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Employee Burnout: Identifying the Signs & Learning How to Prevent It

It’s a term we’ve all become familiar with, especially due to the circumstances in the past couple of years. It’s talked about on the news or makes the headlines nearly every day. It has likely made its way into your inter-office communications, and you’ve probably experienced it yourself or have seen it in your workplace. Of course, we’re talking about employee burnout. But what exactly does that mean?

The 3 Dimensions and Signs of Employee Burnout

Burnout is more than just exhaustion, and it’s not a medical condition. Employee burnout is about the workplace, not the person. It is defined by the World Health Organization as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized in employees by three components: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. However, the most important thing to note about burnout is that it is in response to continual workplace stressors; efforts to improve burnout that do not address the work environment will ultimately prove unsuccessful.

When it comes to recognizing the signs of burnout, either in yourself or in your employees, there are a number of changes to look for that can suggest high levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

  1. Differences in physical health. With exhaustion a core component of burnout, it is no surprise that a person suffering from workplace burnout may feel exhausted and depleted of energy because so much is taken out of them by being at work. They may have trouble sleeping even though they are tired. They may suffer physical pain, like headaches, muscle ache/fatigue, stomach cramping/nausea, shortness of breath, or even chest pains.
  2. Change in attitude. Burnout also includes a component of cynicism, which can result in employees expressing more negative emotions about their role and the organization. Employees may become more irritable, especially with feedback that never bothered them before and sullen about everything at work, even when good news is presented. They may also be less likely to seek help when needed and might not express the same levels of joy they once did.
  3. Decrease in productivity. Inefficacy is also a component of burnout as some employees become insecure about their performance and productivity or even their decision to have chosen a particular role or career path. They may also appear more distracted and may work at a slower pace than usual, resulting in decreased productivity. On the other hand, they may appear more frazzled and extremely busy but then have trouble explaining what tasks are occupying their time.

When employees mention these symptoms or they are observed in your workforce, it is highly likely that circumstances in your organization are leading to employee burnout. This should be a cause for concern and a call for change. Many organizations today are facing this challenge but do not fully understand its implications for their employees and for their business.

Why Your Organization Needs to Monitor Employee Burnout

Research confirms that not only is burnout getting worse, but it has detrimental effects on employees as well as organizations.

According to a March 2021 study by Indeed, employee burnout increased by 52% from the previous year with 67% of respondents blaming the pandemic for making it worse. In another study, Google notes that searches on its platform for “signs of burnout” went up 221% in the last few months of 2021.

Organizations must be concerned about the increase in burnout because it will impact their bottom line. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) reports that burnout adds between $125 billion and $190 billion every year in health care costs and stress alone accounts for 8% of national health care spend. Additionally, burnout costs companies’ money in the form of employee labor. According to a Headspace survey of 2,500 respondents, 45% of people admitted to losing up to two hours of work productivity per day because of stress. The cost of lost productivity is staggering. For example, if your organization has 300 employees and 45% of them lose two hours of their workday to burnout, then your organization is losing 270 manhours per day or about 35,000 hours per year.

Burnout is also cited as the number one reason people are quitting their jobs, at least according to a recent Limeade study. 40% of their survey participants, all of whom have started a new job in 2021, stated that they left their last employer due to burnout. With the Great Resignation, or the Great Evaluation, continuing into 2022, we can expect to see burnout cited as a top contributor, especially among front-line workers like healthcare, hospitality, and foodservice professionals.

Burnout not only has a detrimental impact on an organization’s success but also has a devastating impact on employees. Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found a correlation between workplace burnout and multiple physical health conditions.

In its review of The PubMed, Science Direct, PsycInfo, SciELO, LILACS, and Web of Science databases, the NCBI discovered that burnout was a predictor of “hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries, and mortality below the age of 45 years.”

Additional studies have found that workplace stress is also associated with higher levels of unhealthy behaviors that will ultimately impact employees’ overall physical well-being. Employees who note more work stress or burnout are more likely to smoke cigarettes, suffer from alcohol or drug addiction/abuse, and/or have poor nutrition or dietary patterns

The 6 Common Causes of Burnout

Of course, knowing what signs to look out for and understanding the impact burnout can have on your business isn’t enough. Organizations must also understand what is causing it. The leading expert on employee burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach of University of California, Berkeley, found six common factors driving burnout.

