Employee burnout was a concern for organizations long before COVID-19 changed our lives. Now, entering the third year of the pandemic, with hospitals overloaded and basic goods in short supply, workers are more stressed and exhausted than ever before. Burnout itself is becoming endemic, but it doesn’t need to be.
Job burnout doesn’t just affect one employee’s work performance, it’s also a detriment to their physical and mental health, and it can be contagious if the root causes aren’t dealt with. It isn’t unavoidable, though. Even in inherently stressful careers, employee burnout can and should be prevented and addressed.
Let’s start with a walkthrough of the signs and causes of employee burnout. After, we’ll show you how your organization can get burnout under control and prevent it outright.
Signs & Causes of Employee Burnout
Thankfully, employee burnout signs can be easy to spot once you know what to look for, and knowing the risk factors can help you when trying to alleviate or even prevent employee burnout altogether.
The World Health Organization identifies three main employee burnout signs:
Exhaustion. Burnt-out employees are often fatigued. They have trouble concentrating on or completing tasks and may show signs of physical illness, taking more unscheduled sick time.
Negativity and cynicism. Everyone has a bad day once in a while, but burnt-out employees tend to be more irritable and less engaged. They may show up late and leave early or be curt with co-workers and clients.
Decreased productivity or work quality. Burnt out employees are less efficient and may hand in poor quality work.
Causes of Burnout
A variety of factors can cause job burnout:
Poor work-life balance will sap employee energy and lead quickly to burnout. Employees both need time to relax with friends and family and feel like they are able to take that time without fear of punishment, such as lost wages, or something going wrong at their job.
Lack of social support, particularly from management, can leave employees feeling stressed, alone, and defensive. If an employee is feeling isolated or if they do not trust that their superiors will support them or communicate with them clearly, they are massively more likely to experience burnout.
A lack of control over schedule, workload, and workplace decisions.
Unclear job expectations, such as not knowing how much authority they have or being unclear on what their job description entails, can exacerbate stress. A 2018 Gallup report found that only 60% of employees strongly agreed that they knew what was expected of them at work.
Risk Factors for Burnout
Some employment situations are inherently higher risk:
Employees in the service and care industries, such as healthcare and retail, are at a higher risk of burnout. This is always true, but especially now as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long work hours and heavy or intense workloads can lead to burnout no matter the job. Whether the labor is physical, emotional, or mental, employees who are putting in long hours or constantly pushing themselves are at higher risk for burnout.
A position that isn’t a good fit can, unfortunately, lead quickly to burnout. This includes employees who are not confident in their roles and employees dealing with office bullies or poor management.
An inability to achieve work-life balance, whether because of a heavy workload or simply an inability to disconnect from a job. According to research done in 2020 and 2021, 60% of employees believe they have a good work-life balance, but we also see that 66% of employees have skipped meals because of work, and 42% believe that there will be issues if they take time off.
How To Prevent Employee Burnout
Burnout is not inevitable, even for jobs that are inherently high stress. Steps can be taken to mitigate the causes of burnout in your workplace. These preventative measures can decrease stress, increase retention, and create a more productive, efficient work environment overall.
Here are some specific examples of how to prevent employee burnout:
Listen. According to Gallup, employees who feel that their managers are listening and responding to their needs and work-related problems are 62% less likely to suffer burnout. If your people feel comfortable sharing their needs with you and feel confident that their issues will be addressed, they will be much happier.
Offer more flexibility. Research shows that employees are much happier and potentially more productive if they can easily change or even make their own work schedules. Empowering employees to adjust their hours and work where they want can greatly increase work-life balance.
Consider offering a benefits package that includes mental health and wellness programs. Not only will this offer employees a resource to utilize when they’re stressed, unwell, or unhappy, it will show them that their employer is concerned for their well-being. When employees feel that their employers are genuinely invested in their wellness and happiness, they are overall happier and more productive at work.
Set boundaries and avoid job scope creep. Establishing clear boundaries and expectations for your employees will keep them confident in their positions. It can help them to identify when they are being overburdened with tasks, empowering them to reduce their stress levels.
Take steps to make the office itself more welcoming. Audit your workplace. Reducing noise and disruptions, adjusting lighting, creating inviting collaborative spaces, and doing away with open-plan office layouts can help to reduce employee stress and increase productivity.
Addressing Employee Burnout
Need to know how to deal with employee burnout? If your team members are showing signs of burnout, the best thing to do is prioritize their mental health.
Here are some specific steps you can take:
1. Identify root causes of burnout that your organization can control and work to change them.
Address stressful situations like office bullying or lack of managerial feedback and communication.
Actively work to cut back on overwhelming workloads or long hours.
Protect your employees by making job expectations clear and allowing them to establish their own boundaries. Adjust responsibilities and bring on additional help if necessary.
2. Encourage taking time off. Whether in the form of breaks taken at the employee’s leisure or vacation time, ensuring that employees can step away completely when they need to can help alleviate burnout.
3. Offer work flexibility. Let them adjust their hours, their workspaces, and offer telecommuting options if you are able.
4. Implement and encourage use of employee assistance programs (EAP) to alleviate external stress.
There are many services that offer telebehavioral health programs, putting employees in touch with counselors, personal coaches, and therapists.
Benefits that assist in childcare can go a long way toward reducing stress.
Some employers are even offering benefits that help with life’s little stresses, like dog walking services and grocery deliveries.
Burnout may feel like part and parcel of working these days, but it doesn’t need to be. Prioritizing employee mental health and wellbeing now can and will improve your bottom line later. Show your people that you support them in tangible ways, and you’ll find that burnout doesn’t need to be the looming threat that it appears to be.