Going… going… gone: Catching your people before burnout

Worn out employee commuting

No organisation attempts to drive their workers to burnout. However, many may be pushing them closer to the cliff edge without realising it. When addressing this problem, it’s important to understand that burnout doesn’t happen overnight, it happens in stages. Awareness of the stages before full-scale burnout is crucial for preventing employees from physical and mental collapse. Although less critical and severe, the stage before burnout termed (perhaps rather crudely) as ‘brownout’ is a problem many workers are currently dealing with. An analysis of 1,000 executives in the US estimated that 5% were suffering from burnout whereas 40% were suffering from brownout.

What does the precursor to full-scale burnout look like?

People come to work feeling disengaged, discontent and demotivated when they feel overworked and overstressed. When ‘brownout’ sets in job enthusiasm subsides into fatigue and irritability. They may even start to practice escapist behaviours like absenteeism. Many of these symptoms occur internally for individuals and consequently, they can be difficult for organisations to detect, even more so because sufferers often continue performing well at work. Sufferers often put in long hours at work, meet deadlines, complete projects and say all the right things but their commitment and passion has gone. Reducing the risk and number of people suffering from brownout is crucial because if left untreated these people will slowly descend into full-scale burnout.

What puts your people at increased risk of brownout?

People at increased risk often feel that they are unable to achieve both personal and professional goals.

Noticeable signs that you may be driving your employees towards burnout:

  • A lack of autonomy at work: employees asked to work long hours whilst completing monotonous tasks or without any clarity on the value of their contribution is a surefire way of making them feel overburdened and disengaged.
  • Lack of development opportunities: people who feel they lack opportunities to develop their careers within their organisation can experience feelings of stagnation and demotivation.
  • ‘Work to home’ interference: receiving work emails and notifications on their phones after work hours can also be problematic for employees because they do not fully unplug from their day job. People are now able to access work via their smartphones and this has blurred the line between work and home life. Immediate access has made it even more difficult for people to switch off, recharge and relax during evenings, weekends and holidays, which interferes with their time with friends and family and with their ability to get quality sleep.

How will this impact your team and organisation?

Although workers suffering from brownout can perform successfully at work if their state is not treated or reversed there are likely to be long-term problems for your organisation…

  • Employee retention: organisations who have disengaged employees have lower retention levels.Disengagement is a global issue as 65% of workers worldwide are currently disengaged at work.2
  • Employee commitment: organisations who have employees with low work commitment experience reductions in organisational performance.3
  • Destructive behaviours: research has shown that inadequate quality, nightly sleep influences workers to perform daily abusive behaviours such as lying, cheating, and deception at work.4

How to catch your people before they burnout

Luckily brownout can be cured or reversed at any time.

1. Realistic goal setting: Although long working hours are inevitable for many jobs, it is important for employees to not try to achieve more than their personal limits will allow.

Get your employees to set their own realistic goals at work. If people identify goals themselves they will take greater responsibility and ownership of that goal. Being able to make independent choices at work leads to a well-balanced work and private life.

2. Provide opportunities: Help employees broaden their experience at work.

Provide opportunities for employees to collaborate and work on projects with other departments. If employees feel that they are gaining experience and responsibilities they are less likely to feel they are going nowhere at work.

3. E- discipline: Make sure that employees don’t take their work home with them.

Why not ask employees to not check emails once they have got home, or to turn off their notifications? If it is essential that emails are checked during weekends or holidays, ask them to only check once a day. Allowing employees to take time for themselves and enjoy life is key for treating and reversing this pre-burnout stage, brownout.



1Bhattacharya, Y. (2015). Employee engagement as a predictor of seafarer retention: A study among Indian officers. The Asian Journal of Shipping and Logistics, 31(2), 295-318.

2Blessing White, A Division of GP Strategies, Employee Engagement Research Update. (2013). Beyond the numbers: A practical approach for individuals, managers, and executives. Retrieved from

3Geldenhuys, M., Laba, K., & Venter, C. M. (2014). Meaningful work, work engagement, and organisational commitment. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 40(1), 1-10.

4Barnes, C. M., Lucianetti, L., Bhave, D. P., & Christian, M. S. (2015). “You wouldn’t like me when I’m sleepy”: Leaders’ sleep, daily abusive supervision, and work unit engagement. Academy of Management Journal, 58(5), 1419-1437.

5Beauregard, T. A., & Henry, L. C. (2009). Making the link between work-life balance practices and organizational performance. Human resource management review, 19(1), 9-22.