Employee Management

How to Prevent Employee Burnout: Symptoms, Causes, & Cures

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How to Prevent Employee Burnout: Symptoms, Causes, & Cures
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How to Prevent Employee Burnout: Symptoms, Causes, & Cures

The Great Resignation was a wake-up call for many companies, as businesses experienced the consequences of 33 million Americans quitting their jobs en masse, starting in early 2021. Business leaders worried whether burnout was the culprit, and if so, what could be done to prevent employee burnout?

As it turns out, leadership was right to be worried. While analysts have floated many different theories behind the causes of the Big Quit, recent research indicates that employee burnout played a sizable role.

For instance, in a study of 1,000 full-time workers who started a new job in 2021, 40% of respondents said the main reason they left their previous job was due to burnout. Findings like these have made corporate America sit up and take notice, as companies increasingly try to identify strategies for employee burnout prevention.

In this article, we’ll help with that aim by explaining why preventing employee burnout is important, what the most common causes of employee burnout are, and how to identify and prevent employee burnout.

To kick things off, let’s first take a look at how employee burnout is defined.

What Is Employee Burnout

What Is Employee Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Why Preventing Employee Burnout Is Important

Why Preventing Employee Burnout Is Important

Employee burnout prevention is important because it offers companies the following benefits:

  • Turnover Reduction

    Turnover is costly. Not only does it take time and effort to recruit qualified talent, but you also have to train those new employees–which can be expensive and time-consuming.

    Worse, those new hires haven’t spent enough time on the job yet learning your organization’s procedures, values, and “how things get done” … as a result, there’s a knowledge gap that can worsen your company’s overall performance.

    That’s why trying to keep employee turnover low is a no-brainer. All things being equal, companies with experienced workers enjoy greater operational efficiency than those with high turnover rates.

  • Greater Productivity

    Burnt out employees are less engaged and subsequently, care a whole lot less about helping employers meet their objectives. As you can imagine, this lack of commitment translates into weak motivation and subpar performance.

    By contrast, engaged employees approach work with drive and purpose. As a result of their enthusiasm, they have better work attendance and higher rates of productivity.

  • Higher Profits

    As you might imagine, lower turnover and higher productivity translate into bigger profits … which is why organizations with highly engaged employees enjoy 26% higher revenue per employee. They also earn 13% higher returns for shareholders.

    Of course, the converse also holds true. When employees are burned out and disengaged, they cause profitability to suffer. For instance, research shows that organizations with the least engaged employees have slower revenue growth than average.

    However, the problem is even more serious than that. For instance, Gallup found that an actively disengaged employee costs an employer $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary … meaning that someone earning $50,000 annually actually costs their employee $17,000 per year.

    Worse, that’s just one disengaged employee … it’s estimated that 17.6% of employees fall into the actively disengaged category, making these figures even more sobering.

How to Identify Employee Burnout

How to Identify Employee Burnout

Dealing with employee burnout is a challenge for any manager. However, it’s even more difficult to manage if you’re not sure whether your reports are actually experiencing it. That’s why in this section, we’ll identify some common symptoms of job burnout, such as:

  • Criticism or cynicism
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Lack of focus
  • Low energy
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Change in work quality
  • Missed deadlines
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Isolation
  • Greater sensitivity to feedback
  • Hopelessness

If your employees exhibit any of these signs, they may be experiencing burnout. Fortunately, burnout can be manageable, which is why later on in this article, we’ll identify some solutions for preventing employee burnout.

However, before we do, let’s first take a look at the most common causes of employee burnout …

Employee Burnout Causes

7 Employee Burnout Causes

The 7 main causes of employee burnout are as follows:

Employee Burnout Cause #1: Unmanageable Workload

An unmanageable workload is characterized by long hours, high anxiety, and little work-life balance. Not only do these stressors take a toll on employees’ well-being, but because they’re working long hours, employees have little time to recharge their batteries–which further exacerbates their anxiety.

Worse, because they have little work-life balance, their other priorities are forced to take a back seat to work. As a result, their healthy habits can go out the window, as they’re forced to skip workouts, grab takeout for dinner, miss social events, and get by on less sleep to keep up with work demands.

While employees can see the light at the end of the tunnel and deal with unmanageable workloads for short spurts, they can only tolerate this condition for so long.

Given enough time, they end up feeling frustrated, fatigued, and resentful toward their employer for not fixing the situation … leading to a classic case of employee burnout.

Employee Burnout Cause #2: Lack of Control

Another common cause of burnout is a perceived lack of control. A lot of factors can contribute to this feeling, such as the inability for employees to set their own schedule, take breaks when they want, or work from home during the pandemic.

Employees in this position feel like they have little say in the decisions that affect their professional life and may even feel micromanaged or burdened by multiple competing priorities.

