Employee Burnout: How To Spot the Troll Lurking Under the Bridge

Visionary Leadership,

Employee burnout is lurking around our workplaces like a troll under a bridge. Like the Billy Goats Gruff, we know the troll is there. It growls often, but usually stays out of sight, biding its time. But lately, the troll has been popping out more often to accost a goat an employee who’s just trying to get through their day.

A July 2020 survey of over 1,500 US professionals conducted by FlexJobs and Mental Health America (MHA) found that 75% of people have experienced burnout at work. Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been dealt with.

Employee burnout not only affects the well-being of employees but also has a significant impact on the organization. Employee burnout can lead to decreased productivity, low job satisfaction, low morale, high turnover, and increased healthcare costs for employers. Nobody wants that.

In this post, we’ll notice seven common signs of employee burnout, consider some causes of burnout in your company (it might be you), and look toward solutions.

It’s time to acknowledge the troll.

Signs of Employee Burnout

Employee burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, frustration, or overwhelm. Burnout means exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, detachment, and reduced productivity. And it’s not just boomers who are burned out; Gen Z’ers and younger millennials are also increasingly disengaged.

How can you spot burnout? Here’s what to look for:

  • Decline in work quality: Look for signs of decreased attention to detail, increased errors, and missed deadlines.
  • Decreased productivity: Look for signs of reduced efficiency, prolonged deadlines, and decreased output (sometimes in spite of long hours).
  • Negative attitude: Look for signs of apathy, cynicism, and negativity toward work, colleagues, or company culture.
  • Emotional exhaustion: Look for irritability, anxiety, depression, and disengagement or detachment from work.
  • Physical symptoms: Look for stress-related illnesses such as headaches, stomach problems, and fatigue.
  • Increased absenteeism: Look for employees taking more sick days or frequent absences.
  • Lack of work-life balance: Look for long hours, inability to disconnect from work outside of business hours, and complaints about lack of sleep or leisure time.

If you spot these signs, burnout has already taken root in your business. It’s time to figure out why.

Causes of Employee Burnout

What is it about your workplace that’s chronically stressing your people out?

Some of the most insidious factors are heavy workloads, long working hours, and lack of control.

Heavy Workload

In large companies, employees often face heavy workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and competing priorities. If employee workloads aren’t monitored, it’s easy for them to spiral out of control - especially if other team members leave and their work is suddenly on everyone else’s plate.

Long Hours

When employees are expected to work long hours, they may experience chronic fatigue and stress, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion. This exhaustion can manifest in several ways, such as reduced productivity, absenteeism, and poor job performance. Moreover, long working hours can lead to a lack of work-life balance, making it challenging for employees to engage in other activities outside of work.

Lack of Control

Managers and leaders are notorious for snatching autonomy out of team members’ hands, whether intentionally or not. Do you ever:

Humans like to be in control of our lives. Employees need to know what the future holds for them, to feel that their ideas and opinions matter, and to have the autonomy to do their best work. If they don’t have these things, stress reflexes kick in, and burnout begins.

Dealing With Employee Burnout

Once you’ve identified the problems, it’s time to make them go away. First, evaluate workloads, working hours, and the amount of autonomy your team has (or doesn’t). Throw the troll over the bridge.

Then, check out our companion piece on how executives can prevent employee burnout in the workplace, with nine strategies for keeping the troll from moving back in.


Employee burnout is a serious issue that can negatively impact both employees and organizations. Unfortunately, the bigger the company, the easier it is for burnout to sprout and fester. Recognizing the signs of burnout and finding the causes of the problem is the only way to start making a difference and re-engaging your team.

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