More than ever, companies are focused on creating a desirable employee experience. High employee satisfaction and engagement can increase productivity, performance, attendance, morale and retention. Conversely, stressed employees who feel overworked and undervalued become burned out, leading to a drop in performance and retention rates. As an employer, it is your responsibility to keep your employees in the former group and prevent employee burnout from happening. This is good for both your employees and your business.
What is employee burnout?
Employee burnout is the state of physical or mental exhaustion caused by workplace stress or excessive work hours. Burnout typically starts out slow and builds over time, until the employee experiences feelings of helplessness, failure, defeat, detachment and cynicism. Employees with burnout tend to feel less accomplished and less satisfied with their work.
The causes of employee burnout typically fall into three categories.
- Personality factors: The people most likely to burn out quickly are over-achievers, perfectionists and pessimists.
- An imbalance between work and home life: If one or the other takes over an employee's life, work will suffer and burnout will ensue.
- Work-related stress: An overwhelming workload, increased job demands without commensurate benefits, a lack of recognition or feedback, and a loss of faith in leadership can all contribute to burnout.
How employers can prevent employee burnout
If you notice signs of employee burnout, take immediate steps to prevent it from continuing. Here are 10 ways to stop burnout in its tracks.
1. Elicit employee feedback.
As an employer, you must make sure your employees are being heard. Ideally, an employer would engage with a team member well before burnout begins, but the day-to-day workload can sometimes prevent this from happening. When burnout does begin to manifest, meet with your employee to get to the heart of the problem. Sometimes the solution is apparent, and other times it's a bit more complicated. You'll never know unless you listen.
2. Create reasonable workloads.
When employees are bogged down with an unreasonable amount of work, they may feel that they are always playing catch-up. This can cause them to overwork themselves, eventually leading to burnout. To avoid this, create fair workloads for each employee so that they are set up for success. Have managers monitor employee productivity and performance. If they notice an employee's performance start to slip, that may indicate that the employee is reaching burnout and needs help.
3. Offer flexible scheduling.
If we learned anything over the course of the pandemic, it's that flexibility is key to employee happiness. Flexible scheduling, also known as flextime, gives employees the ability to create their own schedules. This lets employees choose the work hours that best accommodate their personal and professional needs. For example, one employee may choose to work between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., whereas another may work better between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. When employees have the ability to create a work schedule around their own needs, they are at a lower risk of burnout.
4. Promote mental health days.
Employees are more likely to experience burnout if they are stressed out and struggling with their mental health. Employers can support employee mental health by offering mental health days. Allow employees to use their mental health days at their leisure, whenever it's of most value to them. They will feel more comfortable taking mental health days if they feel company leadership is supportive.
5. Offer paid time off – and encourage employees to take it.
Offer employees ample paid time off (PTO) so that they can relax and recharge. The specific PTO policy you make will depend on your business; some businesses can afford to offer only two weeks of paid vacation, while others can offer unlimited PTO. However, simply offering paid vacation is not enough. It's essential to encourage employees to use their days off. Create a workplace that celebrates paid time off so that employees don't feel forced to leave unused vacation days on the table. Time off allows employees to reset physically and mentally so that they can come back to work ready to produce.
6. Provide functional equipment and software.
Nothing can be more maddening than having to use a tool, equipment or software that is ineffective or slow to respond. Not only does the equipment's performance reflect poorly on the employee's production, but the failure of management to recognize the need to upgrade can also create an air of helplessness. Frustration with equipment can be one of the first symptoms of burnout, so solving this problem can alleviate work-related stressors tremendously.
7. Treat your employees fairly.
Nothing causes burnout quicker than watching someone else receive preferential treatment or get credit for the wrong reasons. Even worse is unfairness that seems arbitrary. Pay inequality, random promotions, capricious recognition – all of these can create animosity or a sense of despair in an employee. They're made worse by the fact that, in most cases, the employee must bottle up their feelings.
8. Give your employees a voice.
For employees who feel that they have no say in organizational decision-making, burnout can be a natural or even expected consequence. These tips from Dale Carnegie on empowering employees have endured because they work:
- Challenge your team members.
- Stoke their passion for your company's vision.
- Give them clear opportunities for advancement.
- Apply the same measuring criteria to everyone.
- Get out of their way and let them do their work.
9. Have fun.
Employees who enjoy coming to work will burn out far less frequently than those who loathe their job. Why not build a positive work environment for your employees? Stocking the fridge with goodies, having lunch-hour parties, and giving half-days off before a holiday can all boost morale and prevent employee burnout.
10. Recognize success.
No matter what they tell you, every employee wants to feel needed. An unexpected pat on the back or recognition in front of peers for a job well done can be a tremendous ego boost and go far toward stemming the onset of burnout. According to an employee engagement study by O.C. Tanner, a Great Place to Work-Certified company, 37% of respondents believe employee recognition is the most significant factor in a team producing great work.
The impact of employee burnout
Whether it's you or your employees you're trying to protect from burnout, it's vital to your business that you do. Workplace burnout can have a multitude of consequences.
Burned-out employees are not only less engaged with work, but also less healthy. According to The American Institute of Stress, "workplace stress costs more than $300 billion each year in healthcare, missed work and stress reduction." Common manifestations of burnout include increased anxiety, irritability, weight gain or loss, frequent absences, and susceptibility to illness.
As an employee becomes burned out, you are likely to notice decreased performance or productivity. If they feel overwhelmed, they may feel rushed to turn in work with mistakes, or they may begin slacking off altogether. Excessive burnout can lead to an increase in absenteeism and employee turnover – which both cost your business money.
The impact of employee burnout can also spread across your organization. Not only are burned-out employees tough to deal with for customers, but they can also become a toxic presence in your office. As they begin to show symptoms of burnout, they begin to transfer their stress (and work) to others. Most managers are inclined to demote or fire an employee who is burning out, but this can often backfire. Other employees may start to burn out because they are now forced to carry an additional workload or they begin to fear for their own jobs.
How to identify employee burnout
Perhaps you've been there: Work is overwhelming, and help is limited. Before you know it, your drive and determination have diminished, and all you can think about is how to get out of work. This is a typical case of employee burnout.
The best time to combat burnout is before it begins, but you can also stop it as soon as you recognize it. Here are some common signs an employee may be experiencing burnout:
- Physical, mental or emotional exhaustion
- Decreased productivity
- Reduced performance (more mistakes)
- Irritability, sensitivity and argumentativeness
- Disengagement or detachment from conversations or projects
- Consistently working long hours or missing work
- Sudden illness (fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches)
Don't let employee burnout become a problem at your workplace. Educate your staff on the signs and impact, recognize the symptoms, and take action when necessary. You'll be glad you did.
Amy Blackburn contributed to the writing and research in this article.