Employee burnout was a serious concern before the pandemic, and it has only gotten worse over the past year. According to a recent study, more than two-thirds of workers believe the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.1 The potential impact of employee stress and burnout on the organization has raised C-suite concerns among 70% of employers.2

How Burnout Differs from Stress

Stress can be acute or chronic. Acute stress is temporary and can feel irritating, like waiting in a long line when you’re in a hurry, or thrilling, like going down a steep waterslide. Whether it sits more on the positive or negative side of the scale, and varies in intensity, the key feature of acute stress is that it is short-lived. Chronic stress is not. It lasts longer and is more pervasive. It wreaks havoc on your body and mind, and if left unaddressed, can be dangerous.

When the body and mind are under prolonged stress it creates the conditions for burnout.

Remember when the pandemic began, and everyone was posting about how productive they were? That hyperactivity and sense of urgency was a stress response. Surprisingly, the early stages of burnout can appear as excessive ambition. It can become problematic however when working harder and longer leads to neglecting your own needs, especially when you’re in a situation where so much is out of your control.

Front line workers had no choice but to endure on-going stress. The trauma they saw added to it. Teachers, working parents, caregivers, and student were also under a great deal of chronic stress. When faced with normal or slightly elevated stress levels, you can typically recover with extra rest, sleep, and down time. Burnout, however, is different. In a state of burnout we have used up all our energetic and emotional reserves. We have moved from anxiety and emotionality to feeling dulled and disengaged. There is a sense of helplessness, and our usual activities no longer bring us joy. The usual rest and relaxation don’t work. We need a longer recovery period and to disrupt the current patterns causing our burnout.  There is no more powering through. In a state of burnout we have trouble sleeping or feeling fully rested even after a good night’s sleep. In a state of burnout we are drained. We are not interested in socializing. We are not ourselves.

The issue of burnout is important because it is getting harder and harder to detect. A lot of people will say that this is due to more remote and hybrid working, but I would say this is a problem that has existed long before virtual work. How many managers can spot the signs of burnout or know what is really going on with their employees? It’s been more of a reactive approach, showing up as an employee taking too many sick days, a poor performance rating, or conflict or disengagement at work. I think we can do better. We can take a proactive approach to do as much as possible to prevent burnout before it happens.

Some Thoughts:

Productivity and high performance are a byproduct of wellbeing. When people are in a state of mental and physical well-being at work, they can be productive, build positive relationships with others, develop resilience and cope better with stress, and develop their potential more fully.

Employees in a state of burnout cannot focus on career growth or looking for ways to improve in their current role when they are stressed out about finances or ill loved ones at home.

It’s important to take a more holistic view of how to prevent burnout in the first place.

Key Components to Prevent Workplace Burnout:

Awareness – Provide educational workshops on coping skills, resilience, and spotting the signs of excessive stress and burnout. Raising the awareness helps us also understand the precursors to burnout and steer ourselves away from it before it happens.

Conversation – Normalizing the conversation around mental health and stress in general is key to bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. We don’t need to reveal every detail of what’s going on in our personal lives with our manager, but if we can get to a place where it is comfortable to say, “I need some help with my workload”, “I need a mental health day” or “I just need to rearrange my schedule a few weeks to be better able to take care of some things at home.” It opens the door to a conversation where manager and employee can work together to create success. For example, if there is a big project or goal to achieve, how can we make it realistic for you and what other resources and supports can we bring in so you can be successful?

Autonomy – Workers who understand and are connected to the business goals and bigger picture and see how they fit in tend to feel more positive at work and create more success. If it is possible, give employees more autonomy to decide where and how that work gets done. Allow them to have more ownership over aspects where it makes sense. It builds trust and ultimately creates higher levels of well-being.

Community – Employee resource groups can go a long way towards preventing burnout. When employees feel that they are not alone in facing some of the challenges they have it reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation and increases connectivity to their co-workers. Affinity groups and groups based around fun and creative pursuits also have the same effect. Creating small communities where employees can engage and connect creates a sense of belonging.

Finally, understand it is not that the employee needs to be fixed, but that we must create an environment to support wellbeing.  While reducing the work week or asking employees to take more time off is a start and has the best intentions, to address the root cause of burnout we need to explore adding elements of work that lead to greater wellbeing and take away the ones that compound stress.

  1. Indeed.com, Employee Burnout Report, March 2021. https://www.indeed.com/lead/preventing-employee-burnout-report
  2. Gallagher, Better Works, Insight Report, Q1 2021, U.S. Edition. https://www.ajg.com/us/gallagher-better-works-insights-2021-q1/