It’s no secret that employee burnout is rampant in modern workplaces. Surveys and studies have found that one-third to one-half of the workforce meets the medical criteria for burnout, according to the American Institute of Stress. Everyone from Fortune Magazine to Jeff Bezos has lamented the epidemic of employees who simply don’t care anymore, but it’s been hard to treat—especially since many companies perceive it as a personal or talent issue, not a business problem that can be solved with better tactics.
In fact, recent findings prove that many companies are not just being passive when there is an employee burnout case around the corner — they actually hit the low blow and contribute to the stress. In recent research on employee burnout, almost 70% of respondents said they think their companies are not doing enough to prevent employee burnout, while 21% said that their companies have no programs aimed at this at all. And with every next generation, the problem is growing bigger. In that same research, 84% of millennials said they have experienced burnout at their current job.
So where is employee burnout coming from, what’s causing these numbers, and how do you make sure your people are protected from it? Read on to find out.
What is employee burnout?
The meaning of employee burnout can vary in different settings, but at its core, it relates to the stress people experience in relation to their work. Burnout as such has only recently been recognized as a medical emergency and a diagnosis on a global scale. According to the World Health Organization, otherwise known as WHO, the definition of employee burnout can be presented as a syndrome that comes as a result of chronic stress at the workplace that didn’t get proper attention and treatment. There are three commonly seen employee burnout symptoms:
- Feeling exhausted and energetically depleted.
- Feeling negative or cynical about one’s job and experiencing a sort of mental distancing from it.
- Suffering from the feeling of ineffectiveness and questioning one’s list of accomplishments.
When physically and emotionally exhausted, some people start questioning not only their work achievements but also the very essence of their personal identity. Interesting fact, it is recommended to consider the very notion of burnout only in the context of one’s occupation, without assigning it to any other area of one’s life.
Although employee burnout signs are primarily associated with one’s working climate, there might be more skeletons in the closet. For instance, burnout might also get fuelled by the person’s prior depression, personality traits, or even the situation at home. All of these factors can either increase one’s risks of getting burnout or decrease them. But whatever the case, leaving a burnout employee unattended is certainly not the way to go for a people-oriented company and it can lead to even worse consequences for everyone involved later on.
But before building strategies on how to eliminate or prevent the problem, you need to drill into the most common causes of employee burnout.
Top reasons for employee burnout
Working in an office is not all high fives. It comes with a lot of stress and a lot of work but that’s simply part of the package. In particular, there could be many reasons why you feel stressed at work-, and some are more serious than others. We’ll go over some of the common things that result in employee burnout.
1. Long hours and heavy workload
The most common form of workplace stress occurs when too much work is given to employees without any opportunity for adjustment. This is the result of poor scheduling practices and treating employees like machines. All too often, managers expect employees to bite more than they can chew without understanding that too many assignments won’t really increase their productivity.
In fact, Erin Reid's research of consultants at Boston University's Questrom School of Business found that employees who worked long hours produced the same amount of work as those who did not work extra. Eventually, managers couldn't identify the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to work 80 hours a week when questioned.
This isn't to imply that working too much has no impact on employee productivity or corporate performance. In fact, it's the polar opposite. Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health's research proves there’s a clear correlation between overwork and a variety of health issues, such as insomnia, depression, diabetes, poor memory, and heart disease, let alone burnout.
2. Unceasing pressure and KPIs out of reach
Every job comes with a certain degree of stress, which is a commonly accepted fact, and most people are prepared for it when taking up a new position. However, when KPIs are out of reach, things can get out of control and negatively impact employee productivity. Recent studies suggest that people who are under a lot of stress at work are 19% less productive.
It’s a common practice for management to dream big and encourage their employees to overpromise, but the KPIs being set should always be based on past performance and the way success has been achieved in the past.
But there is a line where pressure does not simply reduce people’s productivity and job satisfaction, but actually hand-holds them right into the burnout trap. Whether it is burning deadlines, unreachable KPI goals, long hours, job insecurity, or heavy workload — it is difficult for people to keep their heads above the water.
3. Lack of support
With no proper leadership and support system in place, people see no authority to turn to when facing certain problems or seeking advice. A true leader should be the very person dealing with employee burnout or better still — making sure it doesn’t happen at all. As they often say, communication is key, and it is not only communication with coworkers people might crave.
In many cases, they feel like opening up to their manager and communicating their fears. A manager is not a fair-weather friend — it is someone who sticks with their team through thick and thin. This is why failing to get this support, validation, recognition, and mentoring can leave people struggling at work.
4. Unfair pay
Money is a sensitive topic at work. It always has been and it always will be. But imagine what it feels like to pour all of your energy into something, go above and beyond to see the company thrive, even make some sacrifices if need be — and then not get a fair paycheck for the job well done.
In the US alone, 43% of people believe they don’t get paid enough for what they do, a recent report by Gallup says. And above all, insufficient compensation gives people a clear-cut sign that they are not valued at work and it either makes them consider quitting the position or start showing signs of employee burnout.
