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Employee burnout: what it is and how to prevent it

Written by: Elizabeth Walker
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Published on December 14, 2022.

Employee burnout has become an epidemic in today’s workplace. So much so that it’s now officially recognized by the World Health Organization1 (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon.”

While mounting workplace stress used to be considered an individual employee problem, these days, it’s become an employer’s responsibility to prevent burnout before it hurts productivity and business performance—not to mention your employees’ physical and mental health.

Luckily, there are several ways you can prevent burnout from affecting your workforce. This article will dive into the causes and signs of employee burnout, including the steps needed to create a positive work environment where employees can feel safe from toxic levels of stress.

See how you can use fringe benefits to combat employee burnout in our guide

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is a psychological state of mental exhaustion and physical fatigue. It’s brought on by chronic workplace stress, extreme frustration, excessive work hours, or other issues. For example, a poor work environment, lack of support, or a heavy workload can contribute to burnout.

Whatever the cause, burnout can affect an employee’s physical and mental health. For employers, burnout can lead to higher turnover rates, lower employee engagement, and reduced morale due to a negative workplace culture.

The tricky thing about burnout is you may not even know it’s happening at your organization. A recent report2 found that 42% of women and 35% of men in the U.S. felt burned out “often or almost always”, but it’s often not openly discussed.

In the past, burnout was an expected response to working hard enough to get ahead in your career. But due to The Great Resignation3, employee burnout is now considered a company problem. So it’s up to you to address the issue to retain your employees and keep them happy.

What are the common causes of employee burnout?

1. Your employees are overworked

An overwhelming workload can put uncomfortable pressure on your employees that they may be unable to manage. When employees are overworked and tasks are piling up relentlessly, it can be frustrating, and the stress can cause them to shut down.

This stress and frustration can lead to unproductivity or motivate them to look for shortcuts to get tasks done, leading to errors. And, if they’re really frustrated, push them to look for a new job entirely as a means of escape.

If employees push themselves past their limit, their mental health will begin to suffer, and burnout will kick in sooner than if they had a more manageable workload.

2. Your employees are underworked

Being overworked is undoubtedly a cause of burnout, but not having enough work can also be a factor. Burnout can happen when employees don’t feel connected to their work. If they’re not provided enough engaging and complex tasks to work on or are frequently required to do repetitive tasks, burnout can set in.

When employees aren’t passionate about what they do or have too little to do, productivity, satisfaction, and morale can decrease. And ultimately, this can increase the rate of burnout in your organization.

3. Unbalanced compensation

Another reason for burnout is when employees don’t feel their compensation is in line with their work—whether that’s the type of work they’re doing or the amount. Similarly, if you have employees who feel like their compensation is being affected by unfair treatment, such as bias, favoritism, mistreatment, and unjust policies, burnout can be a result too.

Compensation and employee treatment are important issues to review in the workplace consistently. Regardless of burnout, these issues can lead to decreased job satisfaction, negative workplace culture, absenteeism, or employee turnover.

4. Poor work environment

A poor work environment is destined to lead to poor job performance and frustration. If employees aren’t motivated to come to the office, or log on to their computer if they’re remote, feelings of burnout aren't far away.

A negative work environment can be due to unclear job responsibilities, poor work-life balance, neglectful management, or not being appreciated for good work.

5. Lack of support from management

Lastly, employees need to know that their managers are there to support them. Effective managers that allow their employees to speak openly without fear of being judged go a long way towards building an employee’s confidence in their team and your overall organization.

In contrast, engagement and satisfaction tend to drop when employees don't feel cared for or valued by their manager. If they don’t feel comfortable opening up, their morale and productivity can lessen, creating a risk of burnout and spiking your turnover rate.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

1. Sickness

Employee burnout isn't a medical diagnosis. However, if burnout is prevalent in your organization, you’ll likely see a rise in employee absences due to illness, exhaustion, or stress.

Noticing if someone is burned out can be challenging if your workforce is fully remote. But if you track PTO or sick days, you may be able to see if employee stress or anxiety is rising.

