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How to identify employee burnout

identify burnout


Are you feeling exhausted, running from Zoom call to Zoom call? Sweating trying to think how you’ll work in your next bathroom break? Looking with dread at your email inbox? Perhaps you’ve just checked out completely and have somehow ended up here, even if there are far more entertaining websites out there (might I suggest The Oatmeal?). Well, you might just have burnout.


What is burnout?

The World Health Organization defines burnout as:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

-feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

-increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

-reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

You probably didn’t need that definition though- I think we all have some idea of what burnout is and what it feels like. We should approach burnout with the understanding that it can manifest in so many different ways. For example, burnout could be driven from too much work or the work could be uninspiring or it’s high stress. Even a normal workload can cause burnout for someone with reduced capacity.

I would like to take a moment and call out that burnout can have two different major types of contributors:

fighting burnout

Acute Contributors to Burnout

These are often “short-term” causes that should go away with time. Some examples of acute contributors are:

  • Impending large project deadlines

  • Temporary family changes (e.g. moving, new baby (though this can move towards systemic!))

  • Environment changes (e.g. new office, new role, new co-workers)

Systemic Contributors to Burnout

These are the far more troubling causes that can cause burnout at scale. Some examples of systemic contributors are:

  • Company/management expectations

  • Role/job fit (e.g. short order cook at Waffle House would leave me a weeping mess of stress by the end of the day)

  • Company communication methods/expectations

  • Financial (burnout is often about balance being out of whack, so money is one way to push on the scales)

  • Family/personal issues (e.g. disease, family caretaking, etc.)


Identifying Burnout

Your managers are often the first line of defense when it comes to identifying and addressing burnout so be sure your team is trained on how to identify it. Managers are not the only way to identify burnout, and sometimes can be key contributors (they may have a lot at stake on a particular goal or be overworked themselves), so it is also important that individual contributors can safely raise concerns outside their line manager. Skip level meetings can often be a good way to create safe environments for this to happen, or relying more on org wide polling and analysis.

In a traditional office setting, simply walking around and talking to people can be an effective way to identify burnout. Often we can see the body language of burnout:

  • slouched shoulders

    burnout cloud
  • low-hanging heads

  • more closed off than usual

  • fidgeting or grabbing for their tight neck or shoulders

  • contradictory movements e.g. saying “Yes” when shaking the head “No”

  • listen for frustration, irritation, or exhaustion in someone’s voice

At scale, though, the “walking around” method ceases to work and, if you’re remote, it doesn’t work at all (though going on walks is always recommended!). So now we need to turn to tools and processes to help us out. There are numerous survey engines out there that can allow you to survey your team regularly as to their mood and other areas (e.g. goals, KPIs, OKRs, etc.):


  • SurveyMonkey

  • CultureAmp

  • 15Five

Example Employee Burnout Survey Questions

Here are some example questions you could ask the team to ascertain their level of burnout. Depending on your culture, it may make sense to send these responses to a neutral party first, or at least have org level visibility to have some checks and balances.

Survey Choices
  • Is there anything in your personal life that you feel will or has impacted your ability to work?

  • How are you feeling about your current work-life balance?

  • Is there anyone you'd want to give a positive shoutout to?

  • Is there anything you'd like to leave honest feedback about your experience of?

  • Has anything been distracting or blocking you within the company?

One note of caution- instituting any kind of survey that is outside the team’s normal workflow will struggle to get adoption and could be one of the first things that gets dropped when someone starts to burnout as it could be viewed as superfluous.

You can also institute more frequent or better documented 1-on-1s where people familiar with the “typical” behavior of a team member can assess their mood at level of exhaustion. You need to be careful here as sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease (Zoom fatigue is real!).

Meetings are a large contributor to burnout so they need to be efficient and effective. Don’t let the time in your meetings be like air in a balloon, just filling what ever space it’s given.

So surveying is good in terms of wide-spread data collection, but can struggle with adoption if not a part of the routine. More structured 1-on-1s are great if you have good managers, but can add to the problem if not done effectively. I recommend instituting a new process that combines the best of both these approaches to further enable your managers, collect data org wide, and reduce meeting load. We call it the 3 tasks journal.



3 Tasks Journal

We’ve adopted a practice introduced to us from Gitlab that we call the 3 Tasks Journal. At the end of every day, our team answers three questions:

  1. How do you feel about today? (with a multi-choice emoji response)

  2. How did you do on your 3 tasks today? (with a video response)

  3. What are your 3 tasks for tomorrow? (with a long-form text response)

This process helps us to easily monitor our team’s mood at a glance (question 1), dive deeper where needed to understand context (question 2), and provide a ritual for the team to close out their day and lay out priorities for tomorrow.

3 tasks loopingback

Furthermore, this process also serves as our daily standup so every morning the team can view each other’s response to get a sense of priorities for the day and get a high bandwidth understanding of the progress/mood of the previous day without having to have everyone on a call. This is great for managers who need this level of understanding without overburdening their team with unnecessary meetings.

This process both helps us stay organized and eliminates daily stand-ups. Further, I find that once people are comfortable, the journal becomes something like a “confession booth” (think like reality tv shows where people talk to the screen (probably not the best analogy!)), where people sound out their problems (often solve them too) and have a way to meditate on them.