For many of us, February is a time when the long, dark winter starts to feel unbearable. We start feeling frazzled, sick of the cold, and perhaps burned out.
A recent Gallup study estimated two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared it an “occupational phenomenon.” Piling on the bad news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently listed work stress as the nation’s leading workplace health problem.
Burnout threatens not just the mental health of workers, but the financial stability of organizations. In other words, it’s a problem you can’t afford to ignore. In this post, we’ll talk about the factors that cause employee burnout, what HR professionals can do to prevent it, and how to help your burned-out employees.
Defining employee burnout
Last year, the WHO declared burnout as an official “occupational phenomenon.” That means it’s not a medical condition, but rather a reason people seek medical help. According to the WHO, there are three main elements of burnout:
- Feelings of exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from or feelings of cynicism about work
- Reduced professional efficacy; i.e., doing a worse job at your job
As you look around your workplace, you might see a few signs of burnout. Employees experiencing this phenomenon could be distracted and less productive, easily frustrated, avoiding social interactions like their normal lunchtime chat, or taking more sick days than before.
Burnout affects what we typically imagine are overworked fields; in one study from Stanford University, 54% of doctors self-reported symptoms of burnout on a survey. A whitepaper from MeMD found first responders develop mental health conditions at a rate that’s 10% higher than the rest of the population. When surveyed as part of the same study, 63% of nurses said their work had caused burnout. This issue isn’t limited to a single industry, though. Over 50% of tech workers in the same MeMD survey said they were currently experiencing burnout.
Burnout might not always be the result of a busy season or stressful job.
“When people hear the word “burnout,” they are usually thinking about someone who looks exhausted, disgruntled or unhappy,” Elles Skony, Vice President of Talent Management at digital advertising software company Centro, said. “The largest risk we face, however, shows up as employees who are actually engaged in their work and who care about the company and mission, sometimes too much. When you get employees who are “exhausted engaged,” this means they are working intensely, all the time, and that is the riskiest type of turnover.”
The cost of burnout
With effects this widespread, it’s not surprising that burnout is an expensive problem. A study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that workplace burnout costs up to $190 billion per year in additional healthcare spending. We already know that depression and anxiety add up to a loss of $1 trillion in productivity per year.
Just like those mental health concerns, burnout threatens physical health as well as workplace wellness and interpersonal dynamics.
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How to deal with employee burnout
To drive employee satisfaction and productivity, you must head off burnout before it starts.
The causes of burnout can be countless. It comes up after long hours during a busy season, an accumulation of personal issues, or additional pressure from workplace morale-killers, like layoffs. More often than not, though, burnout is a symptom of one thing: a lack of employee support.
Those experiencing employee burnout are more likely to feel overworked and underpaid. When employees feel burdened with an unreasonable workload, are working longer hours, or don’t have the support of their managers and HR team, their stress can quickly progress to burnout.
“The higher the challenging work demands, the faster we as employers or leaders need to get ahead of identifying what type of support, recognition, or opportunities are needed to help them recover so that individuals are able to maintain a balance over the long term,” Centro’s Skony said.
A few steps employers can take to get ahead of employee burnout:
Train managers to spot employee burnout as it’s happening
Management plays a crucial role in keeping employees engaged and helping them feel supported. Those two factors play a significant role in staving off burnout. A manager who asks, “how are you?” and means it can be the difference between employees who mentally check out and those who feel supported and heard. Give managers the tools they need to regularly check-in. At HealthJoy, we use a tool called 15/5 to encourage weekly employee check-ins, monitor our workload and productivity, and ask a few questions about the work environment.
Address stressors before they grow to burnout
As the author of the Stanford Graduate Business School Study pointed out, workplace wellness programs sometimes overlook the workplace itself as a significant source of declining health. Wellness programs don’t address systemic management issues or cultural problems. A top-down approach to these stressors is a critical piece of addressing employee burnout before it spins out of control.
Encourage breaks (big and small)
We all need a break from time to time. Particularly during the winter, a few days away from the grind can do wonders for mental and emotional health. In terms of heading off burnout, don’t overlook this step. HR can encourage senior leadership to lead by example and make the process of requesting time off as smooth as possible. Small daily breaks can also make a difference. A walk around the block, lunch outside the office, or a break for meditation or stretching during the day can help employees clear their minds and return to work refreshed.
Remind employees of their EAP benefit
As you work to shift your office culture toward preventing burnout, you can’t ignore the employees already experiencing this phenomenon. Employees already experiencing burnout might not feel comfortable seeking help. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) offer a confidential solution at a low cost to employees. Employees struggling to balance work and home life may find relief in short-term counseling, which can prevent spirals that may lead them to lean on drugs or alcohol for assistance (see The First Step in Handling Employee Substance Abuse for more).
HealthJoy’s centralized benefits experience platform makes it easy for members to see all their benefits in one place. We even remind members about their EAP with push notifications sent straight to their phones. The results of successfully promoting an EAP are measurable: one study reported a savings of $116 per employee in healthcare-related costs after implementing an EAP.
Deal with burnout before your employees pay the price
As employee burnout reaches becomes an issue of national health and international concern, employers can’t afford to look the other way. Avoiding employee burnout is a matter of creating a supportive culture, offering employees ways to decompress, and providing an outlet to discuss and treat employee burnout as it occurs. By emphasizing supportive EAP programs and building a healthy work culture, we can make employees burnout a thing of the past.