Because these employees have no say in their responsibilities, they lack the autonomy that workers place such a premium on–creating the perfect recipe for resentment, frustration, and yep, employee burnout.

Employee Burnout Cause #3: Impossible Deadlines

Some deadlines are humanly impossible to meet, either due to a lack of time or not enough people to work on the task. Yet in some workplaces, when employees try to explain that they haven’t been given enough time to do the job, their complaints are met with deaf ears and a “find a way to get it done” mindset.

As you can imagine, this can create a feeling of hopelessness that’s usually met with one of two responses–either employees will phone it in because they know they can’t be successful, or they’ll work incredibly hard trying to accomplish the impossible.

However, regardless of their approach, unrealistic deadlines can trigger employee burnout–especially if they’re a regular occurrence.

Employee Burnout Cause #4: Unfair Treatment

Truth is, some people are more likable than others. Generally, they’re the ones who smile often, agreeably take on difficult work assignments, and have a positive outlook–rather than a tendency to complain. Everyone enjoys working with people like these.

The problem arises when managers treat them differently, creating an unfair situation–for instance, by allowing favorite employees certain privileges that others don’t get or unfairly distributing raises.

As you can imagine, this perceived favoritism makes employees resentful. However, it’s not the only reason employees might feel like they’re being unfairly treated. Other situations that can create a breach of trust include mistreatment by a coworker and unjust policies.

Regardless of the reason that workers feel like they’re being unfairly treated, the result is the same: employee burnout.

Unclear Communication from Managers

Employee Burnout Cause #5: Unclear Communication from Managers

Another big cause of employee burnout is unclear communication from managers. This can come in many different forms.

For instance, perhaps managers don’t clearly explain to employees what’s expected of them, change priorities without keeping workers in the loop, or leave team members to “figure it out” but don’t offer any guidelines on what a reasonable solution might look like.

In situations like these, employees feel like they lack the information they need to do their job correctly. Subsequently, they feel confused and frustrated, because they’re never quite sure what’s expected of them. And after enough communication misfires, they may conclude there’s no way to win–so they quit trying.

Employee Burnout Cause #6: Lack of Support from Managers

There are a number of different ways managers can fail to give their employees the support they need. For instance, managers might not give employees adequate resources to do their job efficiently, or they may refuse to go to bat for employees who’ve been mistreated.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same: employees feel like they can’t turn to their managers for help when they need it.

Unfortunately, this perceived neglect can leave employees feeling irritable, cynical, and isolated. Because they don’t believe management is there for them in any meaningful way, they start to feel burned out, experiencing apathy toward their job and employer.

Employee Burnout Cause #7: Negative Work Culture

Micromanagement, hypercompetition, blame, finger-pointing, office politics, even yelling … these are the workplaces where happiness goes to die.

Characterized by never-ending drama and frequent turnover, these miserable work environments have employees feeling like they can’t leave fast enough.

However, until they land that next job, you can bet they’ll drag themselves to work feeling exhausted, angry, and stressed out … making them prime candidates for employee burnout.

Cures for Employee Burnout

7 Cures for Employee Burnout

Most often, employee burnout is a symptom of a management problem, which is why there are no easy fixes. However, your first step to preventing and managing employee burnout is to understand what’s causing it.

If it became crystal-clear to you what the likely issue is after reading the causes of employee burnout in this article, great. However, if not, it’s a good idea to query employees via an anonymous survey to assess what the company is doing well … and where it could stand to improve.

A survey will help you determine which of the following employee burnout strategies you should implement:

Employee Burnout Cure #1: Offer an Employee Assistance Program

Mental health challenges in the workplace are on the rise–so much so that according to a 2021 survey, 76% of employees reported having at least one symptom of a mental health condition, such as burnout, anxiety, or depression.

Worse, these mental health problems were frequently related to work! For instance, when asked to identify significant stressors, many respondents cited emotionally draining work, work-life balance challenges, and lack of recognition.

Fortunately, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can go a long way toward addressing problems like these. An EAP is a voluntary, work-based intervention program that helps employees deal with issues that can have a negative impact on their work, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, financial crises, childcare issues, and other personal problems that can exacerbate feelings of burnout.

Typically EAPs assist employees by offering confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services. These services can be delivered in a wide variety of ways, such as in-person, over the phone, via video meetings and online chat, or through email interactions.

Even better, EAPs have strong research behind them. For instance, one study of 56 different EAP vendors showed that 86% of EAP users experienced clinical improvements from the help they received.

The same study also found that after using an EAP, employees’ productivity increased 86%, and their absenteeism fell by 64%. Furthermore, a whopping 94% of the surveyed individuals reported satisfaction with the service.

