The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Unfortunately, it is all too common among employees, with nearly one in four people reporting burnout symptoms. But what exactly is burnout? What are its causes? And how can leaders manage it within their organizations? Let’s take a closer look at these questions.
Living organisms are not designed to stay in a chronic stress state.
What Is Burnout?
At its core, burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Living organisms are not designed to stay in a chronic stressed state. Hormones function on feedback loops – meaning, living organisms await internal and external messaging that the threat has subsided before the body stops releasing stress hormones. Without the signal that the threat is no longer present, stress hormones remain elevated. This is why when an employee remains in a prolonged state of stress, they burn out. Work demands from the organization and individual factors contribute to the unrelenting stress messaging the body receives.
Burnout is characterized by increased exhaustion, increased cynicism, and decreased professional efficacy—all of which can have a significant impact on an employee’s performance, job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Despite the fact that burnout can be debilitating, it is important to note that it is not an individual failure; rather, but a shared mismanagement between the organization and the employee. Burnout is caused by an organization’s failure to adequately manage workplace stressors and an employee’s failure to set healthy work boundaries.
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout is typically caused by a combination of factors including excessive workloads, unclear or unreachable expectations, lack of control over one’s work environment, lack of a safe psychological space or lack of autonomy or recognition for one’s contributions. Other potential causes include a mismatch between an employee’s skills and their job responsibilities or lack of support from colleagues and supervisors. Specifically, unrealistic expectations; lack of control over one’s work environment; lack of resources, and job insecurity. The myriad of factors that contribute to burnout makes it challenging for leaders to manage.
How Can Leaders Manage Burnout?
To effectively manage burnout within teams, leaders should
Strive to create a culture of respect for employees’ work-life balance
It is important to align culture and practice in order to effectively demonstrate respect for employees’ work-life balance. One of the ways leaders destroy employees’ trust is by failing to demonstrate respect for work-life balance. Employees do not care what you say, they care about what you do. Behaviors that demonstrate a lack of respect for work-life balance include sending work communication (emails, messages, calls) outside of work hours, contacting employees while on vacation or sick leave, commenting about other employees who take leave or time off, and promoting employees who demonstrate unhealthy work behaviors. Instead, leaders should schedule send time for emails, practice no-contact when on leave, and support employees who communicate when they are feeling overwhelmed.
Ensure that workloads are appropriately distributed
It’s important to routinely assess effort and quality of outcomes for projects to ensure that workloads are appropriately distributed across employees. Time is not always an accurate factor to assess workload. Depending on employee skills and experience, less time does not always mean less effort. With the advancement of technology, it’s important to look beyond time spent and focus on effort and outcomes. For example, if I assign a task to Employee A and he accomplishes it in 8 hours then I assign the same task to Employee B a few months later and she accomplishes it in 2 hours, was the effort different? Not necessarily. The workload is actually the same in terms of effort and deliverables. Current practices would punish Employee B for her efficiency by recommending that I assign her more work and reward Employee A for his inefficiency with less work. In my experience, not giving Employee B more work and allowing her to enjoy the free time she earned leads to better job satisfaction and decreases risk for burnout. Regularly assessing whether workloads align with skills, effort and resources at least twice a year can do wonders for employee morale.
Time is not always an accurate factor to assess workload. Depending on employee skills and experience, less time does not always mean less effort. With the advancement of technology, it’s important to look beyond time spent and focus on effort and outcomes.
Foster open communication and trust between leaders and employees
Trust is hard to build but easy to destroy. Leaders should be careful about what they communicate, who they communicate to and how they communicate. It is the responsibility of leaders to promote trust and set examples of healthy communication. When an employee admits to feeling overwhelmed, they are demonstrating a level of vulnerability that can be dangerous in a toxic work environment. Admitting to burnout should not become department gossip, appear on annual evaluations, or harm opportunities for promotion. Any of those occurrences will prevent employees from communicating their experience of feeling overwhelmed and contributed to high team turnover.
Provide accurate and regular feedback on performance and recognize employees for their efforts
A Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is not the first time an employee should learn about underperforming. An Annual Evaluation is not the first time an employee should learn about underperforming. Also, a leader should not rely on second-hand feedback to document an employee’s underperformance. When a leader genuinely wants to improve employee performance, they provide first-hand feedback regularly. They ask questions when they do not understand an employee’s approach to a task. They also balance constructive feedback with positive feedback. In other words, the only time employees hear from leaders should not be when they are doing something wrong.
Implement wellness initiatives
Today, many organizations offer more than health insurance. Organizations pay millions annually in wellness initiatives that employees underutilize. Quality wellness initiatives can range from Nap Rooms to No Meeting Fridays and everything in-between. Wellness initiatives should also include policies and practices that support wellness.
Burnout can have a detrimental effect on your organization if left unchecked—so it’s important that leaders understand the causes of burn out and take appropriate steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place. By creating an environment based on mutual respect and providing adequate support for employees who may be feeling overwhelmed with their workloads or undervalued in their roles—you can help protect your team from developing symptoms of burnout while also improving morale overall. In doing so, you will be helping your organization avoid costly turnover while also increasing productivity across the board.