Blue Beyond Consulting

Burnout is an Organizational Problem – Not an Employee One

The pandemic has shined a white-hot light onto the phenomenon of employee burnout, and a year and a half into the crisis, it hasn’t gotten much better.  Mental health is on a downward trend, with rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increasing dramatically. Citing heavier workloads, isolation, lack of work/life integration, longer working hours, and limited to no time off, employees are looking for new jobs and resigning from current ones in droves, contributing to what has been coined the “Great Resignation.”

The onus of stress-management has always fallen on the employee, but burnout is an organizational problem—not an employee one. Leaders take note: organizational stressors require organizational interventions. 

What is Burnout?

We’ve all heard the term burnout, and have most likely experienced it, but what does it really mean? In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout a medical syndrome and occupational phenomenon, “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It was the first time that a major medical organization directly tied burnout to the workplace, a marked departure from the prevailing idea that it was an employee’s problem alone.

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) 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.”

Burnout isn’t simply a synonym for stress. It is an inescapable exhaustion, ongoing cynicism about one’s current situation, and persistent feelings of failure. It looks like procrastinating on a task and pushing it back a week because thinking about it makes you anxious. It might be the way your heart races every time you have to walk into the office. You find yourself zoning out completely in the middle of a meeting because you’re thinking about 27 other tasks you must complete before the day ends. Some days, it might even feel hopeless.

Burnout and the Business Effect

Beyond the toll burnout takes on employees, the financial fallout for business is huge. Burnout often leads to disengaged employees, who cost their employers 34% of their salary annually. According to Gallup, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability—and burned out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

Employee turnover rates of 20% to 50% are attributed to burnout and burned out employees are 2.6x more likely to seek a different job. The American Institute of Stress reports financial losses nearing $300 billion per year due to reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, high rates of turnover, and elevated health-care costs attributed to work-related stress and burnout.       

These statistics should be chilling for any leader, especially in a tight labor market. It’s imperative that organizations take burnout seriously, not only for the well-being of their employees but their business as well. 

Spotting Symptoms of Employee Burnout

When looking for signs of burnout, it’s critical to differentiate between stress and burnout. Under stress, you still struggle to cope with pressures; you still feel like you’ll be able to get it under control. But once burnout takes hold, you’re out of gas and you’ve given up all hope of surmounting your obstacles. If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. 

When looking at your team for signs, ask yourself these questions: Have your typically reliable and engaged employees suddenly turned distant and careless? Have your most vocal and passionate employees suddenly gone quiet? Are you constantly hearing negativity? Has productivity plateaued or fallen?  If so, you may be an eyewitness to burnout. 

Other signs of burnout include:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Loss of motivation and a reduced interest in commitments
  • Easily upset or angered
  • Job absenteeism and inefficiency
  • Emotional detachment from previous involvements
  • Withdrawal from coworkers and social situations
  • Feelings of alienation at work
  • Cynicism towards other coworkers and the job
  • Hopelessness 

Burnout is a Management Issue

We often think of burnout as an individual problem, easily solvable with wellness tropes like hot yoga, saying “no” more often, meditation, taking an extended vacation, eating kale chips. These can certainly help reduce individual stress; however, the main factors that cause employee burnout have very little to do with an individual but how they’re managed.

A recent Gallup survey found the top five reasons for burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Company culture, ways of working and organizational structure are defined and controlled by the employer, having a big impact on the well-being of an employee. Maslach highlighted the need to pay more attention to the social and organizational environment in which individuals work in The European Health Psychologist.  

It’s important to understand that things like workload dumping, playing favorites, inflexibility, insufficient communication, mismatched values, lack of workplace community or autonomy, or not providing adequate resources will result in burnout.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Broken to Fix It 

Being a people leader means understanding what your role is in helping to prevent burnout. Prioritizing employee well-being doesn’t mean you can solve everyone’s personal problems, nor does it mean that you’re signing up to be everyone’s therapist. What you HAVE signed up to do is lead your team, invest in their overall success, and provide them with the necessary resources to reach their full potential.

Instead of waiting to fix it when it’s broken (and most likely beyond repair), why not lead with empathy and set yourself and your teams up for success with a little preventive maintenance?

  • Allocate Workloads Fairly: Communicate your priorities, get overall visibility into workloads, and allocate work intelligently. Look at capabilities and interests before tagging people into projects. Set clear expectations and continuously evaluate roles and responsibilities. Provide the appropriate resources and support for teams to complete their tasks. 
  • Give Your People Autonomy:  People tend to feel excited about what they’re doing when they can creatively decide what needs to be done and come up with ways of handling problems that arise. Build a culture based on Deep Trust and High ExpectationsTM, hire the right people, and step aside.  Let people learn and grow from their mistakes.
  • Provide Rewards and Recognition: Regardless of how competent people are, they’ll do better when appreciated. Give them a simple “thank you” or “good job.”  Leverage your organization’s financial incentives to reward employees such as bonuses, profit sharing, annual raises, and retirement benefits.  
  • Provide a Sense of Community: Community creates a sense of belonging. Lean into your people’s lived experience and expertise. Encourage diverse perspectives and set expectations that differences are to be respected. Build a pipeline of open and honest communication.   
  • Treat People Fairly: Communicate expectations of fairness and highlight the differences between equality, equity, and fairness. Ensure policies are built and updated through the lens of diversity, equality, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) and enforce them consistently.  
  • Value Alignment: Building an inclusive, high-performing culture begins by clarifying your mission and values and allowing your teams to be a part of that process. Make sure that the mission and values align with organizational action and with the daily experiences of your people.

Creating the Future We Yearn For

To say we’re living in “unprecedented times” would be an understatement. Our new “not really that normal but normal” requires everyone to reshape how we think about work in order to create an environment that truly prioritizes employee well-being at every level of the organization. Life is hard enough; work shouldn’t add to that.  

The key to preventing burnout is focusing on stimulating employee engagement instead of preventing burnout symptoms. Remember, burnout is a symptom, not a root cause. Leaders and managers should strive to create an environment that fosters resilience in the face of hardship to create a world where both organizations and their employees thrive.

Need support crafting leadership strategies to help your employees avoid burnout?

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