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An empty shell sitting at a desk: The signs of employee burnout and what you can do as a manager

Posted by Deb Muoio

Jul 28, 2014 12:38:00 PM


To exhaust the body is one thing, but once a person reaches the point where they no longer find joy in their work, no longer care about clients and colleagues, and dread each new work day, it's not just exhaustion - it's burnout.

After analyzing data from nearly 9,000 people who took the Burnout Test (Service Fields), our results reveal that the majority of our sample has some symptoms of burnout - though not to an extreme degree. This finding could simply be a result of self-selection bias – people who experience symptoms of burnout might be more inclined to take the test. Therefore, we consider the sample to be composed mostly of people who are somewhat prone to burnout.

 The most common issues were overall fatigue, being overwhelmed and feeling unfulfilled at work. Gender comparisons reveal that women are more likely than men to experience physical symptoms of burnout (headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances) while men scored slightly lower on job fulfillment. Additional statistics indicate that 34% of the people in the sample have consulted a professional for a stress-related problem, 9% are considering it, 6% have been previously diagnosed with burnout, and 18% indicated that they have taken at least a week off work or school to recover from stress.

Those who are currently being treated for burnout are significantly more detached from their job and experience more physical ailments than those who don’t have burnout. Those with a high stress level at work have a lot less energy and are significantly more fatigued. And when it comes to feeling overwhelmed, results are through the roof: those with a high level of stress had a score of 71 on our Overwhelmed scale (score range from 0 to 100) while those with a low degree of stress scored only 27 – that’s a 44-point difference.

The bottom line is, when it comes to jobs where someone experiences a great deal of stress on a consistent basis, it’s not a question of whether or not it will take its toll – it’s when.

Results from our study also reveal that:

  • 81% of burnout sufferers feel physically rundown.
  • 63% feel that there’s too much weight on their shoulders.
  • 46% feel that they work too much.
  • 63% feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected of them.
  • 69% feel emotionally empty at the end of the day.
  • 48% state that just the idea of spending the whole day working with people makes them apprehensive.
  • 34% admit that sometimes, they don’t really care what happens to their customers.
  • 64% have difficulty sleeping.
  • 58% encounter periods at work when they feel like crying.
  • 13% find joy in their work.

Based on these sobering statistics, it is clear how burnout affects every level of our being. Granted, we all experience days at work when we are left feeling tired and emotionally drained. But for those with burnout, it’s a culmination of mental, physical, and emotional upheaval that brings life to a halt. At some point, even if we don’t want to take a break and slow down, our worn-out body and spirit will force us to.

What are the risk factors for burnout?

  • Work overload
  • Emotionally overwhelming duties (e.g. suicide hotline workers)
  • Lack of a sense of control over work (little or no input on decisions, no control over workload or schedule)
  • Lack of clarity on roles and tasks
  • Feeling that one’s contribution and hard work is not appreciated
  • Working long hours with few breaks or little time to recover between projects
  • Oppressive job environment (e.g. micromanagement, workplace bullying)
  • Extreme pressure (e.g. tight deadlines, financial risks, physical risks)

How much does burnout cost?

A great deal. Here’s why: Stress and stress-related illnesses cost U.S. businesses and industries approximately 200 billion each year in

  • Absenteeism
  • Insurance claims
  • On-site accidents
  • Decreased employee morale
  • Low productivity

What can management do?

  • Implement preventative measures by offering self-check questionnaires to individuals as a company-wide initiative (See Stress Check below)
  • Be attentive to signs of stress
o    Physical: Lethargy, sweating, shivering, excitability/inability to relax
o    Emotional: Mood swings, outbursts, over-reacting, irritability, fear, anxiety, frequent conflicts
o    Cognitive: Difficulty focusing, confusion, absentmindedness, forgetfulness, difficulty making decisions, poor judgment
o    Behavioral: Restlessness, little interest in appearance, nervous habits (fidgeting, nail biting), tardiness, procrastination, minor accidents, low efficiency and productivity, lack of drive and motivation
  • If you notice that an employee is stressed or on the verge of burnout, broach the subject diplomatically and with compassion.
o    State why you are concerned (e.g. “I’ve noticed some performance issues/dip in productivity.”)
o    Ask if there is a work-related or personal issue behind the problem.
o    Make it clear that you are trying to help and what the employee’s options are (e.g. talking to you, local HR contact, EAP program)
  • Intervene – offer to change the person’s workload, make deadlines more flexible, or re-assign work; offer flextime options, telecommuting, work sharing, or compressed work weeks; offer time management and project management tips.

Stress Check

Respond to each question as honestly as possible. Make a checkmark in the answer option that best describes how you feel. Not at all Occasionally Often
I feel overwhelmed.      
I feel overly-emotional, like I want to cry or tell someone off.      
I am having difficulty focusing on my work or making decisions.      
I feel like people are demanding more of me than I can handle.      
I feel rushed, like I don't or won't have enough time to get everything done.      
I feel helpless, discouraged, or depressed.      
I just want to shut down and go home.      
I don't find any joy in my work.      
The quality of my work is declining.      
I can't stop worrying or thinking about problems.      
I feel like any moment, I am going to crack under the pressure.      
At the end of the day, I find it hard to relax and unwind.      

 Add up the responses according to the following:

  • Not at all: 0 points
  • Occasionally: 5 points
  • Often: 10 points


  • Score of 0-39: Current stress level is low.
  • Score of 40-80: Current stress level is moderate.
  • Score of 81-120: Current stress level is high.

If you’re interested in using tests for HR purposes, request a free trial for ARCH Profile here.

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Topics: HR Tips, Employee Wellbeing, stress, Employee Assistance Programs, Turnover

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