According to Maslach et al (1996) employee burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is usually characterized by three things: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance, negative feelings, or cynicism around your job and reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout has structural causes in the work environment, particularly high job demands and low job resources (Alarcon, 2011). This research also indicates that individual factors such as neuroticism and perfectionism play a significant role in the development of burnout because these characteristics predispose employees to cope in the wrong way with their high job demands
Employees with higher levels of burnout are more likely to report a range of psychological and physical health problems, including anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, memory impairment, and neck pain (Peterson et al., 2008).
What is the Cost of Employee Burnout?
The real cost of burnout is much more than a handful of tired, disengaged employees. Gallup (2016) estimated that employee burnout cost the nation of Germany around nine billion euros in lost productivity. In the United States, Stanford University Graduate School of Business reported that burnout costs the U.S. 190 billion dollars per year in health care expenses, as well as 120,000 stress-attributed deaths.
Gallup (2016) shows that employees who experience burnout at work very often are:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day
- Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
- 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job
- 13% less confident in their performance
The cost of burnout is high for individuals and organizations alike; your company cannot afford to ignore it.
What are the signs of employee burnout?
Knowing the signs of employee burnout can help you recognize and address it early in your workforce before it becomes a huge issue. This is especially important because employees may not let you know when they are feeling burned out.
The yawning, the drooping eyes, the fuzzy thoughts. It can be tough to work through those slow afternoon hours. But employees suffering from burnout may feel as if their midday slump never ends. Coming to work each day is, in and of itself, exhausting and not just physically. Mental exhaustion can be just as taxing.
The biggest danger with exhaustion is that it is often cyclical. An employee comes to work and becomes exhausted; the stress of the day weighs on them in the evening and prevents restful sleep; the next day, they come into the office even more tired than before, and the cycle continues.
The negative emotions that are characteristic of burnout narrow the breadth of thought processing (Fredrickson, 2001), diminish the focus on new or global information and impair the quality of decision-making. Individuals who experience negative emotional states and who are psychologically detached from work also demonstrate fewer approach behaviours toward others.
Feelings of Frustration and Cynicism
A cynical attitude at work does not develop overnight. Rather it grows over time and with repeated negative experiences. Most often, employees fall into cynicism when they are lacking two things in their work experience: trust and job clarity.
Trust is a relatively fragile thing that’s built and reinforced through repeated interactions. When a manager acts in a way that betrays an employee’s trust, such as taking credit for the employee’s work, the relationship is damaged. If further interactions continue to erode trust, employees will begin to doubt their organization’s or manager’s intentions and refuse to cooperate.
Even when managers sincerely try to treat employees well, they may fall short in establishing clear job expectations. Gallup (2016) found that only 50% of employees strongly agree that they have a clear idea of what their job expectations are every day (which means the other 50% are lacking clarity to some extent).
A lack of clarity can lead to cynicism (and therefore employee burnout) because of the stress it creates for employees.
A burned-out, the disengaged employee is also an ineffective one. Inefficacy is often a result of an overwhelming and endless to-do list. Every organization has its busy periods where everyone needs to pull a little extra weight to keep things running smoothly. But when crunch time never ends, and employees find themselves constantly swamped with too much to do, they are at serious risk of burnout.
One thing that keeps employees from being truly effective in their work is a constant flow of distractions and interruptions. In a typical day, people spend an average of three minutes working on any single task before switching to another task. Most often, employees switch tasks after being interrupted, and it can take a considerable amount of time to regain focus. A Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after something as small as an e-mail interruption.
The final sign of employee burnout is loneliness. It can be tough to tell if an employee feels lonely and disconnected, but if they consistently withdraw from social activities or avoid interacting with teammates that may be the problem.
Friendships are a vital piece of the employee engagement puzzle. Gallup (2008), after surveying more than 15 million employees around the world, reported that those who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged.
Employees with close social connections at work also tend to be better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job. On the other hand, those who lack these kinds of relationships have only an 8% chance of being highly engaged.
Humans are social creatures, and meaningful social interaction is an integral part of each day. Gallup (2008) has shown that to have a thriving day, individuals need six hours of social time. With no social time, an individual is equally likely to report having a bad day as having a good day; each hour of social interaction increases the chances of having a good day.
The average employee spends about eight hours of their day at work. If they do not have many friends among their team members, then it’s likely their social time is limited to a few hours each day before or after work. That could lead to a bad day after a bad day and, ultimately, employee burnout.
Factors associated with the Personality of Employee
If the employee is not easily adaptable or not open to adjusting with the changes then it can also be a significant factor behind employee burnout (Bhasin; 2019). An employee who is either having a superiority complex or having an inferiority complex can face such situations. Those who are not able to work in a team can also face psychological problems that can cause employee burnout.
How to deal with employee burnout
We all have a limited supply of energy each day—let’s imagine it as a full bucket. We empty the bucket throughout the day by working, socializing, exercising, and other activities. At the end of the day, we need to fill our bucket back up by relaxing and recharging so we are ready for the following day.
Employee burnout is what happens when an employee continues to empty their bucket without refilling it; each day they are taking out a loan against themselves they cannot payback.
As an HR professional, you are not in charge of the mental and physical health of every employee. However, what you can do is make your organization a positive place to work and then give your people the tools to recover effectively. Here are a few focus areas where HR can make a difference in the battle against employee burnout.
A work-life balance needs to become a part of your organization’s culture if it is not already.
What is the unstated culture of your company? Are employees praised and rewarded for staying late and working long hours? Are employees expected to answer emails at 10:00 PM? All of these elements influence what employees believe about your company culture.
To create a culture that helps reduce employee burnout, be sure that managers set fair and transparent expectations with their employees about work hours and responsiveness. Employees should be empowered to work hard and focus while they are on the clock, and then disconnect from work (and its accompanying stress) at the end of the day.
Managers are especially important in this process. They should hold regular one-on-ones with each of their team members to foster communication and trust. Try to avoid making performance goals the focus of these conversations; rather, use them as an opportunity for employees to give feedback, voice concerns, or explain their challenges. In turn, managers should ask questions, listen carefully, and when appropriate, offer advice.
HR can support managers by training them on how to hold successful one-on-one meetings and helping them find solutions to any problems that employees bring up. You and your HR team can also seek out employee feedback with employee satisfaction surveys to determine if there are more widespread issues affecting many employees.
The most important outcome of an employee one-on-one (or an employee satisfaction survey) is for your people to feel heard and understood. HR and managers should follow up with employees after receiving feedback to let them know how that feedback is being used. This doesn’t mean your organization must make sweeping changes every time an employee brings up a concern, but each employee should feel their feedback has at least been recorded and considered.
While you may not be able to solve the whole problem single-handedly, making your organization a healthy, positive place to work and helping employees feel valued and understood are two big steps in the right direction.
C. Maslach, S.E. Jackson, M.P. Leiter MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, CA (1996)
G.M. Alarcon A meta-analysis of burnout with job demands, resources, and attitudes Journal of Vocational Behavior, 79 (2011), pp. 549-562, 10.1016/j.jvb.2011.03.007
U. Peterson, E. Demerouti, G. Bergström, M. Samuelsson, M. Asberg, A. Nygren Burnout and physical and mental health among Swedish healthcare workers Journal of Advanced Nursing, 62 (2008), pp. 84-95, 10.1111/j. 1365-2648.2007.04580.x
A.B. Bakker, E. Demerouti, A.I. Sanz-Vergel Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1 (2014), pp. 389-411
B.L. Fredrickson The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotion American Psychologist, 56 (2001), pp. 218-226
Munodiwa Zvemhara is a consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm.
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