How HR can spot signs of burnout

The story of how an employee was banned from work for two weeks after their employer spotted signs they were suffering burnout has gone viral on LinkedIn.

Sarah Wan, a general manager from Singapore, posted a thank-you to her boss on LinkedIn for identifying how close she was to burning out, which has since been viewed and shared by thousands from around the world.

The story has highlighted how important it is for line managers and HR to look out for signs of burnout post-pandemic.

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Sophie Forrest, founder and managing director of HR support company ForrestHR, said the reason the post was so popular is because it resonated with so many employees.

She told HR magazine: "From a company perspective, at the very least, frazzled employees will not be performing at their best, but they can equally become a negative presence and influence.

"If things escalate without being addressed, they are likely to become either a long-term managerial problem or leave.

"On a personal level, staff who are over capacity could find their mental and physical health is impacted, potentially in the long term.

"Adrenal fatigue can lead to symptoms including brain fog, insomnia, a compromised immune system and depression."

One of the most common signs for HR to watch out for is uncharacteristic behaviour, Forrest argued. 

"Any of the following should start ringing warning bells for leader: a significant drop in performance or productivity; someone who is normally a ray of sunshine snapping verbally or sending terse emails; a self-motivated team member seeming apathetic and disinterested or a reliable employee having lots of small illnesses.

"Of course, there may be other issues going on, such as new team dynamics or problems outside of work, but any change in behaviour is a sign that all may not be well, and the employee may need support," she said.

Forrest advised HR that talking to their staff was the best way of telling whether an employee is burnt out or if something else is negatively affecting them.

She said: “Having an open work culture in which staff feel properly supported is essential to encourage them to feel they can be honest without fear of reprisals.

“Having mental health first aiders can also help by providing an alternative channel through which problems can be raised, as staff sometimes find it easier to discuss issues with someone other than their manager or HR."

HR should also look at work patterns to see if employees are regularly responding to or sending work emails late into the evening or at the weekends, she said.

There may be a danger that work-life boundaries have become blurred, especially if this is not something that happened prior to the pandemic, Forrest added. 

If any staff are in danger of burning out, HR should take the lead on addressing this before the situation becomes worse and there is a danger of losing employees and struggling to recruit good talent.

“Steps to consider could include establishing clear company rules about work hours and communication protocols, such as when it is acceptable to send emails or make work-related phone calls, reassessing individual workloads and encouraging a culture of positive feedback.

“It may also be appropriate to introduce health and wellbeing training to equip staff to establish successful work-life boundaries and to spot warning signs in others.”

However, Forrest said if an employee is completely fried, you may need to tailor individual support to help them recover.

“This could mean strictly enforced annual leave, individual counselling or occupational health involvement. If HR leaders and managers are sending emails on Sunday evenings, it gives the message that this is the cultural expectation within your organisation, so it’s important that HR professionals and managers follow their own advice.”