  1. High workload. If employees feel they are continually overwhelmed with work and their job demands outweigh the resources available, burnout can occur. Whether it is a lack of time, staff, tools, or another resource, the continuous mismatch between resources available and job demands can have a devastating toll on employees. Jacinta Jimenez, author of The Burnout Fix, describes just how important it is for employees to have time to rest and recover, saying it is “not how you preserve or endure” but “how you recharge, how you proactively invest in your mental well-being, and how you replenish yourself.”
  2. Lack of control. Employees are looking for autonomy and want to be entrusted to do their job, manage their time/workload/location, and have some say in their responsibilities and decisions that impact their work. When empowerment and autonomy are taken away or perceived to be lacking, it can cause resentment and lead to burnout. A recent study conducted by Perceptyx highlights the positive impact autonomy can have on combating burnout, finding hybrid workers who choose where to work are nearly twice as likely to feel energized by their work and 50% more likely to feel they are making meaningful contributions to their workplace compared to their colleagues working 100% in-person or remote.
  3. Deficient reward or recognition. Employees like and need positive feedback. It helps them to know they are doing a good job and fosters feelings of pride and accomplishment in their work. When financial, social, and intrinsic rewards fail to align with the amount of effort and time spent on the job, employees can question whether their efforts are worth it, feel cynical about why they are providing this high effort, and even question whether their performance is good enough since no one has acknowledged their contributions. Mismatches between rewards and effort can cause employees to feel unmotivated, ineffective, and not worthy of praise, resulting in burnout.
  4. A breakdown in community. Employees who don’t feel like they belong and don’t believe they are supported by their coworkers, managers, or teammates are at risk of burnout. While support can help combat burnout, chronically toxic environments such as those promoting bullying, microaggressions or other negative behaviors, can have the opposite effect. Research suggests burnout can even be contagious with negative attitudes spreading throughout the organization.
  5. Sense of unfairness. If there is a pervasive belief that some employees are not being treated fairly or that others are receiving special treatment, this can lead to burnout. All employees must have a sense of equity, respect, and opportunity because any distrust can lead to cynicism, a dimension of burnout. For example, employees believing growth opportunities are provided based on favoritism rather than merit may become cynical about building their own skills needed to achieve that next opportunity, failing to see how their efforts will have any impact on the expected, unfair outcome.
  6. Misalignment in company and personal values. When there is a mismatch between what an individual values and what a company values, pride in one’s work can suffer. People want to feel they are providing meaningful contributions and when there is disconnect between what they value and what the organization values, it can negatively impact that feeling and contribute to burnout.

Can Your Organization Prevent Employee Burnout?

Burnout isn’t simply about being tired. It’s a multidimensional issue that requires a multifaceted solution, which is why organizations need data to understand how it is manifesting, where it is coming from, and what they can do about it.

When organizations look to solve or prevent issues of employee burnout, it is important to remember this is not about fixing the person but rather about improving the work environment. Because burnout can look different across individuals, however, it still requires tailored solutions. A simple one-size-fits-all solution or bandages to problems as they pop up are not going to work. Dealing with burnout successfully will require organizations to understand its existence at both macro and micro levels.

Here are a few tips to get started on burnout prevention.

  1. Talk to your employees. Ask your people what is going on, if they are stressed, where that stress is coming from, and what could be done to eliminate the stressor. If you don’t ask, you won’t really know the truth. Developing leader skills to create a safe, empathetic space for honest dialogue is critical to uncovering areas of opportunity for improving the work environment.

    One tactical strategy that is very effective for organizations to listen at scale across all of their employees is to conduct employee surveys, providing data across the entire company to understand burnout risk and how perceptions have changed over time. Instead of just asking if people are experiencing high stress or burnout, ask a follow-up question to those indicating they are experiencing high stress, providing a list of potential causes of stress in the organization and asking them to select the top factor. This allows organizations to not only determine the top stressors overall but also understand how causes of stress and burnout may be similar or different across different groups. This approach provides data to help leaders make evidence-based decisions about what macro and tailored interventions may be most helpful.
  2. Include employees in the solution or action-planning process. By adding a crowdsourcing element to your employee surveys, your employees will be able to submit ideas to make improvements and vote on those submitted suggestions. This will help leadership understand employees’ needs much better and empower employees to be part of the solution. Additionally, it truly helps customize solutions based on different groups’ needs who might be experiencing very different causes of stress and burnout. Your employees are a vital resource with great ideas on how to improve the work experience – use them!
  3. Take action to improve the work environment and measure progress. Burnout occurs when there are mismatches between the work environment and human capacity. Failure to address the root causes of burnout for each individual and make adjustments in the work environment will ultimately fail. Whether it is improving inequities, adjusting workload, fostering greater connections, empowering greater decision-making, providing more control, or other factors, organizations must act and then measure the impact efforts have on not only improving these factors but also improving burnout and well-being.

Perceptyx Can Help You See the Way Forward

Employee burnout can seem like a scary concept due to the devastating impact it can have on employees and organizations. If your organization prepares to listen to employees, however, steps can be taken to reduce stress and burnout, improving the lives of your teammates and ultimately, business success.

Perceptyx can help collect and analyze employee feedback and business data to identify actions for improving burnout within your workplace. Collaboratively, we identify and remove barriers from culture, technology, and workspaces that are causing employee burnout and negatively impacting your organization’s bottom line.

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