Worker Burnout

Don’t miss the signs as it can hamper a company.

By Alexandra Walsh

The World Health Organization offers this definition of burnout: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, workers’ personal concerns over their own health and safety and that of their loved ones has only increased the potential for burnout. It has further heightened when workers are employed in an essential industry like water well drilling and working long hours.

Real Consequences

The consequences of burnout are real. A Gallup survey found that 28% of U.S. employees experience burnout very often or always, making them 63% more likely to call in sick and 23% more likely to end up in the emergency room.

Human resource managers say burnout causes up to 50%, that’s half, of all turnover which is costly to their employers.

Worker burnout diminishes employees’ desire to learn and grow. When employees are experiencing these signs of burnout, most of their energy and mental focus is on daily survival, not being safe and productive.

Signs of Burnout

Employers don’t often recognize the signs of burnout and as a result typically fail to deal with this widespread problem—leaving individual employees to shoulder the burden. Instead, business owners and managers need to take necessary steps for employees to stay motivated and productive, without feeling overloaded.

Signs of burnout at work can be seen in employees who:

  • Are mentally distant from their job
  • Display negative feelings or cynicism about their job
  • Show reduced productivity in their work
  • Have unexplained absences from work
  • Show up late to work or leave early
  • Exhibit a decline in health
  • Have a lack of enthusiasm
  • Are isolated.

The Good Manager

It’s not just the number of hours an employee works, it’s how they manage their hours and how they carry out their actual work during those hours that impacts whether they experience burnout.

Here in the Gallup study from above are the top five factors that correlate most highly with employee burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Unclear communication from managers
  4. Lack of manager support
  5. Unreasonable time pressure.

All five of these factors are significantly influenced by manager behavior. Managers have a responsibility to protect workers against unfair treatment in the workplace, to communicate clearly, and provide support. In addition, managers should act as the advocate and ally of members of their team when it comes to prioritizing tasks, managing workload, and setting reasonable expectations of what is expected from the company management team.

Unfortunately, ineffective managers become the cause of burnout rather than the cure. They may treat employees unfairly, burden employees with unreasonable expectations, and provide little if any support to help employees achieve them.

But it’s not always the managers’ fault. Many organizations fail to supply their management team with the necessary training and support to be effective at doing their jobs. And this can cause burnout for the managers too, creating their own sense of unreasonable expectations and a perceived lack of support. In this way, burnout can easily cascade throughout a company.

When employees are experiencing these signs of burnout, most of their
energy and mental focus is on daily survival, not being safe and productive.

Supervisors, managers, and individual workers all need an occasional break to recover from an intense week or a particularly rough patch. But unless management addresses the root causes, they may be missing critical warning signs.

Avoiding Burnout

Many managers assume occupational burnout is caused solely by overwork and employees can recover by working fewer hours for a few days, taking a vacation, or using a sick day. Burnout statistics show the number of hours people work each week does matter, with the risk of burnout increasing significantly when employees work beyond 50 hours and climbing even higher after 60 hours.

But how people experience and interpret their workload has a stronger influence on burnout than hours worked. Dedicated employees who feel they enjoy flexibility in their job tend to work more hours per week than the average employee, while reporting a higher sense of well-being and satisfaction. When people feel inspired and motivated and supported in their work, they do more work—and that work is significantly less stressful on their overall health and well-being.

Treating Burnout

Here are some tips for managers to communicate, motivate, and lead their teams to avoid burnout.

Hold regular meetings. This includes both staff meetings and one-on-one meetings with each employee. Shoot for at least one meeting monthly, if not every two weeks. Give employees a chance not just to discuss what projects they are working on, but also any issues they may have about their workload, the difficulty level of their work, the overall work environment, and how their career goals are being met.

Emphasize positives and downplay negatives. When employees have burnout, they often forget about the positives and only focus on the negatives. Managers should shift and put the emphasis on the kind of work that excites employees each time they speak to them.

Recognize and acknowledge work. Find a reason to build employees up on a regular basis and tell them what you have observed and like.

Clarify expectations and job requirements. Whether a worker’s task is vague or perhaps they get instructions and feedback from a number of supervisors, it’s the manager’s job to make sure the employee knows their job and their precise role.

Find out what motivates employees. Zero in on what drives a worker to perform at their best. Remember too that each employee is different.

Show appreciation. Don’t just tell employees you appreciate what they do. Show it by providing them a breakfast, an afternoon snack, early release, or even a gift card from time to time.

Encourage vacation days. While making employees take a vacation won’t cure them of burnout, it can start to ease the symptoms. In fact, it may even motivate some employees to use vacation days more regularly.

Increase compensation. Increasing pay is also unlikely to cure burnout, but it can motivate an employee who has grown bored doing tedious work to keep at it and provide an additional incentive to do a good job.

Develop manager leadership skills. It is crucial that managers should have training in developing their leadership skills. Not only does it make it possible for everyone to work as a team and be more efficient, but managers will also show initiative to come up with more ideas on how to handle burnout situations.

Offer employees training. As a manager or supervisor, it is important to figure out which skills employees need to improve on so that they can perform to their full potential. Training not only boosts productivity, but it also boosts morale.

Assign tasks accordingly. Evaluate whether tasks are assigned properly, taking into consideration the unique abilities each employee possesses. For those who are under-stimulated, consider giving them new and exciting responsibilities that will push their existing skill set. If everyone is doing some sort of tedious work, rotate it so that everyone can try something new. Make sure that workloads are distributed evenly and that no one is taking on the brunt of the work.

Limit overtime. Unless employees are getting extra pay as a motivating factor, working excessive hours is less than desirable. Employees should be required to be on and off the job the number of hours that were agreed upon at their hire. This may mean decreasing their workload, hiring temps, or hiring another employee altogether. While occasional overtime is harmless, consistent overtime only increases workplace burnout.

Encourage participation in an employee assistance program. An employee assistance program is a counseling service employers offer to their employees, either directly through the company or through insurance. If your company offers an EAP, let employees know about it and encourage them to take advantage of the service. EAPs often deal with people who suffer from workplace burnout—which makes it an ideal place for employees to seek assistance.

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The last year has been tough on many professions and occupations, especially those that have been deemed essential. But at the same time, it is also essential that companies take care of their own employees. Controlling burnout is a key step to doing so.


Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.