Neil Young famously sang “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. But is it really better to go out with a bang, rather than drift off into obscurity?

In the workplace we don’t want our people to do either. And while it’s easier to spot employees who are coasting and not contributing, it’s difficult to spot the early signs of burnout – sometimes those most susceptible appear the most engaged.

But what really is burnout? How does it relate to the workplace? And how can you identify it?

Burnout is a term that had been in common parlance since at least the early 1970s, but has been popularised recently in the workplace, and has come to the forefront in the foreboding omnipresence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year, many employees have described feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, a lack of optimism and stress from juggling work and home commitments.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) includes burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, not as a medical condition. They define it as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’

However it’s described, burnout has a real and measurable impact on both individual mental and physical health and wellbeing, and on organisational productivity and success as a whole. In fact, burnt out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and are 18% less productive, costing organisations 34% of employee’s annual salary. They’re also 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job1.

How can organisations begin to address the problem?

The first step is to recognise when employees burn out. It’s not as simple as just asking employees if they feel burned out: the majority will answer positively without fully understanding the nuances of what the term means.

What’s more, those most vulnerable to burn out are often those who love their jobs, are top performers, have commitment to the organisation, are resilient, and have effective coping mechanisms in place. This makes identifying an individual’s propensity to burn out a highly complex task.

Identifying and measuring the often-hidden symptoms of burnout is, however, a step in the right direction. And helpfully, the symptoms of burnout have been effectively identified by social psychologist Christina Maslach as:

  • Increased feelings of emotional exhaustion – as emotional resources are depleted, workers feel they are no longer able to give of themselves at a psychological level.
  • The development of depersonalization, that is, negative, cynical attitudes and feelings about one’s clients. This callous or even dehumanised perception of others can lead staff members to view their clients as somehow deserving of their troubles.
  • Reduced personal accomplishment, which refers to the tendency to evaluate oneself negatively, particularly with regard to one’s work with clients. Workers may feel unhappy about themselves and dissatisfied with their accomplishments on the job.

Being proactive in getting to the root causes of burnout

Understanding that these are critical pointers of burnout means it is possible to create a diagnostic tool that asks questions relating to each of these elements. By identifying those who are answering positively to all three, you have the ability to pinpoint certain populations in your organisation where employees are more susceptible to burnout, and work with leaders in those areas to address the root cause.

This can help organisations act on more specific aspects of burnout and pinpoint where the biggest issues are most common across the organisation. We’ve worked with a number of clients recently to do just that, whether it is helping them identify the need for more resources, look at process improvement, job design or the pastoral behaviours that individual leaders display.

One client, for example, had a high number of employees anecdotally reporting burnout. Through a targeted and measured approach, we identified that in reality employees were suffering from exhaustion, but actually had good levels of job efficacy and low levels of cynicism. This gave the company a clear idea of where they needed to focus their efforts in order to reduce workloads while maintaining productivity, engagement and morale.

These clients have recognised that listening to what employees are saying about their experience can act as a clear warning sign – not only to avoid the mental stress and physical repercussions this can have on individuals, but also to prevent the disruption this will cause to the organisation as a whole.

The next step – taking a preventative approach

Of course, prevention is always better than cure. Preventing burnout must be as much of a focus as treating it for today’s leaders and HR departments.

To achieve this, employee wellbeing needs to be a priority, thought about holistically and the root causes addressed rather than the symptoms. There are some fundamental root causes to poor workplace wellbeing and burnout that are tied much more closely to the employee experience and day to day role than you might think: how work is distributed, whether people are able to make decisions to deliver on their work, and how clear they are on their own goals.

Being strategic about preventing burnout rather than tactical – giving employees a free day off work might be appreciated and seen as a nice gesture, but won’t solve any problems – is what will lead to positive change, and measuring perceptions of these elements using data, will give you the information you need to do this well.

Burnout can also be influenced by the culture of an organisation – which inevitably, is role modelled from the top. Leaders therefore have a critical part to play in influencing the culture of an organisation, and the behaviours that leaders display may not always be healthy. Leaders need to look at their own individual propensity to being burnt out, and ensure that they are preventing it in themselves, first.

Have you checked in properly with your employees lately?

If not, perhaps now is the time to think about addressing burnout in your own team and across your business.

If you’re concerned about burnout in your organisation, learn about the ENGAGE Burnout Risk Indicator tool, a tailored solution for leaders and leadership teams that evaluates their own individual propensity to being burnt out. We use the tool to give your leaders practical advice on the sorts of behaviours that they might want to adopt to alleviate or prevent burnout across your organisation.

If you would like to talk further about ENGAGE’s Burnout Risk Indicator tool, please get in contact, we would be delighted to hear from you.

1 On Fire or Fizzling Out, August 2021,