Ever since Mandy returned from the leave she took to take care of her ailing mother, she’s been clocking extra hours to “catch up”, as she puts it. Some days she skips lunch and refuses coffee breaks with her peers, even though, as her manager, you often tell her that she should be taking more breaks. She says she has a lot to catch up on, and besides, she is constantly feeling queasy anyway.

Now, her presentation for the latest review meeting has been under par, even though she is the best in your team at reports and presentations. When you asked her about it later in the debrief, she was apologetic, and said that she’s been having trouble concentrating and that she’d work harder and improve. You accept her explanation, but still feel something is not right.

You’re not alone in having that feeling. Many other managers are noticing that something isn’t right with their team members, but they aren’t sure exactly what that is. Luckily, experts might have the answer. The American Psychological Association reported in 2018 that 35% of working Americans said they’re experiencing chronic work stress and Safe Work Australia reveals that, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, about 91% of workers’ compensation claims involving a mental health condition were linked to work-related stress or mental stress.

Indeed’s 2021 Employee Burnout report suggests that the problem might be increasing, with more than half of respondents feeling burned out, and more than two-thirds feeling that it has worsened over the course of the pandemic.

These reports might sound dispiriting, but, as a manager, with a keen eye and an awareness of what to look out for, you could identify team members that need help before it gets too late. Let’s look at some signs that an employee is at risk of burning out.

  • Decreased productivity. When an employee like Mandy suddenly finds it difficult to concentrate or feels like the work is piling up even though there is no change in the workload, it is good to probe deeper and see if they need to be taking time off from their work. Sometimes, burnout could even be triggered by an external event, like the illness of a loved one or the stress of planning a wedding.
  • Detachment. Burnout makes it tough for an employee to engage with the company, colleagues, and even family and friends. Such employees may excuse themselves from team outings and lunches saying that they need to catch up on work. They stop taking an interest in the small things that keep them connected with their peers, like a chat over coffee or carpooling to and from the office. In some cases, the sense of detachment may creep into their personal lives too, and they might be home working instead of spending time with family and friends. When a normally gregarious colleague starts behaving this way, it’s time to have a chat and tackle what could be a looming burnout.
  • Physical symptoms. If your team member seems unusually tired, frequently complains of headaches, musculoskeletal pains, gastrointestinal issues or difficulty in sleeping, or has been struggling with hypertension, diabetes, or frequent cold or flu, consider whether these are the physical manifestations of the stress they are dealing with at work or due to a work-life imbalance. Physician Parneet Pal points out that stress causes chronic inflammation in the body, leading to lifestyle-related chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and more. When managers realize that such physical concerns could be triggered by stress and lead to a full-scale burnout, they can make appropriate interventions to tackle matters before things get worse for their team members.

The first step towards change is awareness, as noted psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden would say. When a manager like you identifies an impending burnout among your team members, it could be the beginning of a road to recovery that ultimately leads to improved health, work-life balance, job satisfaction, and productivity.

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