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Article 6 min read

Employee burnout: spot the signs and prevent it from happening

By Lilia Krauser, Junior writer

Last updated July 29, 2021

Last year, millions of people around the world went from working in their office, going to shopping centres and going out to restaurants to suddenly having to do everything from home. And because everything suddenly shifted online, customers headed online for support – even more than usual. This phenomenon severely increased the workload of support agents who have been managing 30% more tickets than before the pandemic.

According to a study released by Indeed, employee burnouts are at frightening levels. Millennials are the most affected by work-related stress (59%); however Gen Xers record the highest increase in burnout levels, from 40% last year to 54% today.

Such high levels of stress threaten the continuity of operations for many firms. How can managers and leaders recognise employee burnout and prevent it from happening altogether?

What is a burnout?

A burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

How to identify employee burnout

Addressing burnout is definitely not an easy task for employers. Recent studies show that external help to pull someone out often fails. However, there are certain signs displayed by employees that can help employers spot burnout early. According to the NHS, common symptoms include:

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Feeling helpless, trapped or defeated

  • Being irritable and impatient

  • Feeling constantly worried, stressed or scared

  • Feeling detached/alone

  • Signs of alcohol or substance abuse

A burnout can result from many different factors in an employee’s life such as problems in their personal lives or relationships, challenging workplace dynamics or unmanageable workload. According to our research, nearly two thirds of support agents in the UK reported feeling overwhelmed and 46% in EMEA report that they don’t have the right tools to be able to assist customer requests – factors that can potentially lead to more stress.

How to address the first traces of a burnout

Whilst it can be challenging for employers to identify a burnout in their employees, certain actions and behaviours can be a red flag. If an otherwise engaged, productive and dependable employee suddenly becomes unreliable and unfocused, this can be a clear sign of exhaustion and stress. Within a support team, signs of agent burnout can be illustrated by lower customer satisfaction rates or frequent conflicts with customers. The actions resulting from employee burnout cannot only severely impact the productivity of a team, but customers’ view on an entire organisation (ie. conflict between agents and customers). Our research suggests that only one bad experience can influence 50% of customers to permanently leave a company.

In most cases, when a manager recognises symptoms of work-related stress in one of their employees, the latter may not wish to discuss it but that does not mean that it should not be addressed. A common way to help an employee is redirecting them to the company’s wellbeing programme (if they have one) which usually consists of free wellbeing advice and workshops. If an organisation doesn’t have one or doesn’t cover mental health services, managers can make a list of non-profit organisations that can offer help and guidance in dealing with stress.

With burnout levels rising at alarming rates, employees are working from home isolated and feeling disconnected from their colleagues: employers should aim to provide extra support. As employees are working remotely, their offices are now their homes. This means that the line between their home and office life is thin, as employees tend to work longer hours. Managers can provide extra support by ensuring that employees only work during their working hours and should not be contacted outside of these, except in the case of an emergency.

How you can prevent a burnout from happening in the first place

Whilst the pandemic is responsible for severe stress levels, the issue of a burnout has been lingering for quite a while. Companies can invest in ways to prevent it, such as partnering with mental health organisations, offering free wellbeing advice and workshops or covering their employees’ mental health costs.

Wellbeing at Zendesk

At Zendesk, prioritising the wellbeing of our employees, especially during the pandemic, is one of our first priority. Zendesk recently announced that caregivers are entitled to an additional two weeks holiday, to help them mitigate pinch points, hit pause, and refresh themselves before they return to work.

We also partnered with Modern Health in the UK, a mental health platform, offered to all employees. This offers access to wellbeing and mental health resources, including licensed therapy, certified personal coaching and digital courses and meditation.

We also ensured that the healthcare plans offered are available to all employees and dependents, to support their mental, physical, social and financial wellbeing.

On one hand, managers should put in place weekly 1:1 check-ins to discuss not only immediate tasks, but rather understand the bigger picture of what’s worrying team members. This can help managers understand the specific challenges of every individual team member and where they need help. Employers also shouldn’t forget about introducing activities such as social lunches, morning virtual coffees or other team bonding activities to ensure their teams remain connected. These activities would also allow employers to spot any burnout symptoms, especially when working remotely (ie. not attending virtual social events, not speaking during social calls etc.). Other activities include Zoom-free days, more flexible working hours and encouraging teams to block times for lunches or ‘deep-focus’ work.

On the other hand, organisations should look into ways to improve the mental wellbeing of their employees. Businesses should start by providing free wellbeing advice and workshops for their employees to let them seek help if they need to. However, they must also invest in the right type of technology to ensure that workloads and tasks are manageable as this is a common cause of employee burnout. This especially applies to support agents, as most agents in the UK have reported feeling overwhelmed. Business leaders in the UK have started using more workflow management tools such as Zoom and Slack which allows collaboration between teams. Organisations should also invest in machine learning tools to reduce the amount of repetitive tasks agents deal with on a daily basis. This includes introducing chatbots with automated features, which enables agents to focus on other more complex tasks rather than attend every customer request.

Supporting the wellbeing of your employees is vital in order for any organisation to fulfil their CX goals: agents are directly exposed to customers and represent the organisation they work for. Investing in the right tools to boost your team’s productivity and showing support for your agents will help organisations be more agile.

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