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Prevent burnout by spotting these red and green flags before taking the job


A man sits exhausted at a desk late in the evening on February 18, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.

Thomas Trutschel | Photothek | Getty Images

We have a new epidemic, and it’s not Covid-19.

About 40% of employees say they are burned out, according to an October report by Slack’s Future Forum Pulse, a quarterly survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers globally. That’s an 8% jump from May.

Employees experiencing burnout are 22 times more stressed and anxious at work than those who aren’t, the survey found. They also feel more disconnected from their organization and their colleagues, it said.

Burnout is a “very common” workplace mental health issue caused by chronic and unmanaged stress, said Dr. Oliver Suendermann, clinical director of Intellect, a Singapore-based mental health support startup.

One of the key features of burnout is mental and physical exhaustion, according to Suendermann.

“You literally run on an empty tank,” said Suendermann, adding this causes employees to disengage from work and become “understandably” less productive.

Burnout is associated with depression, anxiety and sleep problems, among other health issues, he said, adding that chronic stress affects cardiac health, which can impact life expectancy.

With a slew of trickle-down effects that could harm your mental and physical health, burnout is a slippery slope that should be avoided. What happens at work may not be within your control, but choosing to take a job offer is.

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CNBC Make It spoke with experts and coaches who shared some red flags that should ring alarm bells, and green flags that can indicate a lower burnout risk.

These red and green flags can be identified by speaking with ex-employees or looking up the company’s reviews on Glassdoor, leadership development coach Yeo Chuen Chuen told CNBC Make It.

It’s important to gauge the people you will be working with during the job interview, she said. A hiring manager who speaks in a condescending tone may signal a top-down relationship in which you may feel powerless, Yeo said.

Interviews are also good opportunities to ask questions about the level of support given to staff, Dr. Maureen Dollard of the University of South Australia told CNBC Make It.

For demanding roles where the risk of burnout is higher, Dollard suggested employees enquire about resources provided to help them manage work demands. These can take the form of supervisorial support, rewards and autonomy, said Dollard.

Consult human resources about tangible steps the company takes to support employee well-being, said Suendermann. This can include providing managers with training on mental health, he added.

Here are the red and green flags to look out for before accepting a job.

Red flag #1: The company does not train its managers to identify and mitigate burnout

Managers who do not receive training on mental health may not have a good understanding of what burnout is and how it can affect employees, said Suendermann.

“Some managers hold unhelpful beliefs that burnout is not real and that employees just need to pull themselves together or work harder to manage the workload and meet key performance indicators,” he told CNBC Make It.

These managers may also lack the ability to identify burnout and are not able to engage employees in safe conversations about it, he said.

Red flag #2: Expectations to be available at all times

Essentially, our desire to be a good employee and our need for a boundary are in conflict.

Emily Ballesteros

Burnout management coach

Be wary of employers who expect workers to be reachable outside of working hours, said Anne Helen Petersen, author of “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”

Receiving messages outside of working hours decreases the separation between work and personal life, said Emily Ballesteros, a burnout management coach. Having a healthy separation allows employees to maintain balance and reduces the chances of burnout, she said.

“When we receive messages outside of our working hours we go through the same mental gymnastics … ‘should I answer,’ ‘will they think I’m a bad employee if I don’t,’ ‘if they’re working then I should be working,’ ‘if I respond they’ll think I’m always available at this time and I don’t want them to think that,” she told CNBC Make It in an email. “Essentially, our desire to be a good employee and our need for a boundary are in conflict.”

The clearer expectations are around communication outside of work, the better, she said.

“For example, maybe the team expectations are: you can respond, but responses aren’t expected until working hours,” she said. This way, there is a guideline people can go by as opposed to making it up as they go, she added.

Companies could also delegate the types of communication to specific purposes, Petersen suggested.

Emails could be used for making announcements, texts only to address immediate needs that demand response “within an hour,” while phone calls are reserved for emergencies, she said, adding that this would depend on what fits the organization.

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Red flag #3: Employees receive praise for overworking

When bosses praise employees for working beyond their necessary hours, it’s “a fetishization of over-work,” Petersen said in an email to CNBC Make It. It effectively sets an expectation that employees should keep doing so, she said.

This can “very quickly” turn work into your identity, Ballesteros added.

“When we begin to prioritize this praise over having balance [between work and our personal life], we are more susceptible to burnout,” she said.

To combat chasing the high from this praise, Ballesteros advised people to know what they value and enjoy outside of work. It’s easier to turn down opportunities for praise that might lead to burnout when you are “truly satisfied in other areas of your life,” she said.

Green flag #1: The company invests in their employees

Companies that organize workplace skills workshops help equip employees with the skills to communicate with one another more effectively and to manage conflict healthily, Suendermann said. These workshops help employees forge stronger and healthier work relationships, which lowers workplace-related stress, he added.

Suendermann, who works for Intellect which offers a mental health support app, said some companies also help connect employees with professional coaches.

Green flag #2: Senior leaders walk the talk

If senior leaders of the organization are open about reaching out for help, then it normalizes seeking help, said Suendermann.

The stigma that someone is “weak” if they struggle with their mental health is a “real barrier” that keeps employees from reaching out, he said. People think they don’t need help, he said, “but if people leaders can encourage employees, that goes a very long way.”

“Senior leaders who walk the talk, speak openly or vulnerably about their mental health journey, or how they used coaching or counseling and benefited from it, normalize the conversation around mental health in the company,” he said, “therefore, they encourage employees to do the same and take better care of their mental health.”

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