Depending on the levels of burnout, increased stress and anxiety can lead to depression, which in turn can have devastating physical effects4 on the body, like stomach aches, headaches, insomnia, and lack of appetite.

2. Increased mistakes

If your employees are burned out, their daily tasks may be prone to more mistakes as they’re less careful about what they’re doing due to emotional exhaustion. Extreme exhaustion makes it hard to concentrate and, therefore, hard to be productive, resulting in mistakes.

When mistakes are made, employees may feel guilty and respond to that guilt by getting angry. Anger can bring down team morale and continue to worsen focus on projects, letting more mistakes seep through, which can bring down overall business performance.

3. Lack of motivation

Burned out employees are less motivated, less innovative, and less productive. They may be late to work or fail to complete assignments promptly. They may also be prone to skipping meetings, be unlikely to participate, or avoid speaking up.

It can be difficult to determine if someone has lost their motivation if you’re in a remote setting. With nothing but chats and video calls, you may not have much to go on. But if you sense via speech or body language that an employee seems sluggish, you may be dealing with burnout.

4. Poor decision making

Burnt out employees tend to make poor decisions more frequently. Because they’re overwhelmed or lack confidence, they may not take the time to fully think about what they are doing or simply procrastinate.

Understandably, you may not want to keep an employee that isn’t making the best decisions. That’s why this symptom is likely to lead to high turnover rates, as well as higher overall recruiting costs to replace them.

5. Reduced productivity and engagement

Employee burnout ultimately leads to poor performance because productivity is reduced. Reduced productivity can result from employees working long hours, job dissatisfaction, or having too much responsibility.

However, engagement and productivity usually go hand in hand. Unproductive employees are more likely to leave their jobs because they’re disengaged. And lack of engagement can hurt your bottom line. For example, a disengaged customer support employee may mishandle a customer’s needs, which can negatively affect your company.

How you can prevent employee burnout

Employee burnout isn’t inevitable. You can prevent it if you’re looking for signs of burnout ahead of time. If you want to be proactive in fighting job burnout, check out the seven steps below to prevent it at your organization.

1. Reduce the workload

Multitasking isn’t as efficient a work tool as you may think. Studies5 show that switching between tasks actually slows us down, makes us prone to mistakes, reduces productivity, and increases stress.

While stress is a natural part of life, it’s one of the main reasons for burnout. So reducing workload and encouraging less task switching can go a long way toward having more productive, focused, and happier employees.

If you’re looking for ways to reduce workload or keep your employees focused, try thinking outside the box. You can spread a project out between an entire team instead of assigning one person to work on it. Or you can encourage employees to mute their communication channels when they need to focus, so the notification sounds don’t distract them.

2. Promote autonomy

When our employees have autonomy over their work, they become accountable for their success. Autonomy isn’t just empowering to your employees. It can also build confidence and self-esteem, as well as increase engagement—all things that can help reduce burnout.

Autonomy in the workplace will look different in every organization. But there are some steps you can take to get you started.

You can increase autonomy in the workplace by doing the following:

  • Support your employees’ career growth and professional development.
  • Build a company culture based on trust, inclusion, and understanding.
  • Encourage employees to take ownership of their actions.
  • Allow employees to set goals and benchmarks for projects and tasks to promote accountability.
  • Reward good work so your employees understand that their efforts contributed to the organization’s success.
  • Allow for mistakes and respond to them as a learning opportunity—not a criticism.

3. Set a clear path to career growth

One of the most effective ways to increase employee engagement and decrease burnout is by offering development opportunities within your organization. According to the Society of Human Resources Management6 (SHRM), employees cited a lack of opportunity for growth and advancement among the top five stressors at work.

You can ensure that your employees stay energized and productive by providing a clear career path. They envision how they can progress through different layers of the organization and ultimately become leaders. This is especially enticing to employees who may already feel burned out and “stuck in a rut” in their current position.

Your career development plan can start by offering training programs, online courses, or workshops that teach employees about specific industry topics or expose them to careers and responsibilities in different departments.

You could also set up a mentorship program with senior team members to guide employees through challenging projects, offer advice and support, and help them manage stressful situations.

