Workplace burnout is at an all-time high, driving turnover, dragging down productivity, and cratering engagement. Employers can’t afford to ignore the toll burnout is exacting on their workplace culture and the bottom line.
Everyone within an organization is responsible for supporting their colleagues and fostering a positive work environment. But as an HR manager, you are on the front lines in the battle against burnout.
Fortunately, even though we live in a stressful era, with demands coming at your team members from every direction, burnout is not inevitable.
You may not have even considered addressing burnout as a function of your employee wellness programs, but it should be. In fact, it may be one of the most important things you can do: the long-tern effects or burnout are significant, usually impacts your top performers, and deeply (usually permanently) affects their ability to be creative, dynamic, and productive.
With the right strategic approach, you can transform your workplace so that employees feel not drained but enriched, not helpless but empowered.
We’ll get to those strategies later on, but first, let’s define burnout and examine why it can be so harmful to employees and employers.
What Is Workplace Burnout?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The three dimensions of burnout are:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from the job, or negative feelings or cynicism towards the job
- Reduced efficacy at work
Burnout is more than feeling stressed or tired, although stress and fatigue may contribute to burnout. A psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health says that people who are burned out are consumed with negative thoughts such as:
- “How can I get through the day?”
- “I can’t do this anymore.”
- “I’m working harder but I can’t catch up.”
- “What is wrong with me? I can’t think straight.”
How Common Is Burnout?
Brace yourself for a truly stunning statistic: 42% of the world’s white-collar workers are burned out, up from 38% in 2021. Younger generations and women are especially impacted:
- Nearly half (48%) of workers under 30 say they feel burned out at work
- 46% of women report feeling burned out
As you might imagine, the burnout epidemic is not good for business. Various studies associate burnout with increased attrition, reduced productivity, higher healthcare costs, and poor workplace morale. People who are burned out are nearly twice as likely to feel disconnected from their company and 3.4 times more likely to search for a new job.
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Addressing Burnout in Your Workplace: A Two-Pronged Approach
Burnout is closely linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Many of the symptoms overlap, including difficulty concentrating and loss of interest. So, workplace mental health wellness programs may also help employees manage the stress and emotions that contribute to burnout.
Mental health programs have become common in the modern workplace, partly because employers recognize their business value and partly because employees expect mental health support from their employers. Offerings like yoga classes, meditation apps, online therapy, and time off to deal with mental health issues have proven effective and popular.
In a recent article on promoting mental health in the workplace, we suggested several ways to help employees manage stress and find support for their mental health challenges. In addition, employee wellness programs focused on physical health can also impact mental health. Experts agree that exercising, eating right, and getting adequate sleep can all reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing.
But, as McKinsey noted in a 2022 report, while the prevalence of workplace mental health programs is a sign of progress, “many employers focus on individual-level interventions that remediate symptoms, rather than resolve the causes of employee burnout.”
In other words, to fully address burnout, employers must examine their organizations to discover what is causing employees to burn out in the first place.
Six Causes of Workplace Burnout — And What to Do About Them
Journalist Jennifer Moss surveyed the research on burnout for her 2021 book, “The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.” She discovered six main reasons for burnout. As an HR manager, you can work with company leadership to identify these conditions in your work environment and enact solutions.
Simply put, people have too much work and not enough time to do it. The excessive work, coupled with real or perceived pressure from management to get more done with less, can become too much to handle, triggering exhaustion, anxiety, and sleep loss.
Burnout prevention strategy: Employees should be encouraged to speak up if they feel their workload is too heavy. But some employees may worry about being punished for not working hard. The responsibility for managing excessive workloads should not rest entirely on employees’ shoulders.
Instead, management should be proactive to prevent overworking employees. This can mean:
- Clearly communicating priorities so employees understand which tasks are critical and which can be put on the back burner
- Checking in with employees regularly to monitor their workloads
- Matching employees’ abilities to their work duties; ensuring employees have the training, experience, and proper instruction to complete the tasks assigned to them
- Eliminating working lunches and any expectation that employees should work through breaks, after hours, or on weekends
- Modeling proper work-life balance and being careful not to valorize extreme workloads
2. Perceived Lack of Control
Feeling like your every move is being watched and micromanaged can be extremely taxing. Employees need to know their employers trust them to get their work done and that they have the flexibility to see to their own needs when necessary.
Burnout prevention strategy: Managers should see themselves more as coaches than dictators, Moss says. The idea is to support employees to be their best selves at work, offering feedback and assistance when appropriate and otherwise backing off and letting employees do their own thing.
Flexible scheduling can help employees gain work-life balance. Also, consider eliminating unnecessary meetings or busy work that might disrupt employees’ workflow.
3. Lack of Recognition
Recognition from your coworkers and leaders is essential for feeling like your work has value. Unfortunately, recognition is in short supply in the modern workplace. Nearly half of U.S. workers left a job because they felt underappreciated; 65% would work harder if they felt management noticed their contributions.
Burnout prevention strategy: Managers and leaders should make it a point to regularly praise employees publicly and one-on-one — not just for exceptional work, but for their everyday contributions. Employee recognition programs (such as “employee of the month”) can be encouraging, but it is important not to pit coworkers against each other.
4. Poor Relationships
Social connections are crucial for a sense of wellbeing — especially nowadays, with so many people working remotely. Positive, supportive work relationships help people feel like part of a community, all working toward the same goals. On the other hand, negative or toxic work relationships can make people dread starting work each day.
Burnout prevention strategies: Employers should provide opportunities for workers to connect around non-work activities and topics, get to know each other, and build friendships. Group fitness challenges, volunteer outings, and after-work gatherings (such as trivia night) all work well for this.
Managers should watch for toxic behavior, such as bullying and belittling, and intervene immediately.
Ross defines unfair treatment at work as “bias, favoritism, mistreatment by a coworker or supervisor, and unfair compensation and/or corporate policies.” Employees must feel like they’re all participating on a level playing field. If not, resentment will creep in.
Burnout prevention strategies: HR managers can take the lead on rooting out bias within the organization, including discrimination due to racial or gender differences. The grievance process should be well documented, and every complaint should be thoroughly investigated and resolved.
6. Values Misalignment
Everyone within the company does not have to agree on everything, but broadly sharing a mission and worldview can help people feel they’re right where they belong. A values mismatch can make employees feel like their work is pointless or, at worst, betrays their core beliefs.
In this context, shared values can mean everything from business objectives — such as achieving a certain growth level — to social, political, or philosophical views, such as a commitment to racial equity or environmental stewardship.
Burnout prevention strategies: Employers should be open about their mission and values during recruitment and onboarding and strive to maintain those values throughout the employee experience. Employees should be included in discussions about the company’s mission and priorities and encouraged to point out (constructively) when the company fails to live up to its values.
Burnout Is Preventable
In the modern working world, it can sometimes seem like the default condition is constant stress with little recognition. But it doesn’t have to be. Not only is burnout preventable, but by addressing the causes of burnout, you can lead your organization and its employees into a more productive, sustainable, healthier future.