Employee Burnout: Why It Happens and How to Minimize It

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A burned-out employee with his head down on a desk.

Stress is an inevitable part of any job and any workplace. Even those who truly love their vocation, colleagues and physical work environment are bound to have days that generate anxiety. Workplace stress can be the result of tight deadlines, overwhelming projects, dissatisfied customers or personality clashes.

What’s more, stressors from outside the workplace can bleed into the nine-to-five life. For example, for employees who are dealing with family problems, going to work may feel like an escape; however, it may be impossible to completely forget domestic concerns during office hours or to keep those home-life problems from piling onto professional stressors. Additionally, ongoing concerns about politics, health or economic security — all of which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the foreground — can cause even the most diligent and focused employees to feel overwhelmed.

All of this workplace stress can contribute to employee burnout. When left unaddressed, employee burnout can sap an entire team of its vigor, creativity and productivity. Thankfully, leaders can take steps to mitigate burnout in their organization.

What Is Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout refers to job-related stress that creates a sense of emotional and physical exhaustion and leaves the employee with a reduced sense of achievement and diminished self-identity.

Employee burnout isn’t an official medical diagnosis. Mayo Clinic notes that many health care providers believe that other medical conditions, such as depression, may be the underlying causes of the burnout. Regardless, those who experience job burnout can undoubtedly face problems with their physical health and emotional well-being.

What Causes Employee Burnout?

Several workplace stressors can contribute to the feeling of burnout. The primary culprits include the following:

  • Lack of job clarity. One reason employees may experience burnout is a general lack of clarity about their role. What are the expectations for their performance? To whom are they accountable? Employees who are unsure of the answers may feel highly uncomfortable at work.
  • Lack of control. Workplace burnout may also stem from employees feeling that their day-to-day work experience is largely beyond their control. Factors such as scheduling, workload and assignments can create a feeling of helplessness or a lack of autonomy.
  • Dysfunctional workplace. Workplace dynamics may also contribute to employee burnout. Office bullies, gossiping co-workers or an ineffective boss can all create a stressful, unpleasant professional experience.
  • Poor work-life balance. For employees who spend so much time at work that they have no time left for family or leisure, burnout is all but inevitable.

What Are the Consequences of Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout can have varied and significant consequences:

  • Due to excessive stress, those with burnout can have severely compromised emotional health and well-being.
  • Employee burnout may also lead to physical fatigue, which restless sleep and insomnia can complicate.
  • Those who deal with workplace burnout are at a higher risk of alcoholism and substance abuse issues.
  • Physical health maladies, including high blood pressure and heart disease, are also common to those with burnout.

The bottom line for organizational leaders: It’s crucial to know the answer to the question, What is employee burnout? The reason is that it can have a significant impact on employees’ health and their ability to do their best work.

A Look at Employee Burnout Statistics

There is ample statistical evidence to suggest that employee burnout is a major problem among American organizations. Employee burnout statistics also show that this problem is costly to organizations and their stakeholders.

How Common Is Employee Burnout?

A 2020 Gallup survey presented some sobering employee burnout statistics. Gallup found that 28% of employees surveyed felt burned out at work either often or always; 76% said they experienced workplace burnout at least sometimes. In other words, employee burnout is an issue that affects more than three quarters of the workforce.

What Are the Costs of Employee Burnout?

Burnout isn’t just a problem for individual employees. It can prove costly to entire organizations, sapping productivity and negatively impacting the bottom line. Consider some costs of employee burnout, according to Gallup: Employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and are almost three times more likely to be actively seeking a new job.

Even for employees who stay with their organization, burnout can impair their performance. Gallup notes that burned-out employees are markedly less confident in the work they do and much less likely to discuss issues, concerns or professional goals with their supervisor.

COVID-19 and Employee Burnout

If employee burnout was a problem before, it’s reached even more critical severity thanks to COVID-19.

According to a survey that Mental Health America (MHA) and FlexJobs sponsored, 75% of employees now say they experience burnout; 40% of those employees say their burnout is directly related to the pandemic.