4. Improve work-life balance

Work-life balance has been an increasingly important topic over the past few years. But it’s for a good reason. Creating a positive work environment by promoting a good work-life balance is essential to preventing burnout in your company.

Policies that promote strong work-life balance at your organization may include the following:

  • A strict no-emailing policy on the weekend.
  • Predetermined log-off times so employees don’t overwork.
  • A certain amount of paid time off (PTO) is set aside for self-care days so employees can recharge.
  • Chat responses are free to come within 24 hours—not immediately—to allow employees to focus on tasks uninterrupted.
  • The office closes early before holidays to encourage spending quality time with family and friends.
  • Flexible work schedules are available to accommodate employees’ personal schedules.

Employees who feel they have a balance between productivity at work and relaxation at home are more productive, happier, and less likely to leave their jobs. And when everyone is in balance, the relationships between other coworkers will strengthen, leading to better communication and teamwork.

5. Increase your communication

Communication can play an active role in keeping employees motivated and energized. But not all leaders communicate effectively. To stop burnout before it starts, keep up to date with your employees. You can schedule check-in meetings or collect feedback via engagement surveys to understand how your employees feel.

In your meetings or surveys, you can ask your employees about:

  • Their current workload.
  • How they feel about your organization’s culture.
  • How they would rate their relationship with their manager.
  • If they have a proper work-life balance.
  • Their current engagement levels.
  • If they believe they’re at risk of burnout.

Once you have the results, you can find solutions to their problems. If they’re stressed or overworked, you may need to problem solve quickly to retain your employees before they burn out. Frequent communication makes your employees feel comfortable coming to you with their problems, and you’ll be more likely to prevent burnout overall.

6. Offer personalized benefits

Another great way to prevent burnout is by upgrading your benefits package. Employee benefits are perks or compensation provided to employees in addition to their regular salary—and they’re essential to your employees’ happiness. When employees feel taken care of with various benefits to choose from, job satisfaction and employee retention increases.

A complete employee benefits package may include:

Personalized benefits take it a step further. Personalized benefits show your employees that you recognize that everyone is different. They allow you to provide a monthly allowance or reimburse your employees for various expenses of their choosing. This gives them the freedom and flexibility to use their benefits on the items that matter most to them and their families.

To get even more personalized, you can survey your employees to find out what specific benefits they want to see at your organization. Being involved in the selection process will help your employees feel engaged and prove that you genuinely have their wellbeing in mind.

7. Show appreciation

When you appreciate your employees for good work, they feel more valued. A recent report7 found that when there’s no consistent organizational strategy for recognition, the odds of workplace burnout increase by 29%. So prioritizing positive reinforcement is a must.

The easiest way to give praise is verbally, but there are other methods as well. You can show appreciation with a thank you card, gift certificate, or a small bonus if you want to couple a reward system along with the praise.

Whatever you choose, rewarding workers for their accomplishments shows them you value their contributions. When employees know how much they contribute, they tend to be more motivated to continue working hard and show greater enthusiasm—all of which go a long way towards preventing burnout.

Conclusion

Burnout isn’t considered a personal issue anymore—it’s an organizational issue. It can impact employee engagement, staff turnover, and overall business results if ignored. That’s why it’s up to employers to spot the symptoms of burnout and step in as quickly as possible.

An effective way to support your employees’ wellbeing and reduce burnout is with personalized employee benefits. At PeopleKeep, our HRAs and flexible stipends allow your employees to purchase the items and services needed for their physical and mental health. Contact us, and we’ll give your benefits package the boost it needs to keep your employees happy.

1https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

2https://time.com/6101751/burnout-women-in-the-workplace-2021/

3https://hrexecutive.com/whats-behind-the-great-resignation-blame-burnout/

4https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/15/well/live/burnout-work-stress.html

5https://www.dana.org/article/multicosts-of-multitasking/

6https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/how-managers-can-help-stressed-workers-.aspx

7https://www.octanner.com/uk/global-culture-report.html

Originally published on December 14, 2022. Last updated December 14, 2022.
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