What is burnout?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO identifies three classic symptoms of burnout:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
What are some burnout symptoms you might notice in your employees?
Burnout affects both the mind and the body. For example, an employee suffering from burnout might complain of mental and physical exhaustion and poor sleep. They may also experience headaches, stomach pain, and increased blood pressure. In more severe stages of burnout, people can become depressed or misuse drugs and alcohol.
But there are other work burnout symptoms that managers should look for. Maybe an employee has mentioned that they feel exhausted, undervalued, or overworked. If so, they’re likely on their way to experiencing total burnout. Other signs of burnout in the workplace include:
- Increased anger or irritability.
- Job dissatisfaction or disengagement.
- Taking an excessive number of sick days.
- Trouble meeting deadlines or focusing on tasks.
Burnout is on the rise—especially among women.
A recent survey by digital wellness company meQuilibrium found that between December 2020 and July 2021, employees reported a 21% increase in burnout and a 17% increase in physical symptoms of stress like muscle tension and fatigue, as well as added work-life balance challenges and overall job stress.
Gallup reports that women are more likely than men to feel burned out at work (34% vs. 26%). They also noted that the burnout gender gap has more than doubled since 2019, particularly for women in non-leadership positions, like individual contributors and project managers.
An analysis by healthcare start-up Maven and Great Place to Work found that “just by being a working mother, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers.” It’s part of what’s contributing to the current exodus of women from the workforce and causing the lowest workforce participation by women in 33 years!
What’s really at the root of burnout?
A survey conducted last summer by Talkspace found that 50% of employees believe work itself has become too stressful. The leading causes of stress were busier days or weeks, the pressure of working toward a promotion or raise, managing high turnover, and juggling multiple projects at once.1
According to research by Gallup, the five factors that correlate most highly with employee burnout are:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from managers
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
So while we may assume burnout occurs after working too many hours or not managing work stress—in other words, a personal problem—the truth is that burnout is a consequence of work cultures that aren’t supportive of overall employee well-being.
Reducing burnout in the workplace.
And so, while it’s important to provide mental health tools and resources to help with the symptoms of burnout, it’s perhaps more important to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place—and that has to start from within. Here are some ideas to create a culture that proactively works to reduce stress in the workplace and prevent burnout:
Hold regular check-ins.
Weekly check-ins are a must to head off burnout, especially in today’s world of remote work. Discuss what’s on the employee’s plate, what’s coming up, what they’re struggling with, and which projects give them energy.
Listening is critical, but employees also need to feel that you’re serious about addressing their concerns. If they feel overloaded, look for projects that can be pushed back to give them more flexibility. Make sure to set clear expectations for work and reasonable deadlines rather than letting everything pile up. Some managers might need extra training in how to work with employees in this space.
Communicate more frequently.
A new study by McKinsey finds that burnout is especially pronounced for people feeling anxious due to a lack of organizational communication. These employees were almost three times more likely to report feeling burned out.2 The study goes on to suggest that organizations need to share more with employees during times of uncertainty—even if they don’t have all the answers or there’s nothing really new to share. Establish a regular cadence of communication, such as videos from senior leaders, workplace social media updates, and town hall meetings.
Make work purposeful and play to strengths.
Employees are less likely to be burned out when they connect their work to their company’s mission in a way that makes their job feel meaningful. This is especially important to younger generations who don’t want to be just a cog in the wheel. It’s also key for employees to do work that plays to their strengths, which has been linked to higher employee engagement. And engaged employees are typically less stressed.
Help employees set boundaries.
Sometimes employees need nudges to stop working. Some organizations have had success with gentle reminders to log off at a decent hour, scheduling email quiet periods, enforcing no-meeting Fridays, instituting mental health days, and incentivizing taking time off.
Ask leaders to model healthy well-being behaviors.
An organization may say it values employee health and well-being, but until people see tangible actions from senior leaders, they will be reluctant to prioritize their own well-being. Leaders can help by sharing their personal well-being tips in a short video, blocking time for daily movement, and showing how they are taking advantage of the well-being resources the company makes available, like meditation classes or virtual fitness sessions. If employees see leadership taking time for themselves, they’ll feel more empowered to take care of their own well-being.
What to do if you notice signs of work-related burnout in your employees.
Changing workplace culture to reduce burnout won’t happen overnight. So if you notice signs of burnout, it’s vital to act as early as possible; if burnout continues unaddressed, it can take much longer to recover. The first step is to talk with the employee. Sometimes, the solution could be taking time off, adopting a more flexible schedule, adjusting workload, or providing assistance with personal demands, such as caregiving. Point the employee to helpful company resources—like the EAP, virtual mental health programs, and concierge services.
In some cases, professional help may be necessary. If you suspect that the employee might be experiencing a mental health crisis, provide the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number, 1-800-273-TALK.
One final note: burnout does not equal weakness. It’s important to let employees know that showing signs of burnout at work doesn’t mean they’re weak. In these turbulent times, we need to acknowledge what people are going through and that the pandemic has affected people’s lives in different ways. It’s all part of adopting a more human-centered approach to work, which will hopefully persist long after the pandemic subsides.