4 Sneaky Ways Burnout Kills Productivity—Plus 4 Ways to Prevent it and Recover!

There’s a word that’s haunted the workplace for years and reached new heights during COVID: burnout. We know burnout kills productivity, but how? And now that we mention it, what exactly is burnout? As said in a recent Forbes article,

“Burnout is the state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that occurs when you experience long-term stress.”

The phenomenon is so prevalent and salient that it’s now even recognized by the World Health Organization. While most of us have been there at some point in our careers, there is an unprecedented urgency and spike in burnout.

In fact, according to the article, a recent survey found that 77% of employees have experienced burnout, especially at work. The Forbes article goes on to say:

“Feeling overwhelmed and drained can easily lead to burnout and cause you not to perform well in your day-to-day activities.”

That’s why we’re going to peel this onion. That’s why burnout prevention and recovery are so important. You are simply not at your best at work when you are burnt out. 

What’s more, we often don’t even feel burnout coming. We’re burning the candle at both ends—meeting deadlines, joining work calls, refreshing our emails—and then we hit a wall. We want to shut the computer. Delete all the emails. Cancel all the calls. Maybe even yell into a pillow. When work is relentless and overwhelming, it can take our best effort just to show up and make it through the day.

When we’re in this state at work, we’re not thriving. We’re not showing up the way we want. We’re not even close to our potential ceiling in terms of productivity at work. That’s a problem for your boss, your team, the entire company as a whole, and you as an individual. (…assuming you desire to both enjoy your time and positively contribute at work.)

So, let’s break down four ways that burnout kills productivity. Finally, we’ll also look into four strategies to both recover and further prevent burnout. (Including that feeling of wanting to shout into a pillow in the middle of the workday.)

1. We Become “Clock-Watchers” 

One sneaky way that burnout kills productivity is by making “clock-watchers” out of coworkers. Clock-watchers are those people who are so disengaged, bored, or burnt out at work, that one of their most common recurring thought is “What time is it? “What time is it” is the first thought that causes the reflex to glance at a clock, but it’s only the first half of the fully formed thought.

The second half is some version of—What time do I get to go to lunch? What time do I get to go home? How much longer do I need to endure this tedium and torture? In a culture where burnout creeps in—even once-interesting jobs will cause employees to think “When is this over?!” every ten minutes.  

When your dominant thought during working hours is not about the work at hand, but rather, about when you can stop doing the work, that’s a bad sign. It’s one of the first sneaky signs of full-blown burnout approaching. It’s also one of the first signs of the end. Simply put: clock-watchers don’t usually hang on very long. This leads us to another sneaky way that burnout impacts productivity—burnt-out people quit! 

2. Turnover Spikes

Turnover has always been important, but at this moment in history, it’s more important than ever. Throughout the summer and fall of 2021, the entire workforce experienced “the Great Resignation,” as it was coined. This epoch in the workforce was given such a sad name because,

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021. Resignations peaked in April and have remained abnormally high for the last several months, with a record-breaking 10.9 million open jobs at the end of July. [Harvard Business Review]  

In this market, employees have greater power and negotiating ability than at any point in recent memory. It’s not enough for leadership to just say “suck it up” when a culture of burnout kills productivity and produces a miserable workforce. An overworked, unsatisfied workforce will not be as productive as it could be, and even worse—some might just walk. According to a recent article in the HBR about the burnout phenomenon,

“evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle.”

The responsibility for managing burnout has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization. Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy. Turnover is terrible for morale, expensive, and it compounds on itself. The result: burnout kills productivity at increased levels for the entire team. It’s exhausting for everyone else when there’s a revolving door of new employees! 

3. We are Less Inspired and Less Creative 

Being properly motivated and inspired when you’re sitting down to work results in our most quality work hours. You likely know the feeling of work hours well spent. That feeling that you just did a full day’s worth of average work in a two-hour window. Quality work time is tenfold more valuable than those hours spent just going through the motions—or watching the clock!

What leads to highly productive work hours is a culmination of a number of variables:

  • Your environment
  • Energy level
  • Current collaborators (the people involved)
  • Project you’re currently diving into
  • and more!
Black woman and Latina woman looking flustered in cartoon outlines of phones with low batteries

Even if all of these variables are aligned for success, the one thing that can act as a trump card and knock the other cards all off the table is burnout. 

Burnout kills productivity by putting workers in such a state of hanging on by a thread that “hours at work” lose their efficacy. When you take steps towards alleviating burnout, when all the trump cards are out of the deck, you give your team a chance for the variables that make up those most productive and powerful work hours a chance to fully align.

That is when the environment, energy, and potential of your work are inspired. It’s when we love our jobs, when we feel creative, and when we believe most in what we are building. As Ariana Huffington said so well, “Nothing kills creativity faster than burnout.” 

4. Mental Health is Key for Productivity

One major shift that Millenials and now Gen Z are pioneering in our current workplace culture is the openness and vulnerability to discuss our mental health. Further, to discuss our mental health in terms of how it relates to our work, and how the culture and environment created at work impact our mental wellbeing.

When our mental health is struggling and we feel depressed, anxious, under-valued, or extremely stressed—we can’t show up as our best selves. We can’t do our best work. We can’t be the team member we want to be for our fellow employees. 

