What do low productivity, high staff turnover, and plummeting levels of employee satisfaction have in common? They are all triggered by employee burnout.
We’ve all felt overworked and exhausted by higher than average workloads during those busy periods at work. But when an unsustainable workload or prolonged working hours are shouldered for an extended period of time, this will ultimately begin to have an impact on an employee’s mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing. That’s where employee burnout occurs.
Read on to explore the factors which can lead to employee burnout, its effect on both the person and the business, and crucially what you can do to help avoid this damaging workplace phenomenon.
What is employee burnout?
Workplace burnout stretches far beyond the realms of temporary fatigue after a hard week. Whilst we might all suffer from exhaustion after putting in 110% for a few days – perhaps to meet a tight deadline or rework a project at the last minute – employee burnout is chronic, debilitating, and ongoing. It isn’t only related to long work hours, either; it can be caused by toxic or unsupportive work environments, too.
Employee burnout stems from an unrealistic, overly stressful, or simply untenable permanent workload.
The role is too much to shoulder – whether this is because the employee isn’t adequately qualified or prepared for it, or because this job load truly needs sharing between more employees.
A chronic state of exhaustion caused by work, employee burnout results in physical and mental stress and exhaustion symptoms in the employee. It also creates a culture of pessimism and negativity that will have a resounding negative impact on the employee’s life, both at work and at home.
How endemic is this problem in the workforce?
Businesses are facing a crisis in employee burnout worldwide. A recent survey conducted by global analytics firm Gallup discovered that, in a survey of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported “always” or “very often” facing employee burnout. An additional 44% were suffering symptoms of burnout “sometimes”. This adds up to a shocking statistic; around two-thirds of the full-time employees surveyed were facing burnout in their job. The inevitable outcome is that staff will resign.
In fact, this survey polled 1000 US-based full-time employees, working for companies with 500 or more employees, and 40% of employees cited employee burnout as the top reason for leaving their job.
Even when staff don’t leave, they can become emotionally and or physically absent from their role. The prolonged levels of stress which result in employee burnout undoubtedly cause a higher level of workplace absenteeism, as a stressed employee is often a sick employee. Indeed, the Gallup survey noted above found that 63% of employees were more likely to call in sick in the face of employee burnout.
Even if the sick day levels of staff don’t markedly increase, the inherent problems connected to presenteeism – where staff are present but are not functioning as they should – become obvious. Presenteeism represents a 13% reduction in performance.
The real cost: For both employer and employee
What impact does a higher staff turnover actually have, you might wonder. Staff turnover has massive financial implications. According to a study by Oxford Economics and Unum, the average cost of turnover, for an employee earning £25,000 or more, is an astonishing £30,614.
Think about it – the employment process itself is followed by costly onboarding and training periods. The new employee, with much less experience in the role, industry, or firm, then needs to make up the difference to catch up to the productivity levels of the more experienced employee they replaced. This takes a reported 28 weeks. That’s right – having to replace even three employees in a year will cost a business just shy of £100,000. When 70% of US employees are considering leaving their current job, you can see that the ‘Great Resignation’ crisis is real, and potentially very costly for businesses. Read more on the Great Resignation here.
The financial cost is neither the first nor the only impact of workplace burnout. The human impact on the employee, both physical and mental, is very real. Convincing evidence suggests that periods of prolonged stress at work link to everything from minor physical ailments and illnesses right through to profound problems such as heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, debilitating headaches, and back pain.
The effects are also psychological, with links to anxiety and depression, loss of concentration, and poor decision-making leading to spiraling behaviors such as disordered eating habits, social withdrawal, and substance abuse.
Common causes of employee burnout
So, now we know that employee burnout is toxic for both the employee and the firm they work for, how can we strive to avoid it creeping into the workplace?
Key employee burnout causes:
- Feelings of job insecurity.
- The role outstripping the employee’s capacity, even at peak productivity.
- Pressurized and often incompatible work roles, with competing demands.
- Perceived lack of appreciation, devaluing both the work and the worker.
- No support from higher up the chain.
- Imbalance of effort versus reward, making work/salary balance seem unfair.
- Incompatible worker and work environment – for example, a culture of misogyny or racial bias leading women and BIPOC employees to feel like unwelcome, unsupported outliers.
Signs to look out for with employee burnout
Preventing burnout can come down to preventative measures such as trying to create a great working environment, keeping the dialog open, and making sure staff fulfill appropriate job roles. But if employee burnout does creep in, it’s important to take on a firefighting role to quickly tackle this phenomenon. Thus it’s crucial to know the signs to look out for to help step in and help employees early.
Early markers of employee burnout to be on the watch for include:
Key employee burnout signs
- Workers making easily avoidable and uncharacteristic mistakes.
- A drop-off in productivity.