5. Poor treatment
Same as other employee burnout dangers, unfair treatment comes in different shapes and sizes. From favoritism and bias to office bullying and unjust policies — there are many factors that impact the way people feel about their work climate. A toxic environment at work does not only lead to bad relationships and poor team performance, it also encourages people to turn to absenteeism. In this context, employee absenteeism means that people deliberately find or make up a reason to justify their not showing up at work when they are expected to. This playing-truant-office-edition is usually a red flag signaling that the person will either quit the job soon or fall into the burnout hole altogether.
6. Lack of control
Even when working for someone, people expect to still hold a share of control over some things like schedule, workload, and assignments. On top of that, having the chance to be the decision-maker in one’s job, strategize how to approach and handle some issues make people more invested in what they do. Being restricted and not allowed to have a say in such things has the opposite effect — it kills employees' motivation and makes them feel like all they do is play by the rules they did not necessarily agree to. This, in turn, contributes to the rising trends in global employee burnout statistics.
Now, there are many more employee burnout causes to consider but here are the cures that can help you get from problem identification to problem-solving.
Critical steps in preventing employee burnout
Thoroughly addressing employee burnout requires a company to rethink how it measures, motivates, and communicates with its employees. It’s easy to see burnout as a natural byproduct of the intense pressure that comes with competitive workplaces, where individuals strive for success and aspire to be their best. But that ignores the fact that a large and growing portion of our nation is employed by companies – corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, and small businesses – that serve as an anchor in our communities. When these organizations fail to ensure the well-being of their workers, there can be devastating economic ripple effects.
As the owner of a business worried about employee burnout you should attempt to establish a multi-faceted approach to the problem, and here are some of the things you could do in the process.
Upgrade your workload management strategies
If there is one sure way to reduce employee burnout it would have to be about changing the way you approach workload management. When people have too many things on their plate, they get overwhelmed and experience a drop in productivity levels. But effective workload management can significantly reduce the pressure your team members feel at work and even give them room to take breaks without compromising performance outputs.
To start with, try taking more time to plan your projects, tasks, and subtasks, set achievable deadlines, and allocate to-dos fairly. On top of that, you can also find new ways to do capacity planning, draw task dependencies, and measure utilization rates. When applied together, all of these workload management tricks should make a considerable difference in the way your team feels about their work.
Track employee wellbeing
When it comes to things as serious as employee burnout and retention rates, you cannot just let it go with the flow or play a guessing game on how your people feel at work. Instead, you need to actively track employee wellbeing by openly addressing potential problems and asking people how they are doing. For instance, you could draft an occasional employee burnout survey or some other questionnaire to make sure no one is pushing their limits too much. But it’s not just tracking that matters. You also need to take active action to improve employee wellbeing by eliminating stressors, providing health and wellness facilities, encouraging breaks, and conducting psychological assessments.
Reinvent your resource management strategies
You don’t need to wait till you see factors that show employee burnout to level up your resource management practices. By hacking into efficient resource allocation and resource leveling, you can make sure every member of your team has just enough workload to demonstrate their best performance, but not too much for them to work long hours and miss out on the much-needed relaxation time. There are lots of steps you can take to improve your resource management manually, but if you want to save time and see measurable results right away, it’s a good idea to look around for advanced resource management tools.
Give people freedom and establish a culture of accountability
Today more than ever, people are getting comfortable with managing their own schedule and appreciate flexibility in questions like when they can work and from where. Many companies have already established a hybrid workplace system that gives employees the authority to manage their workload as they see fit.
Giving team members space to breathe and creating a culture of accountability has proved to be a great decision — people feel more freedom but at the same time, they demonstrate more involvement in the job that they do and take on new levels of responsibility. By creating an environment of trust, you can reduce pressure levels not only for the team but for yourself too.
Communicate with your team members
Poor communication has been labeled as one of the main productivity killers at work. But it can actually go much further than that and hurt people not only on the professional level but on the individual level too. Encouraging open communication within the company is not only an excellent way to get people closer and increase transparency but also a great opportunity to track how people are doing. Even more than that, by easily communicating with their leaders, employees can be sure that they always have someone to reach out to for advice and support.
Set clear objectives and reachable KPIs
Unrealistic KPIs turn to poison and vague objectives get people confused before the project even starts running. But that’s not all to it. With no rock-solid objectives in place, your team members will have no beacon to swim to and in less poetic terms — they will simply not have a clear understanding of where they are going and why they are going there. Drivers at work are necessary not just to motivate people but also to make it easy for them to track their own achievements and feel fulfilled when they hit yet another target on the list. This is why taking the time to work out SMART goals is a thing that always pays off.
Secure a good work-life balance for all employees
Research by Deloitte found that an alarming 77% of people have experienced burnout at their current job. And people who do not maintain a healthy work-life balance are more likely to experience burnout than those who do. The problem is that in many cases, inadequate work hours get romanticized: people get praised for working long hours and giving up their weekends to get the job done. But as a true leader, you need to make sure that everyone gets enough rest and doesn’t abandon their social life just to move up the career ladder faster. People need time to recharge and replenish their resources.
Employee burnout does not stem from the employee alone and does not affect the employee alone. Want it or not — companies have a role to play both in preventing employee burnout and in making it happen. After all, that “always-on” work culture is something that brings short-lived results. In the long run, the employee might suffer from burnout, while the company will see diminished productivity and lower retention rates. This is why it is paramount to recognize employee burnout not just as something people should deal with single-handedly, but as a problem companies need to actively address on a global scale.