The employee burnout statistics point to a number of reasons that COVID-19 has proven disruptive to workplace wellness.

  • Employees who work remotely no longer experience clear boundaries between work and home; for example, many may feel compelled to check work-related emails after hours.
  • Many employees are also faced with additional obligations at home, including arrangements for child care or at-home, virtual learning.
  • Employees may also experience fatigue and frustration because long hours spent on virtual calls or Zoom meetings may sometimes seem unproductive or detached from workplace realities.
  • Additionally, employees have experienced significant disruptions to many everyday routines, from food prep to break time, all of which compound stress levels.

Employee Burnout Signs: What to Watch For

One of the most important ways to mediate employee burnout is to be vigilant and alert to its signs and symptoms. Employees should be familiar with some of the most common signs of burnout so they can seek time off or to rebalance their workload as needed. Additionally, employers and organizational leaders should keep their eyes open for employee burnout signs; by identifying these signs early, employers can take necessary actions to promote employees’ health; encourage greater work-life balance; or make adjustments to schedules, assignments and job responsibilities.

Common Employee Burnout Symptoms

Employees should be aware of several signs of burnout. These include the following:

  • Increased workplace cynicism. Employee burnout can often manifest as an overly critical or cynical spirit in the workplace. Burned-out employees find it hard to trust their colleagues, assume the best about their leaders or be optimistic about the future of their organization.
  • Inability to concentrate. Another one of the most common employee burnout signs is a lack of focus. Having difficulty homing in on a particular task or shutting out external worries and distractions often speaks to burnout.
  • Lack of satisfaction. A clear sign of burnout is the inability to derive any pleasure or sense of accomplishment in professional achievements. If the completion of a major project or accolades from an important client don’t bring a sense of fullness, that’s a clear indication of burnout.
  • Altered sleeping habits. For employees who struggle with insomnia during the night but fatigue throughout the day, burnout may be a factor.

Workers at any organization should be alert to the employee burnout signs and take them seriously; if left unaddressed, the experience of burnout may become even more pronounced and further disruptive to wellness, job satisfaction and performance.

Employee Burnout Signs for Leaders to Note

While employees should monitor their own performance for signs and symptoms of burnout, leaders should also be vigilant about any warning signs that appear among their team members. The following are some red flags:

  • Increase in absenteeism. Do you have an employee who’s suddenly started showing up late, calling in sick or scheduling ample amounts of time out of the office? A sudden uptick in absenteeism is often a sign that the employee is burned out.
  • Drop-off in workplace quality. Another employee burnout sign for leaders to note is poor work quality. Employees dealing with burnout will often start making sloppy mistakes or careless errors.
  • Malcontentedness in the workplace. Sometimes, burned-out employees will find it difficult to keep their cynicism to themselves. If employees become increasingly vocal in their displeasure at work or loudly grumble about the office environment, that’s a critical sign of burnout. If left unaddressed, it can also increase the risk of burnout among other employees.

Leaders must remain alert to the signs of burnout and acknowledge that any employee may be afflicted with this condition.

How to Prevent Burnout from a Company Perspective

Leaders can take a number of steps to ward off employee burnout and build positive company cultures that keep employees engaged and prevent them from feeling overburdened or out of control. Consider a few of the best organizational strategies for how to prevent employee burnout.

Root Out Unfairness

According to the Gallup survey, one of the factors most closely associated with burnout is the perception of unfairness. When employees feel like they aren’t being treated equitably, it typically breeds cynicism, frustration or resentment. Thus, for organizations looking for how to prevent employee burnout, being mindful of unfair corporate practices is a good place to begin.

Start by reviewing organizational pay and benefits policies, ensuring that there are no inequities and correcting any that emerge. Also, make certain that clear, written policies exist that explain actions such as which employees earn merit raises and which employees are chosen for prestigious assignments. This clarity can often be an important safeguard against perceptions of bias or favoritism.

Define Roles

Another important way to prevent burnout is to ensure that all roles within the organization are clearly defined. Leaders can accomplish this by writing detailed job descriptions for each role, including basic day-to-day duties, performance standards and metrics, and clear information about reporting structures.

