What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout is nothing new (in fact, the term originated in the 1970s) but the pandemic raised long-overdue attention to its deeply negative impact. And, as with any topic that gains traction – such as diversity & inclusion, coaching, or mindfulness – burnout faces a difficult challenge: to be taken seriously without morphing into a buzzword devoid of meaning. Thus, first and foremost, it’s important to define what exactly we are referring to when we talk about employee burnout.
The World Health Organization (ICD-11) refers to burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and defines it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three key elements:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance (or negative and cynical feelings) towards one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
What are the signs of employee burnout?
We tend to perceive those affected by burnout already at the end of the road: either completely overwhelmed and exhausted or, more cynically, re-discovering themselves in Bali. However, there’s a long journey before reaching a breaking point (or Indonesia).
Leaders must keep in mind that most employees won’t be comfortable admitting that they are feeling burned out. Therefore, it's a manager’s responsibility to actively be on the lookout for signs which can, at first, be easy to overlook or dismiss. Here’s what employee burnout might look like on a daily basis:
- Lack of energy and increased irritability
- Lack of engagement and creativity
- Difficulty in keeping up with meetings
- Answering emails way beyond working hours
- Resistance to feedback
- Recurring jokes about lack of sleep
What causes employee burnout?
When it comes to the factors that cause an employee to burnout, it’s important to start by highlighting that burnout is not an individual problem dependent on personality traits. Moreover, despite a common belief that highly dedicated people are immune to burnout, the very opposite is true – proactive and engaged employees are usually the first ones to show signs of burnout as their commitment and dedication makes them face working obstacles head-on.
To alleviate or prevent burnout in your workforce, start by identifying its triggers. Some of the most common causes of employee burnout are:
- Overbearing pressure and unrealistic goals
- Work overload and consistent overtime
- Lack of support from managers and colleagues
- Poor feedback and communication
- Lack of recognition and reward
- Micromanagement and lack of control
- Bad leadership from direct and senior managers
- Toxic work environment and company culture
How does employee burnout affect organizations?
In a Deloitte US workplace burnout survey, 91% of those questioned stated that having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration negatively impacts the quality of their work. The survey also revealed that nearly 50% of millennials say they have left a job specifically because they felt burned out. Burnout is also directly related to sickness and absenteeism – a 2021 study run by the UK Government found that between 2019 and 2021 alone, approximately 17.9 million working days had been lost as a byproduct of workplace stress, depression, or anxiety.
In Germany, the situation is similar. According to the 2019 STADA Health Report, 49% of those interviewed, have had a burnout or experienced the symptoms at some point in their careers. Moreover, a 2016 analysis on the cost of burnout in Germany concluded that German businesses were already losing about €9 billion a year in reduced productivity due to burnout. These numbers illustrate just how much employee burnout affects (and costs) organizations in a wide spectrum of areas such as engagement, productivity, and retention.
How to address and prevent employee burnout?
In the same Deloitte survey on burnout in the workplace, 21% of respondents said their company does not offer any programs or initiatives to prevent or alleviate burnout. Moreover, almost 70% claimed that their employers were not taking enough action to reduce burnout in the workplace. Nevertheless, despite being a complex issue, addressing employee burnout is not overly complicated or costly – but it does require an honest look inward at a company’s culture and a commitment to change toxic behaviors. These are few key steps any organization can take in this direction:
1. Trust: Don’t micromanage
The most inspiring leaders are those who mentor, listen, and facilitate while giving their employees a sense of responsibility, accountability, and ownership. Your people will be more committed, engaged, and productive if they feel like their expertise is heard, their effort is tangible, and their initiative is impactful.
2. Focus: Avoid multitasking
Multitasking is often used as a synonym for productivity and high performance; almost like a badge of honor, especially in rapid-growing and fast-paced environments. In reality, multitasking is a myth and a very short road to subpar work, burnout, and turnover, as it forces employees to wear many hats at once, quickly having to shift focus from one task to another.
3. Flexibility: Everyone is different
Perhaps the most important lesson taken from the current global work disruption is the importance of flexible work and the individuality of each employee. Some of us thrive in a remote setting, others function better in an office; some are early birds while others are night owls. Or just ask an introvert how they’re shining in a work environment no longer shaped by and for extroverts.
4. Boundaries: It’s a team, not a family
Although a sense of community at work is largely welcomed and beneficial, there should also be strong work-life boundaries in place. For instance, establishing clear working and leisure time (no Sunday or midnight emails) can be difficult when the concept of family (i.e., loyalty, dedication, identification) becomes associated with work.
5. Tools: Equip your team to thrive
Happy hours and yoga classes don't replace the need to take action on the points above but providing employees with the right tools does go a long way. One proven way to help alleviate and prevent burnout in the workplace is through digital coaching. Not only does coaching support an employee's mental well-being and increases retention, but it also cultivates individual and behavioral action against burnout.
Use these learnings on how to identify, address and prevent employee burnout as a starting point to establish a strong burnout prevention policy in your organization.