Burnout has been a hot topic in discussing and examining the workforce, employment opportunities, and the rate of turnover employers saw during the “Great Resignation.” The World Health Organization has deemed the burnout employees experience as an “occupational phenomenon” characterized by exhaustion, increased mental distance from an employee’s work, and a reduction in efficiency, all resulting from chronic workplace stress.
A recent study of more than 1,200 employers and over 2,000 employees showed that more than half were experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout—a 9 percent increase over 2021. “Employees who suffer from high levels of burnout also report lower job satisfaction, lower confidence that their employers care about them, negative perceptions of work-life balance, and a higher likelihood of seeking another job in the next year,” the Aflac WorkForces Report states.
Recognizing burnout in the workforce is only half the battle; the next step is actively working to prevent it. As employers begin the new year, it is crucial to work toward understanding how to recognize, mitigate, and prevent burnout.
Causes of Employee Burnout
There are some workforce burnout risk factors that immediately spring to mind, such as working in a high-intensity environment or not taking time to rest. Still, there are many causes and combinations of reasons that can have harmful effects on employees:
- Heavy workload: An intensive workload can be cumbersome for anyone, especially when the priority level for tasks is not clearly identified. Encouraging people to decline opportunities or “just say no,” is not a realistic solution when we discuss the correlation between burnout and workload. Often, employees fear they will be perceived as not showing initiative or will be punished, whether that be formally or informally if they say no to an extra task.
- Long working hours: Research has consistently shown that those who work more than 40 hours per week are more likely to experience burnout. That chance increases for those who work more than 60 hours consistently, according to an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Working long hours can lead to increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, and other health issues, in addition to burnout.
- Working in a “helping” profession, like healthcare, social work, and nonprofit organizations: Also known as compassion fatigue, burnout is especially common for those who are in a “helping” profession because of the nature of the work and because people in those roles often neglect caring for themselves as they care for others.
Thirty percent of nonprofit employees are burnt out. “With 1 out of every 10 employees working for a nonprofit, a large portion of our nation’s workforce is feeling overworked, under-resourced, and disengaged. Leaders in particular (60 percent of nonprofit leaders) reported feeling ‘used up’ at the end of the workday, according to DDI World’s Global Leadership Forecast for 2021,” an article by Givebutter outlines.
- Lack of work-life balance: Employees are more likely to experience burnout if all or a majority of their energy and time is spent at work. Individuals need space to enjoy their personal life and spend time with loved ones. If a person blurs the lines between work and home, or if they’re constantly working–including when they’re outside of the office–it does not allow them to switch off when they’re away from work.
- Perceived lack of control: Autonomy is important for well-being, and employees suffer when they are micromanaged. Employees are less likely to be motivated when they feel their every move is being watched and have a lack of say in goals at work or in their schedule.
- Lack of reward or recognition: Employees often spend more time with their team than they do with their families. Everyone benefits from being acknowledged for their success and hard work; work is no different. Failing to recognize an individual, whether a leader, peer, or employee, when they succeed can create a feeling of inadequacy for an employee or make them feel unappreciated.
In addition, other less distinct causes of burnout could be impacting employees. According to the Mayo Clinic, factors such as unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, exertion of activity, and lack of social support, can all contribute to burnout.
Signs and symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person, but here are a few signals to watch for if you are concerned about employee burnout within your team:
- Elevated stress levels: You know your team and the normal temperament and behavior of each member. If your department is suddenly argumentative, members are withdrawn, or you see more absences than usual, it could be a sign of burnout or too heavy of a workload.
- Lower quality work or performance: If your high-performing employee suddenly is less productive at work or is underperforming, it may be a sign they are burned out and need a break.
- Physical symptoms: Burnout can manifest with symptoms like panic attacks, headaches, weight loss/gain, or other physical symptoms. Not all symptoms are obvious, so it’s important to ask employees how they’re feeling.
Mitigating and Preventing Burnout
Burnout is not a people problem. At the end of the day, it is on the leaders and the organization to foster an environment where burnout culture is not the norm. A few factors may be out of your control or could vary depending on a person’s capacity to handle stress, but employers need to address the work part of burnout to keep their employees healthy and thriving.
Below are a few suggestions to help work toward preventing and mitigating burnout:
- Promote Work-Life Balance: Work-life balance is essential and can be supported at both organizational and managerial levels. Managers should be mindful not to email or reach out to employees after hours. They may even consider closing the office early for holidays, allowing flexible scheduling, or enforcing policies that require employees to utilize their paid time off. It is important to be clear about the job expectations during the hiring process and be respectful that everyone needs some time to relax. Other options include offering work-from-home options or hybrid scheduling if possible.
- Keep an Eye on Workloads: Everyone has a limit on what they can reasonably handle, and sometimes they may not be comfortable voicing that they need help. When scheduling staff or projects, keep an eye out for how much you are assigning to staff. If a department in your organization is seeing a high turnover rate, it may hint at a problem with task assignments or scheduling.
- Focus on Wellness: Encouraging employees to care for themselves can be a great way to help prevent burnout. This can be as simple as creating a place at the office where employees can unplug for a few minutes, encouraging employees to use personal days, or offering mental health days when they need a break. Other options include creating wellness programs that focus on self-care, stress management services, and mental health counseling.
- Communication: Fostering an environment where employees can discuss issues, workloads, and concerns with leadership can help ease employees' feelings of lack of control at the workplace. This is also a great opportunity for leaders to check in with their employees to see how they are doing and if they are experiencing burnout or struggling with their workload. Overall this communicates that the employee’s voice and presence matter to management and the organization.
- Recognize Your Employees: Letting your employees know they are appreciated in a meaningful way is a great way to boost motivation and create a positive mindset. Awards that focus on employees who exhibit company values, and giving verbal recognition in meetings and in one-on-one sessions are great ways to show your employees you care. Other options include recognizing an employee each quarter and rewarding them with special benefits like an extra PTO day, a social media shoutout, gift cards, or a plaque or certificate. Create a culture of providing positive feedback and making staff members and volunteers feel valued for their contributions.
- Hold Walking Meetings: Physical activity is a great way to recharge and re-energize your staff and yourself. Consider holding 20-minute walking meetings instead of using the conference room for in-person meetings to discuss challenges and solutions, or use the opportunity to coach and set goals with staff. The fresh air and exercise will increase everyone's endorphins and help get creativity flowing when it comes to problem-solving. This can be used whether you meet in person or virtually, though it works better if staff doesn’t have to look at documents or presentations.
Final Thoughts on Preventing Burnout
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when addressing the topic of burnout in an organization is to ensure your employees know they matter and consider their needs in addition to the organization's needs. When burnout is addressed from all angles, everyone benefits.
Impact Opportunity would like to thank Karen Butterfield and Kristen Curtis of KE Butterfield, LLC., a communications firm, for their work in writing this article.