A supportive work community
  5. Fairness, respect, and social justice
  6. Clear values and meaningful work

Connecting the Dots: Prevent Employee Burnout With a Healthy Workplace

Burnout has long been approached as an ‘employee problem’ rather than a company one. But if you look at the causes of burnout, they point back to the organization and its culture, policies, and leadership. It’s truly up to employers to step up, take charge, and cultivate a healthy workplace that helps their employees thrive.

Here are some ways companies can prevent employee burnout from happening in the first place:

Even the playing field between wellness and work.

Although paid time off, vacations, and mental health days provide a well-needed break, they’re not enough for lasting mental health. Mental well-being is a daily practice and when companies encourage their employees to make time for it every day, employees are happier and more productive.

Lunchtime meditations? Monday breathwork classes? Daily sessions with Reflect? There are countless ways to get employees to take care of their minds. But giving them a reasonable workload so they can balance self-care and work tasks is key.

Promote work-life balance in the ‘Zoom’ era.

Since work-from-home culture became the new norm, ‘work-life balance’ took on a whole new meaning. WFH culture has its advantages like increased profits, productivity, and more flexibility, but it comes with its downsides, too.

Zoom fatigue and a blurred line between being ‘at work’ and ‘off the clock’ calls for a new kind of support. Helping employees set up a designated at-home office space, encouraging them to unplug, and discouraging work communication outside of office hours can help your employees set healthy boundaries. And it works best when management leads by example.

Lead with empathy and openness.

Professionalism, empathy, and transparency can co-exist. Open communication between leadership and employees leads to more employee satisfaction, trust, and less unknowns…which ultimately reduces stress and the likelihood of employee burnout.

When employees are ‘in the know’ they feel comfortable opening up and communicating their concerns, suggestions, and feedback. Which in turn, helps management make better decisions for the entire team.

Ask employees what they need.

The small daily stressors – like a broken printer or not enough helping hands – can truly add up and become the biggest drain of energy over time. So the best thing? Ask employees what they want and truly listen to their needs. Create solutions that make them feel heard, part of the decision-making process, and appreciated.

To reduce employee burnout, all signs point to an evolution of workplace culture that goes beyond a simple exchange of money and time. And when companies create more humanizing policies and workplaces, it benefits people and businesses alike. Reflect is one way to evolve workplace culture and prevent employee burnout before it happens.

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Photo of Noga Sapir - Reflect Author, the author
Written by Noga Sapir - Reflect Author

Noga is the founder and CEO of Reflect Innovation. Noga’s work lies in the intersection of technology and design, and how tactility can create unique experiences in the mental health space.

Reflect Innovation was conceived in 2016 when, while completing her degree in Textile Design, Noga developed Reflect, looking to invent solutions for her own struggle with anxiety.

Noga holds a BSc. in Neuroscience from Tel Aviv University and BDes. in Textile Design from Shenkar College of engineering, design, and art.

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