Additionally, leaders should sit down with employees to discuss goals together. Make sure that all employees in the organization know what’s expected of them and how their work is going to be evaluated. Finally, make sure that all employees know how to seek clarity about their job and the expectations placed on them.

Promote Work-Life Balance

Another important strategy for how to prevent employee burnout: Create an organizational culture that actively promotes a sense of work-life balance.

Start by regularly reviewing workloads so employees aren’t overburdened. Establish boundaries, especially for employees who work remotely. Make sure employees know that they aren’t expected to “clock in” early or check their work email after hours.

Leaders can set a positive example in this area. Clock out at a reasonable time each day, take time off regularly, and never send work-related emails or texts on weekends or late at night.

Encourage Self-Care

Finally, it’s helpful for organizations to encourage their employees to take care of their emotional, physical and mental health needs.

Communicating company benefits can be critical here. Working with human resources, leaders can regularly remind employees that they have paid time off (PTO) and vacation days they can use for “mental health breaks” or simply to get outside the office. Education about physical and mental health benefits can also be helpful.

Another option for reducing burnout rates is to implement workplace programs that encourage employees to go for walks on their lunch break, practice healthy nutrition or take care of themselves in other ways.

Fighting Employee Burnout: How Managers Can Help

In any organization, individual leaders can use their position to develop preventive strategies for burnout. A manager can help employee burnout in a number of ways, starting with the following:

Practice Transparent Communication

Communication can be an essential safeguard against employee burnout; leaders can do their part simply by emphasizing clarity, transparency and directness. This means being forthcoming with praise as well as constructive criticism and regularly checking in with employees to assess their progress toward completing important goals. Robust communication helps employees see that their place in the company is valued, and in turn, can bolster their own self-worth. In addition, leaders must communicate the specific ways in which an employee’s role contributes to the overarching organizational goals and objectives. This allows employees to feel like they have a greater sense of the mission.

Encourage Teamwork

Another way to help stave off burnout is to encourage employee collaboration. This can not only prevent individual employees from feeling overworked but also build a sense of camaraderie and belonging. Leaders can encourage teamwork by assigning tasks to groups, not just individuals, and by ensuring that they’re coaxing employees to work together across departments or divisions.

Play to Employee Strengths

Finally, a smart way to keep employees engaged with their work — and thus help prevent them from being disconnected or burned out — is to emphasize their strengths over weaknesses. Seek to assign employees to projects that align with their core strengths. While it may be necessary to offer constructive feedback sometimes, it’s often wise to temper criticism with opportunities to hone strengths and abilities further. Leaders don’t need to coddle their employees, but they should help them remember the value they bring to the organization.

With strategies like these, leaders can create a positive work environment where the risk of burnout is mediated, and employees generally feel empowered to do meaningful work and preserve a sense of balance.

Creating Great Employee Value

Employee burnout can happen to anyone and in any workplace. When it does, the effects can be highly consequential, both for the employee and the organization. Thankfully, leaders can take proactive strategies to safeguard against employee burnout in their organization.

To master some of the strategies, a critical step is seeking a robust formal education. Consider Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership program, which provides immersion in the best techniques for developing people and cultures that lead to outstanding work. Embark on this degree program to gain the right skill set to identify employee burnout and put programs in place to mitigate it.

Recommended Readings

Challenges and Issues in Leadership in Higher Education

Life Coach vs. Therapist: Comparing Two Helping Roles

How to Become a Social and Community Service Manager

Sources:

The American Institute of Stress, Workplace Stress

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Employees: How to Cope with Job Stress and Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

CNBC, “Remote Work Burnout Is Growing as Pandemic Stretches On. Here’s How to Manage It”

Gallup, “Employee Burnout: The Biggest Myth”

Mayo Clinic, Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action

Society for Human Resource Management, “Blocking Burnout in Your Organization”

TechRepublic, “COVID-19 Has Exacerbated a 75% Job Burnout Rate, Study Says”

Verywell Mind, “Job Factors That Contribute to Employee Burnout”