Just remember that if you do decide to use an EAP, you’ll want to make sure that it’s well-publicized and that everyone understands its offerings, so your employees can derive maximum benefits.

Employee Burnout Cure #2: Implement Manager Training

Many of the causes of employee burnout are specifically related to managers, such as unfair treatment, poor communication, and a lack of support.

To combat this, it’s important to take the problem of bad management seriously, rather than promoting the philosophy that it doesn’t matter how managers achieve their goals–as long as they do so.

In actuality, it’s very important how managers get things done because their behavior affects team members’ work quality, productivity, emotional wellbeing, and yep, employee burnout.

Furthermore, as important as good management is, few managers have been trained in how to manage people. As a result, they don’t always know how to effectively communicate, empower, and motivate their team.

That’s why it makes good sense for companies to invest in management skills training. Management skills training teaches managers crucial skills, such as how to delegate work, develop emotional intelligence, actively listen, and motivate team members. These skills can ultimately go a long way toward preventing the high costs of employee burnout.

Employee Burnout Cure #3: Change a Toxic Work Culture

Admittedly, overhauling a toxic corporate culture is no easy feat. However, it’s well worth the effort, since research shows that companies with toxic cultures are 10.4X more likely to contribute to an employee quitting.

To overhaul a toxic work culture, leadership first needs to assess what the problem is and evaluate which changes need to be made. Then, the executive team should create an action plan detailing the steps they intend to take to improve the culture.

Perhaps most importantly, individuals need to be held accountable for making the changes that they’ve committed to. It’s not enough to merely say, “Things will improve once we do X, Y, and Z,” then fail to take action … management needs to walk the talk.

By the way, for more information about how you can improve a toxic corporate culture, check out our blog post, “When You Know Something’s Off: How to Spot and Fix a Toxic Culture.” The article provides some helpful, telltale signs you can use to determine whether your corporate culture could benefit from an overhaul.

Offer a Mental Wellness Program

Employee Burnout Cure #4: Offer a Mental Wellness Program

Employee burnout is characterized by high anxiety. Fortunately, companies can go a long way toward helping to alleviate employees’ stress by offering mental wellness programs.

For instance, companies might provide meditation classes, yoga classes, an on-site fitness center, gym reimbursement, stress reduction programs, or even a wellness app.

Although mental wellness programs do require a financial outlay, some of the items on this list are surprisingly simple to implement and well-worth the expense to combat the even higher costs of employee burnout.

Employee Burnout Cure #5: Assign Reasonable Workloads & Deadlines

If employees are feeling overworked, the ideal solution is to hire additional team members to lighten their workloads, however that may not always be possible–in which case, leadership needs to identify other creative solutions for giving employees more manageable workloads.

For instance, managers might develop more realistic expectations and prioritize work differently. Alternatively, they could look for ways to increase their teams’ efficiency, perhaps by developing better work processes.

Leadership might also ask employees directly what ideas they have for reducing their workloads–as the ones actually doing the work, they probably have additional insight into the issue that managers don’t have.

Employee Burnout Cure #6: Encourage Self-Care

Some companies view self-care as only for the weak. These are the organizations where you might hear things like, “You’re leaving at 5:00 again, slacker?!” and “It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, you still need to come in.”

With a corporate culture like this one, employees are expected to bend over backward to help a company reach its goals–at the expense of their own wellbeing. And as you can imagine, this type of environment contributes to employee burnout.

Instead of fueling burnout by encouraging employees to neglect their needs, a better tactic is to take the opposite approach by emphasizing the importance of self-care.

For instance, you might enact an organization-wide policy that employees can’t respond to emails on evenings and weekends. Alternatively, you might make a new rule that employees have to use all of their vacation time during the year.

Just keep in mind that once you establish these new policies, you don’t want to pay lip service to them. Instead, make sure your employees know that not only are these new rules non-negotiable, but that team members also won’t be judged for taking advantage of them. This makes it clear that you value your employees’ well-being, every bit as much as profits.

Give Employees Greater Autonomy

Employee Burnout Cure #7: Give Employees Greater Autonomy

If your employees have a perceived lack of control, you’ll want to take steps to give them more autonomy. According to The Mandarin, some easy ways you can do that are by:

Giving workers more input on how they do their job, the speed at which they do it, and how they solve problems.

Making sure employees have the skills they need to successfully do their job, and if any skill gaps exist, providing development opportunities.

Using performance reviews as an opportunity to give employees more input into how they do their jobs, rather than focusing only on subpar performance.

Providing job rotation opportunities, so employees can expand their skills while enjoying greater variety at work.

In Conclusion

There are a number of employee burnout causes. Fortunately, if employee burnout is a problem in your workplace, there are steps you can take to improve morale. To get you started in the right direction, we suggest you read our article, “7 Secrets to Keeping Employees Happy.”

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