how are you message billboard on the side of a city apartment building

Employee burnout is a growing concern among many U.S. companies. Research by Microsoft, for example, revealed that messages after working hours have increased by 52% and overall communications sent by individual contributors and managers increased by 50% and 115%, respectively. 

Like Microsoft, many companies are seeing signs of employees working overtime and struggling to unplug after a day’s work. Here's why employees are getting burned out, how employers can recognize the signs and what companies can do to prevent burnout in the future.

Why Are Employees Getting Burned Out?

According to Kevin Lee, CEO of Nashville, Tenn.-based JourneyPure, the primary reason workers are getting burnt out is because they fear losing their job.

Many employees have been working additional hours and giving more effort to avoid getting laid off or furloughed. In addition, many teams have been downsized and the remaining employees are struggling to keep up with the additional workload. That's not to mention the pressures managers themselves are feeling.

“Managers may not be providing adequate support to their employees at this time as they may themselves be dealing with job scurity fears and job losses in the family,” said Lee.

Carla Yudhishthu, vice president of people operations at Portland, Oregon-based Mammoth and ThinkHR, said there are many external factors contributing to employee burnout. The monotony of staying at home, taking care of children while daycare and schools are closed, feelings of isolation, fear of getting sick or fear of loved ones getting sick are some of the non-work factors.

"That’s why managers will need to look at both internal and external stressors that could be impacting an employee’s performance and well-being," she said.

Related Article: 8 Ways to Make Virtual Meetings More Engaging

The Signs of Employee Burnout

Yudhishthu said there are obvious signs of employee burnout such as showing up late or not at all to meetings and missing deadlines or other work commitments. Little or no participation in optional work such as virtual happy hours and informational sessions could also be a sign. But there are also less visible signs which include slight drops in work performance or slightly less participation during meetings. Paid time off, or PTO, usage is another indicator.

“While leaders may not directly see signs of burnout, it is important for leaders to pay attention to how much PTO is being used or not used,” Yudishthu said.

At many organizations, PTO usage is significantly down compared to this time last year. Workers may be saving their PTO because they fear getting furloughed or laid off but failure to take time away from work can lead to exhaustion. “We know that employees need to disengage to better engage,” Yudhishthu said. “Getting a real mental break from work results in increased productivity and creativity.”

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster

Preventing Burnout in the Future

Lee said the best way to prevent burnout is to encourage employees to take a break. “Allow employees to take a few days off for themselves to exercise, rediscover their hobbies and practice self-care techniques such as meditation,” he said.

He also suggested that employers find ways to relieve overworked employees of their heavy workload and set more realistic expectations for what individual contributors should accomplish in a given workday.

In order to understand the stress and workload employees are dealing with, Yudhishthu said business leaders need to check in with them on a personal level. “Ask team members how they are doing to open the door to the conversation about emotional challenges and struggles, and to ensure that employees know their leaders care and are thinking about them on a personal level,” she said.

In many cases, employees won’t speak up because they don’t want to bother others with their personal struggles. Empathetic leadership is a key, Yudhishthu said.

Along with transparency, Yudhishthu said companies need to think outside the box when coming up with new ways to support their employees. “There are great TED Talks available, articles and thousands of things to offer employees for well being,” she suggested.

Resources related to mental health, telehealth, screen overuse and meditation can help employees better adjust to work remotely and deal with uncertainty.

In the end, many employees have traded the time spent commuting to and from work for more time in front of the computer. Recognizing that fact can ensure the workforce doesn't get burned out in the future. “Employees should feel comfortable reclaiming that time for themselves to de-stress,” Yudhishthu said.