Learn what causes burnout at work, its symptoms, and how to cure and prevent it
Employee burnout is a serious mental health problem that can affect many people’s lives. As of May 2019, the World Health Organization has classified it as a mental condition. It’s having a growing impact on workplaces, particularly in advanced economies and during times of economic downturn.
For instance, in the US, 67% of full-time employees reported feelings of burnout with varying frequency, according to a Gallup study. Among them, 23% felt burned out very often or always, while the other 44% felt burned out sometimes.
What causes employee burnout?
Gallup found five factors that are most highly correlated with burnout:
1. Unfair treatment at work
Employees who strongly agree that they are often treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment can include bias, favoritism, mistreatment by a coworker, and unfair compensation or corporate policies. When employees don’t trust their manager, teammates, or the leadership, it breaks the psychological bond that makes work meaningful.
2. Unmanageable workload
High-performing employees can quickly shift from being optimistic to hopeless as they drown in an unmanageable workload. When employees find their workload out of control, they look to their managers to help them deal with what they can’t accomplish and find others to help them.
3. Unclear role
According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, only 60% of workers can strongly agree that they know what’s expected of them at work. When accountability and expectations are moving targets, employees can get exhausted in trying to figure out what people want from them.
4. Lack of communication and manager support
Employees who strongly agree that they feel their manager's support are about 70% less likely to experience work burnout regularly. In contrast, when a manager is negligent or confrontational, employees feel uninformed, alone, and defensive.
5. Unreasonable time pressure
When employees say that they often or always have enough time to do all their work, they are 70% less likely to experience burnout. Some professions will always have extreme time constraints, such as paramedics and firefighters. In other fields, however, people who don’t know how long it takes to deliver quality work or great customer service are the ones imposing time constraints.
Unreasonable deadlines can create a snowball effect. When employees miss one overly aggressive deadline, they fall behind on the next thing that they are scheduled to do.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
According to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, some of the signs and symptoms that employees experiencing work burnout may exhibit include:
- Reduced efficiency and energy
- Lowered levels of motivation
- Decreased productivity
- Reduced job satisfaction and increased frustration
- Increased errors
- Increased absenteeism
- Sarcasm and negativity
- Debilitating self-doubt
- Poor workplace morale
- Communication breakdown
- Increased turnover
Health and safety-related
- Self-medication with alcohol and other substances
- Poor physical health
- Clinical depression
- Increased risk of accidents
Although burnout has become part of the job for many employees, the organizational cost of burnout is substantial: Burned-out workers are 63% more likely to take sick leave and 2.6 times as likely to be actively finding a different job. Even if they stay, they are 13% less confident in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager. Even worse, they are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, according to Gallup.
How do you handle burnout at work?
Here are some suggestions from Workable on managing employee burnout:
Sift through the workload
Sometimes, highly competent employees might be carrying too much responsibility. They may often try to help colleagues and take up projects that are not included in their job description. This workload can quickly pile up and become unmanageable.
If an employee says that they are exhausted or continuously behind schedule, help them create a list of all their tasks and projects – both recurring and ad hoc – and help them prioritize. Be ready to remove some items from the list, especially if they don’t fall within that employee’s job description, and take responsibility for delegating them elsewhere or putting them on hold.
Ensure variety of work
When employees are doing great at something, employers tend to trust them with that at all times – and that could wear the employee down. Ask employees about what would make them more motivated or enthusiastic and do your best to make it happen. Consider assigning them different work every once in a while or allowing them to shadow colleagues, innovate, or even pursue educational opportunities.
How do you prevent work burnout in your employees?
There’s no magic formula for preventing employee burnout, but a proactive and preemptive approach is far better than fixing it. Workable suggests the following practices:
Clarify roles and responsibilities
Be upfront about your expectations – starting with the job description you write for new hires. Outline all duties for each role and discuss them with employees to clear any confusion. Avoid delegating work outside each person’s responsibilities without allowing them to say “no” – especially when projects come from other teams or departments.
Stop employees from overworking
Employees may work harder due to their dedication, unwillingness to refuse colleagues' calls for help, or a simple drive to show that they are hard workers. (Be aware that many people have excessively internalized the idea of working hard as the ultimate goal and the best predictor of success.) Don’t hesitate to tell someone to call it a day if you see that it’s needed.
Consider culture problems
If you have a transparent company culture, and your company leaders support and reward employees and respect work-life balance, it will be easier to prevent employee burnout. Build a great culture that values flexible schedules, vacation time, and teamwork – this can boost your recruitment and retention efforts, too.
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