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Employee Burnout: What Leaders & Managers Need to Know

By Mike Jones, Better Happy Founder

Burnout is becoming a widespread problem throughout businesses in the UK and the rest of the world.

When employees reach burnout they are most likely to go on long-term sick and or leave their job. It's important to note that it's your most passionate/engaged employees that are at risk of burnout. Not only do we tend to lose them through burnout, but before they reach full burnout they will have feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness. This pre-burnout phase can last months maybe even years.

The terrible irony is that when a passionate employee reaches the pre-burnout phase they can seem and act like a disengaged employee who either doesn't care or has no drive. The image below from visually demonstrates that the average engagement levels for a business are 35% grafting, 52% doing the minimum required to get paid and 13% hating their work but refusing to leave. When the only people that care in an average business are 35% and 65% don't care, the risk of burnout for your best people is high. Unfortunately, when some of those best people at the back of the boat get shattered from all of that extra work they're doing, burnout can force them to take the approach of the people in the middle.

It's difficult to put exact numbers on UK burnout levels because we haven't quite figured out a way to measure 'burnout' specifically. Instead we couple burnout rates with extreme levels of stress, which makes sense.

So how do we know it's gone up?

I'll tell you a little more about my own experience with burnout in just a moment, but let's assume that burnout leads to depression. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports that during 2018/2019 602,000 workers reported suffering from work-related stress, anxiety or depression. In 2020/21 that number had risen by 38% to 822,000.

Gallup are world leaders in employee data collection and analysis. Their chart below highlights that 76% of employees throughout the world experience burnout at work at least sometimes. Read the full article here.

But do we need tons of statistics to prove the problem exists before we start getting serious about addressing it?

The problem with this (very British) approach is that we can only be reactive. When we're constantly waiting for more solid evidence to tell us that something is a problem, the problem has to already of grown to epidemic levels before we decide to address it.

A burnt-out employee is 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6x more likely to leave their current employer according to Gallup. Most businesses big and small in the UK are being hampered by poor employee health and high employee turnover. I believe that burnout and excessive stress are one of the root causes of these issues.

I know burnout is a real problem for 2 major reasons:

1 - I've been through it myself

2 - I've worked with thousands of people and seen how widespread it is

I have the privilege of speaking to lots of professionals, managers, leaders and business owners. Due to the nature of my work I tend to mainly meet people that are passionate about the work that they do. When speaking with passionate professionals the MAJORITY are experiencing stress - related to their work - at unhealthy levels.

I've also been through burnout myself and it put me at one of the lowest points in my life. I left the military after 5 years of service and two back-to-back tours of Afghanistan. After leaving I decided to travel and spent just over 2 years living out of a back travelling across Australia, Thailand and Nepal. I lived in monasteries, taught children English, studied Buddhism and lived amongst different cultures. I returned to the UK in 2015 a more enlightened soul. My life mission was now to help others be healthier and happier and I knew that if I could do that I would feel fulfilled in myself.

I explored starting a business - something that I knew nothing about - and in 2016 I had the opportunity to open my first business - small functional fitness gym. My mental approach to this business was to give it your all, focus on others and you'll be happy and successful. Fast forward 5 years and here's the state of play:

  • The business has grown from 0 to a 6-figure turnover without investment

  • We have our own fancy unit

  • I have a team of 5 staff including 2 full-time staff

  • We're a well-known respected establishment

  • Sounds fantastic. Now let's look at the state of play for me:

  • I've been working 6-7 days a week for five years

  • I'm paying myself minimum wage

  • I've had 2 weeks off holiday in 5 years

  • I work split shifts and sleep an average of 6 hours a night

The outcomes of this were that I was a shadow of the passionate and excited Mike that had returned from backpacking five years earlier. I had no energy or motivation to change things and started to resent myself for that. My confidence dropped through the floor and I overthought every decision usually ending in indecision. My health began to decline. I was short and moody with my partner. I hardly saw or spoke to my family. Ultimately I closed the business.

I'm an extreme example but I'm a human. I want to be successful and do a good job. I want to please others. I want to avoid conflict. Over this period I said yes to too much work, I didn't prioritise myself and I constantly told myself I could ease off when I achieve A. But when I achieved A I told myself I'd wait for B etc. Many of your employees and maybe you are likely doing the same things.

The reason I share this story with you is that it highlights something important. It's a high level of passion for work (without countermeasures) that leads to burnout. It's you and your best people that are most at risk of burnout, and before you reach it fully you're going to become a version of yourself you don't much like.

Humans have always been hardwired to work too much, to push themselves into burnout so why is it only becoming a widespread issue now?

Historically our environment acted as a natural defence mechanism against burnout. Before the internet and technology, we had to disconnect from work in order to eat and sleep. We had to be with our communities and families in order to eat so we talked to people. Today we can work in both more volume and more duration. Our work is less physically demanding - exercise improves health and flushes out stress - and more mentally demanding. We talk to others less - something which again decreases the impacts of stress - and have the option to let our work or thoughts about work creep into every minute of our lives.

Simply put, historically burnout hasn't been possible for most, today it is.

Humans are hardwired to work and stress too much. Our environment now makes working and stressing too much a very possible reality. When people work and stress too much they become burnt out which primarily leads to a huge performance drop and secondly leads to them leaving their job.

Burnout is one of the underpinning roots of the low engagement, high absence and high employee turnover issues most employers are faced with today. Let's stop trying to address the symptoms and let's start proactively addressing the root cause - burnout.

Check out my article on 5 ways to prevent burnout in the workplace here.

Mike Jones Better Happy Founder

Mike founded Better Happy in 2018.

Mike works with a variety of businesses ranging from small accountancies up to large organisations such as Travelodge on improving employee happiness. Mike's vision and the vision of Better Happy is 'Every employee happy, every business thriving'

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