Recognizing and preventing burnout as a manager

Dr Hannah Sugarman

Dr Hannah Sugarman, a Hong Kong-based Clinical Psychologist, provides practical steps for managers to identify, prevent or lend a helping hand to employees who are showing signs of burnout

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Dr Hannah Sugarman


Burnout is a term that is used to describe a psychological and physical state of exhaustion. It is the result of chronic, unmanageable levels of stress. When someone is burned out, they eventually feel demotivated and detached from any sense of purpose relating to their role. It is a term that is usually associated with workplace stress, and can affect anyone who is exposed to prolonged stress in the workplace. 

Unfortunately, burnout is thought to be on the rise. The proliferation of technology in the workplace has led to improved connectivity, which is great news for enabling agile working and international collaboration, but can be disastrous for self-care. In many workplaces, it is the norm to expect employees to be available for late night conference calls and be responsive to e-mails at the weekends or when they are on leave. This can make it very difficult for people to access the essential downtime that everyone needs to maintain good standards of physical and mental health.

What are the signs of burnout? 

There are various physical and psychological signs that indicate someone may be at risk of, or experiencing, burnout. Some of the warning signs include:

  • Feeling exhausted all the time.
  • Frequent physical symptoms (getting ill more often, aches and pains).
  • Eating considerably more or less than you usually would.
  • Increased use of substances (drugs and alcohol).
  • Constantly feeling overwhelmed or feeling like a failure.
  • Feeling demotivated, procrastinating frequently.
  • Feeling detached and indifferent about your role.
  • Lacking a sense of achievement even when things go well.

Why is it important for managers to know about burnout? 

Recognizing burnout is an important part of looking after the mental health of employees. Although burnout is not a diagnosable mental health problem, it can leave people more susceptible to mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Burnout is associated with presenteeism, where people continue to attend work despite physical or mental health difficulties that make it very difficult or even impossible to fulfil their responsibilities. There is also an economic argument for managers to recognize and prevent burnout: workplaces with high levels of burnout are likely to see higher staff turnover, reduced productivity and poor staff morale.

How to recognize and prevent burnout? 

Stress is a part of the job in most workplaces, and many people find it to be a motivating factor, as long as it is manageable and does not exceed their ability to cope. There are very few roles where it is possible to significantly reduce or totally eliminate stress. However, if work stress is managed effectively, it does not have to lead to burnout. There are plenty of ways that managers can identify problems early and assist their employees’ management of their stress. This can help to ensure that burnout and the associated consequences are avoided. Some suggested ways are:

  • Get to know your team members. This way, you will be better-placed to know if someone is not acting like themselves.
  • Hold regular check-ins with your employees. If someone is experiencing difficulties, they may not want to approach you to discuss this. However, if you are checking in with them in a genuine and caring way, this offers them a platform to speak up if something is wrong.
  • Do not assume all is well with someone just because they are coming to work. Presenteeism is a huge problem in many workplaces, and someone could be struggling in ways that are not obvious to those around them.
  • Prioritize well-being in a meaningful way to prevent burnout. This means creating an environment for healthy stress management strategies, and actively encouraging them. Ensure that someone can have regular time off to attend a gym class, or that you are frequently reviewing each of your employees’ workloads to make sure that they are manageable.
  • Ensure you know what support is available. If someone is struggling, make sure you know where to direct them for support. This may be via human resources, or your company might have an employee assistance programme that can help. Familiarize yourself with what is available so that you can point employees in the right direction.
  • Set the tone as a manager by modelling good habits. If you are vocal about making time to go for a walk at lunchtime, leaving on time or switching your work phone off at weekends, people will see that it is acceptable to prioritize your well-being.
  • Educate your staff so that they know what is and is not normal for them. Many of us are excellent at keeping an eye on changes in our physical health, but are less attentive to warning signs in our mental health. Encourage your employees to keep an eye out for signs of burnout, and let them know that you are there to support them if they are struggling.
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