Stress and burnout are significant contributors to poor mental health. Although we are discovering newfound freedom to discuss these issues at work—many work environments continue to lead to burnout, putting extreme pressure on individuals.

According to a Forbes article breaking down a survey conducted by the huge consulting firm Deloitte:

“A distressing number of millennials and Generation Zs were found to be stressed and/or anxious…48% of the Gen Zers and 44% of the millennials surveyed reported feeling stressed all or most of the time.”

This pressure is a huge strain on the mental health of entire teams and organizations. It’s no longer up to individuals to “suck it up” or “sort it out” themselves. We need leaders that will prioritize mental health, create a culture that doesn’t lead to burnout, and take steps towards owning the big picture. Here are four ways that both leadership and individuals can approach this increasingly important issue. 


1. Set Clear Expectations with Your Closest Coworkers 

Whether you’re thinking about your boss or those reporting to you, making sure those closest co-workers know what they can expect is huge. What type of communication loop they can anticipate? What type of platform is preferred for various communications? Which hours of the day will you be more accessible and what hours you’d rather not be bothered? All of those conversations around expectations will help to create an environment of greater understanding and less stress.  

Advice from Forbes states:

“It’s also crucial to set healthy boundaries with yourself and other people without feeling guilty. If you need to take time away from work for your mental health, do it. Use your vacation time to recharge and feel better about how your body and mind feel.”

Creating an environment where you can recover and rest—where you can be away from screens and notifications without stress—is what the future of positive workplace culture looks like. If you want employees to show up as their best selves at work, set up expectations that make it clear time for rest and recovery is good for work.

2. Organize Your Time  

In the famous lifestyle design book “5-Hour Work Week,” by Tim Ferris, he describes in detail how he structures his work time. How he batches like-tasks and builds in periods of downtime away from computers and work to avoid burnout. For example, he essentially has one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon where he responds to emails. All of his clients and coworkers know that those two times every day they can expect a response.

In a blog post, Tim further elaborates on the “how” by encouraging readers to “set up an autoresponse, which indicates you will be checking e-mail twice per day or less. This is an example of “batching” tasks, or performing like tasks at set times, between which you let them accumulate.” 

Creating more structure to your daily schedule and work tasks might feel counter-intuitive—like, it’s even more work to create the structure. However, according to the Forbes article:

Many people thrive by organizing their time based on their energy levels. When they feel motivated, they work. When they can’t focus, they step away. For those who work from home especially, completing tasks based on energy proves useful and productive.”

Dividing your priorities for the day and committing time to focus deeply on each task when your energy levels are at their best will help you keep the swirling chaos of a busy day at bay.

3. Remove or Strictly Manage Your Notifications

Burnout often hits when everything is coming at you at once. You’re on a Zoom call, you’re receiving stressful Whatsapp messages from a client, you find 5 new “URGENT” emails in your inbox, and then someone says “hey do you have a second?” If you’re on the brink of burnout, even one more “DING” to alert you of a new email might be that final digital straw that breaks your virtual donkey’s back.

This idea pairs well with Ferris’ concept of batching priorities. If you’re responding to emails, be doing exactly that. When you’re done—you don’t need to be notified that you got a response back—you’ll find that out later in your next “respond to emails” session. 

Notifications were largely built into so many of our communication platforms as a way to keep you returning to these platforms. To help you fall into an increasingly addictive relationship with the platform itself. It’s a small, insidious little component built into all of these platforms, but at this point, most of us can’t go a single waking hour without picking up our phone to check for any new notifications.

Taking the reigns back, removing notifications or strictly managing them will allow you to stay more focused on a single task. At the same time, this reduces the overwhelming work-day feeling that exacerbates the way burnout kills productivity. The way communication platforms are vying for our attention and the unintended consequences of our virtual ecosystems are well documented in the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma.

4. Use Asynchronous, Human-Centric Platforms 

Over the past year, burnout has started to be taken way more seriously as a diagnosable health issue. Medical publications and scholars are researching and publishing on the topic because of its potential negative health consequences.

One of those medical publications, Mayo Clinic, recently published an article about burnout describing many of the symptoms, causes, and consequences of burnout. According to the article, two major causes of burnout are: 

1. Lack of social support.

If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you might feel more stressed.

2. Work-life imbalance.

If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you might burn out quickly.

Your workplace can easily address and support you in relation to both of these top causes by changing how people interact and communicate at work. Using more human-centric platforms, navigating things to be more asynchronous, and encouraging folks to bring their full selves to work, all help to counteract these primary causes of burnout. 

One simple way you can address all three of those goals is to start using an async short video tool like Voodle. Our platform allows you to “instantly build better relationships no matter where or when you work” by harnessing the power of async video communication. Asynchronous work allows us to dive into deep and focused work when we feel most energized. It allows us to have greater control over our work-life balance.

Video communications allow us to be our full, three-dimensional selves at work, even from a distance. Voodle was built on both of these powerful benefits and is currently helping myriad teams and organizations to have a more human-centric approach to their communications and workflows. Essentially, async short video is another simple way to help your team avoid burnout and to encourage workdays that raise the productivity ceiling. 


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