- A lack of drive and desire to get the work done.
- Failing to complete easy daily tasks.
- A pessimistic, negative approach.
- Signs of depression.
- Signs of anxiety.
- Regular tardiness.
- Social withdrawal from colleagues.
- Obstructive, uncooperative behaviors.
- Reduced goals and aspirations.
How to avoid employee burnout
Keeping an awareness of both the workload and the employee’s response to it is crucial in avoiding employee burnout from the get-go. Hiring the right staff for the job is key, and training them up adequately for the role is crucial.
Alongside this, any periods of long hours and overtime should be one-offs rather than become the office norm. Equally, a culture of respect, openness, and interaction can put everybody on the same page, making difficult subjects (like feeling overworked or underpaid, or like current workloads are untenable) easier to broach.
- Providing time for direct, one-on-one discussion.
- Giving employees autonomy and trust.
- Having your employee’s/team’s back – even when an employee makes a mistake.
- Showing appreciation for their hard work and results.
- Encouraging regular short breaks away from work, preferably outdoors.
- Enhancing skillsets with adequate training.
- Allowing for more flexible and agile working solutions, so that employees can work in the way that suits them best (this could include allowing early starts and finishes or late starts and finishes, a longer break at lunchtime, working from home, and working in formal/informal/quiet/buzzy surroundings).
How can your workplace prevent employee burnout?
Employee burnout prevention is easier to combat earlier, through workplace culture, than later, through firefighting employee burnout symptoms. Hyett & Parker recognize employee wellbeing in the workplace through four crucial dimensions:
- Work satisfaction
- Organizational respect
- Employer care
- Work-life integration
Bringing these four factors into balance is key to avoiding employee burnout. If an employer is managing an employee’s workload so that work-life balance can be achieved, they are showing care and respect, and the job is rewarding and satisfying for the worker, their wellbeing at work is likely to be much higher. Balancing these four factors also reduces the likelihood of the build-up of long-term, overwhelming pressure.
Remote employee burnout: How can you help as an employer?
It can be easier to miss the early symptoms of employee burnout when staff are working from home, as overworking can be less self-evident and an employee’s emotional state and stress levels can be harder to gauge over tech rather than in person.
Flexibility has been shown to provide enormous benefits for staff, and for some that might entail working from home all the time, whilst for most, it entails flexibility over when they ‘have’ to be in the office.
Allowing grace for employees to commit to daily roles such as taking children to school both enables workplaces to better cater to the gender gap and glass-ceiling phenomenon and allows for healthier work-life balance levels for staff.
The benefits can be outweighed, however, by feelings of never being able to ‘escape’ or ‘switch-off’ from work. Work and home life boundaries can easily become blurred when working from home, so it’s important to install cultures that support the implementation of those boundaries.
Some ways to help instill work-life boundaries:
- Encourage staff to wear ‘work’ clothes. A strange one, but being able to take off your work clothes (this doesn’t have to be any sort of strict ‘uniform’) can provide a psychological break from the environment.
- Get out before and after work. Mimicking a commute through outdoor time and exercise (even if it’s just a short lap around the block) can again create that psychological break between work and home – and it ups activity levels too.
- Maintain ‘work hours’. Although flexibility is crucial, and having an extra hour’s lunch on a sunny day or finishing early when the kids have a dance recital really shows care and trust, installing a base ‘work schedule’ allows employees to respect their time and turn off in the evenings. This schedule should fit the individual’s needs rather than be organization-wide.
- Create a workplace ‘out of office’ template. Then you need to encourage its use! It can be utilized both when employees need focused time on a consuming task, or to allow for time away from office-based activities.
- Create virtual coffee breaks. Encourage ten-minute breaks where staff grab a coffee or chat online, or grab some fresh air. This perceived time deficit actually pays for itself in terms of the increased focus it allows upon the worker’s return.
- Meet in person to reduce loneliness. Whilst some employees are retreating to busy and sociable home lives, some will be alone, and work was their key social interaction. Be aware that even those with ostensibly busy home lives could be suffering from loneliness, too. Scheduling an in-office day fortnightly or monthly (depending on convenience for remote staff) can increase well-being levels, as well as allowing staff interactions and relationships to be facilitated. This creates a sense of ease when working online as well as streamlining focus toward shared work goals.
Hopefully, this article has highlighted employee burnout causes and cures and will equip workers and employers alike to better withstand stressful situations and implement healthy techniques to combat the perils of staff burnout. Don’t forget that CEOs and those further up the chain of command are vulnerable to burnout too – read this piece to better understand why.
For more information and to better understand the crisis of the Great Resignation, check out our podcast on the economics of the Great Resignation.
We found search results for
- Case Study
- How To Guide
- Product Spotlight
- Roundtable Insights
- Clear filters