What is Employee Burnout and How to Deal With It

  • Brace
  • March 15, 2018
  • 10 min

Hiding in the dark corners of every business are the germs of a looming problem: Employee burnout. Overworked and overstressed employees quickly become disengaged employees, leading to less productivity and spreading negativity in the workplace. We’ll define employee burnout, discuss ways to recognize and address it, and provide key takeaways to stem the tide of burnout.

The Scale of the Outbreak

Studies of American workers have found that as many as 50% suffer from burnout to some degree. In a 2016 survey of over 600 HR professionals, 95% reported that burnout was “sabotaging” employee retention.

The same survey found that the causes of employee burnout included poor pay, unreasonable workloads, and excessive overtime. Burnout is no simple matter, rather, it’s a complex phenomenon, which involves a combination of long working hours, unhappy work environments, unfulfilling tasks, and all-around stress that turn productive employees into tired, frustrated individuals who struggle to get along with their co-workers; and no company is immune.

Employee Burnout: A Definition

To recognize and address a problem, it’s helpful to know what it is. Burnout is often thrown around in common conversation, but it also has a concrete meaning. According to a study by Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach: “Burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, which is experienced in response to chronic job stressors.”

The word “chronic” is an emphasis in the study as burnout is not just about too much work or stress in spurts, but the state of being continuously under pressure and unsatisfied.

This leads to the 3 key dimensions of burnout:

  • Exhaustion. Everyone can get stressed and tired, but exhaustion comes when there is no break from exertion and no time for recovery. This state of being drives employees to disconnect from work and coworkers, often out of internal self-defense mechanisms.
  • Cynicism. Losing faith and interest in the workplace is often a result of exhaustion and manifests itself through cynical, pessimistic perspectives and attitudes. These can easily spread and affect others.
  • Inefficacy. The feeling of being useless and unneeded can derive from exhaustion, cynicism, or both. If employees feel unvalued and overworked, then they see no reason to continue giving their effort.

Factors of Employee Burnout

To understand burnout as simply being overworked would be missing the full picture. Elements from all aspects of the workplace contribute to either improving or exacerbating employee burnout. The work of Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter shows that:

    • Employees need control of their work and decisions.
      Studies show that having autonomy and the ability to influence decisions leads to better productivity while lacking this has the opposite effect. This is even worse if multiple authority figures give contradictory directions, confusing employees regarding their role and task. People are decisive and thinking beings and being denied this leads to frustration, feelings of helplessness, and disconnect.
    • Work needs to be valued and rewarded.
      Rewards can work on multiple levels: social, internal, and monetary. Not being appropriately compensated is a big demotivator, but If employees don’t feel that their efforts are appreciated by colleagues and managers, then these also lose social value, as well as internal value such as pride and feeling accomplished.
    • A workplace should also be a community.
      Social connection is a driving factor in employee well-being and productivity. Support from the highest manager to the newest coworker helps everyone to find reasons to work harder, face challenges, and not be overwhelmed. If a workplace is alienating and unsupportive, then work can easily become too much and employees disengaged.
    • Fair treatment and chances help employees face challenges.
      Work can be a lot, but it’s even more when employees feel they or others are getting the short end of the stick. Studies show that team members rate fairness as more important than favorable outcomes. This means that employees can handle the workload, as long as everyone is in it equally together, but will lose motivation if they have to carry it all themselves.
    • Company values should be upheld.
      Values are what attract employees to an employer and provide reason and orientation for their work and efforts. It answers the “why am I doing this” of tasks, giving them purpose. If the organization contradicts its mission, or the values are different than an employee expects, it can lead to internal conflict and difficulties with motivation and burnout.
    • The workload needs to be manageable.
      There are always moments when work becomes too much. But if these moments are not the exception, but rather the rule, then this leads to problems with productivity, motivation, and exhaustion. Accomplishment becomes meaningless for employees if they are constantly overwhelmed.
  • Recognizing Early Signs of Employee Burnout

    Burnout is a process more than it is an acute illness. Continuous stress and poor working environments slowly wear on employees’ psyches until they break. Once burnout begins, it can quickly spread throughout a team, as many employees emotionally feed off each other and face similar challenges and conditions at work.

    To nip burnout in the bud, watch out for these tell-tale signs:

    1. Reliable employees making easy mistakes.
    2. Fading excitement in the office or in individual employees.
    3. Innovation grinding to a halt.
    4. Increasing unplanned absences.
    5. Workplace mood falls and can’t get up.
    6. Employees having more health issues.
    7. There’s more frustration than fun.

    Being continuously overworked and overstressed leads to a lack of concentration, increased interpersonal tensions, individual health issues, and a host of other concerns. If your workplace fits one or more of these descriptions, then it might be time to address Employee Experience and stop burnout before it spreads.

    Steps to Stop Employee Burnout

    If you notice more and more symptoms of employee burnout in your office, there’s no need to panic. Burnout can be contained and countered by paying attention to your employees’ needs and implementing a few effective steps.

    You can address burnout through…

    • …Keeping an open door.
      Employees need to know that management is there to support them and help, rather than developing an antagonistic relationship. A company is all one team, after all. An “open door” approach is one way to let employees know that their boss has their back and to encourage them to work through tough times without feeling unappreciated and overwhelmed.
    • …Encouraging flexible working hours.
      This can be combined with a greater emphasis on non-work activities. By allowing workers more flexibility around working hours, you can help them balance work and life, which tends to do wonders when staff is at risk of burning out.
    • …Recognizing and acknowledging employee work and effort.
      Workers need to feel valued when they succeed and supported when they struggle. It helps employees grow when positive achievements are highlighted, and their failures framed as opportunities for personal development.
    • …Creating a fair workplace and task distribution.
      Work can be tough, but if everyone’s pulling their weight then it encourages team spirit more than hostility. Make sure no one is unfairly burdened, that management is actively involved, and that every employee has support to turn tough tasks into team building moments.
    • …Defining clear roles for everyone.
      An incredible 6 in 10 employees don’t know what is expected of them at work. Confusion and miscommunication about roles and tasks can only lead to frustration for management and team. Make sure everyone knows what they need to do and why to bring purpose and harmony to the workplace.
    • …Setting manageable work expectations and deadlines.
      Not every task is the same, nor is every employee. It’s important to make sure employees have the time they need, not just the time that management assumes, as those who have the proper accommodations are 70% less likely to burnout. There will of course be tasks that have strict deadlines, but having open communication and feedback with employees can help you to understand how much your team can realistically produce and how long is appropriate to expect from each team member.

    Key Takeaways

    • Burnout is a process and result of continued stress and dissatisfaction, not a sudden occurrence.
    • Exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy are the driving negative emotions of burned out employees.
    • Burnout is avoidable not just through better workloads, but also with consistent company values, team and leadership support, and managerial awareness.
    • Identifying the early signs of burnout such as simple mistakes, a negative team mood, and increasing absences can let managers get a jump on the problem.
    • Open communication and feedback can help managers address burnout and bring engagement and motivation back to their team.

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