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How to Identify Stress vs. Burnout in Your Employees

No matter how many yoga classes you take or positive affirmations you repeat, stress is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of life. Defined as the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response, stress can be caused by a number of factors in an individual’s life, such as an injury, lack of sleep, child or adult care responsibilities, a strained relationship, or a new job.

Between the pressure of meeting deadlines, balancing long hours, coping with personality clashes, and worrying about job security, it’s no surprise that the workplace is one of the greatest sources of stress for the majority of Americans. And while different people respond to stress in different ways (some thrive under constant pressure while others may falter beneath the weight of expectations) experts agree that constant and persistent stress isn’t healthy for anyone.

Employees who work in high-stress environments are also at the highest risk of suffering from employee burnout. Characterized by exhaustion, a lack of motivation and feelings of ineffectiveness or frustration, burnout is a condition caused by chronic and prolonged stress that leads to reduced workplace efficacy and productivity.

Although the topic of burnout has garnered significant media attention during the past few years, there isn’t one clear medical definition of employee burnout. In fact, “burnout” isn’t even a diagnosable syndrome, like depression or anxiety. This undefined phenomenon has left both employers and employees without a clear sense of what burnout is, let alone how to identify or how to prevent employee burnout.

Stress vs. Burnout: What’s the difference?

Because burnout is loosely defined as a result of prolonged stress, it can be very difficult to distinguish between the two. However, there are a few key differences that can help employers identify employees who are stressed, versus those who might be dealing with burnout:



Characterized by over-engagement

Characterized by disengagement

Emotions are overactive

Emotions are blunted

Produces urgency and hyperactivity

Produces helplessness and hopelessness

Loss of energy

Loss of motivation

Leads to anxiety disorders

Leads to depression

Primary damage is physical health

Primary damage is mental health

How can you identify signs of employee burnout?

Using the table above can help. But a distinct differentiator between stress vs burnout is that employees who are stressed are oftentimes still connected to their environment and actively trying to engage in work – despite how difficult it may be.

If an employee is experiencing burnout, they are likely to disengage, feel disinterested in work tasks and responsibilities, and even personal hobbies. They are also frequently left with a feeling of emptiness and disconnect, while those experiencing stress can still feel hope that there’s resolution.

There is no all-inclusive list of employee burnout signs, but listed below are a few that are most commonly correlated with burnout:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Reduced productivity or declined quality of work produced
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern

What causes employee burnout?

Despite the lack of a clear definition of burnout, there is some consensus about what causes burnout in the workforce:

  • Unclear/unrealistic requirements
    It’s virtually impossible for an employee to meet or exceed expectations if they’re not entirely sure of their job requirements. Employees facing unclear or unrealistic expectations often feel overwhelmed with confusion and self-doubt.
  • Lack of downtime
    While most professions have a “busy season” or a production cycle that ebbs and flows, employees who are constantly scrambling during what feels like a perpetual busy season without any “downtime” are at a high risk of developing burnout.
  • High-stakes consequences
    If a worker makes a mistake, they will likely face some sort of consequence. And while dealing with job insecurity is common in any profession, some are faced with this high-stakes reality on a more regular basis. Some doctors, for instance, make decisions that can mean the difference between life and death for their patients on a regular basis. So, it comes as no surprise that physicians have one of the highest rates of burnout.

What is the impact of burnout?

In addition to the devastating physical, mental, and emotional effects burnout can have on individual employees and their families, burnout can also cause a number of problems for employers, including:

  • Increased rates of absenteeism
  • Lower levels of productivity
  • Reduced employee engagement
  • Higher employee benefits costs
  • Higher incidence of conflict between employees
  • Increased risk of more serious health issues

Tips on how to prevent employee burnout.

While there is no real “diagnosis” or means to diagnose employee burnout, it is preventable.

Here are some tips on how to prevent employee burnout:

  1. Identify and alleviate stressors.
    Causes of stress can range from the demands of an individual’s role in your organization to industry demands and expectations. For example, Clockify reported that more than half of workers admitted to working on weekends. Establishing boundaries and expectations can help employees “turn off” when they’re not at work without feeling obligated to check their emails, texts, or messages.

    Another survey showed that nearly 60% of workers were more likely to prioritize their work than their personal life. Developing work hours and communication can help managers keep a pulse on workers who may be creating unnecessary stress. Time management, regular breaks, and safe spaces are great tools to ensure employees who are stressed or burnt out are able to manage themselves better, as well as feel comfortable to reach out if they need additional resources.

  2. Work with managers to develop long-term solutions to prevent further burnout.
    According to a workplace survey, managers are listed as one of the primary influences in employee stress and stress contributes to a majority of workplace absences. Additionally, ineffective processes and systems are among the top influences in employee burnout.

    Gathering employee feedback on what processes, systems, and managerial shortcomings are contributing to workplace stress and burnout is a great place to start. This not only removes the guesswork of finding the root cause of the stress or burnout, but also allows the employee the opportunity to express what would help them succeed.

    Managers are often the first line of communication with employees and therefore have a better chance of effectuating change through actively listening, working directly with their teams, and developing longer-term solutions to help prevent further burnout.

  3. Foster open, honest dialogues.
    Establishing ways for employees to provide feedback, so they feel heard and valued, can help limit instances of workplace burnout in the long-term. Implementing regular check-ins with direct reports can also provide employees opportunities to express concerns about overwhelming workloads, personal stressors that can impact their performance, and other issues as they arise.

    If an employee doesn’t feel comfortable confiding in their direct manager, fostering open, honest dialogues with someone they trust like a co-worker or HR representative can help address the stressors before they become too much. Cultivating a people-first culture can help encourage open, honest dialogues, improve employee-manager relationships, and resolve longstanding stressors in the workplace.

  4. Cultivate a people-first culture.
    Part of cultivating a people-first culture is really understanding your organization’s operations and the people who support it. For example, there are roughly five generations of workers in the workforce now, so it’s important to understand how various factors impact different generations. A study showed that Millennials were the most burnt out, followed closely by Gen Z. So, if the younger generations are feeling more burnt out than the older generations, seeking resources or benefits that support them may be useful.

    Addressing toxic workplace behaviors and traits is also important. In recruitment efforts, focusing on specific soft skill sets, leadership styles, and situational awareness can ensure you bring in top talent that aligns more closely with your organizational values. When dealing with internal toxicity, it is critical to address it in real-time and with effective resolutions.

    For example, if you have unapproachable leaders, micromanagement, or lack of transparency, consider investing in additional training. Teaching on topics like unconscious bias, microaggressions, emotional intelligence, along with effective communication, time management, and conflict resolution can help your company’s leaders and managers improve their employee management skills.

For additional information on how to reduce stress and improve employee retention rates, check out our article on prioritizing mental health and well-being.

How G&A Can Help

G&A Partners offers access to HR experts with years of experience helping businesses develop their employees, improve their workplace cultures, implement new HR processes and procedures, and more. Schedule a consultation with one of our trusted business advisors to find out how G&A can help you and your employees thrive.