Sally, once a diligent, high-performing employee, has been arriving late, leaving early, and taking frequent sick days. There is a noticeable decline in the quality of her work. Once conscientious, she has been making frequent errors.
Usually friendly and engaging, she withdraws and keeps to herself in the break room, rarely interacting with her colleagues. When she does, she is frequently short-tempered.
Her manager assumes she is going through some personal issues and tactfully slips her a brochure for the Employee Assistance Program, suggesting that she take advantage of the company wellness program which offers free yoga classes “guaranteed to relieve stress.”
But three weeks later Sally resigns.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a chronic problem affecting the workforce in record numbers. It has worsened and become more visible because of the pandemic.
Sally’s lack of motivation, absenteeism, irritability, disengagement, and drop in performance, often erroneously attributed to personal issues, are signs of employee burnout.
According to a 2021 report by Indeed, more than half of employees surveyed reported feeling burnout. It is so pervasive that, in 2019, the WHO officially recognized it as an occupational phenomenon, defining it as:
… a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, negative feelings towards one’s job, and reduced performance.”
In The Burnout Epidemic, Jennifer Moss explains how burnout develops over time.
“Burnout isn’t something that just happens overnight. It’s a slow erosion of coping skills and one’s ability to adapt to the daily chronic stress that finally overwhelms.”
—Jennifer Moss, The Burnout Epidemic
So, employee burnout is not a personal issue but an organizational problem that should perhaps be renamed “workplace burnout” to shift the responsibility where it belongs—to employers.
Not only does burnout affect the mental health and well-being of employees, but it has a negative effect on organizational costs, both human and financial.
Businesses lose millions of dollars every year in productivity due to high levels of absenteeism (lost revenue and overtime) and turnover (the cost of rehiring and training) because of burnout.
Healthcare costs are skyrocketing as the physical and mental health of the workforce takes a dive.
Burnout also correlates to low employee engagement.
What to do about burnout?
An organizational problem requires an organizational solution.
Experience has shown that it demands a solution that goes beyond the traditional wellness benefits employers have been investing in, such as yoga, meditation apps, and time management training.
You cannot meditate your way out of burnout nor will better organization skills work. These measures don’t work sustainably because they attempt to treat the symptoms and not the causes. They ignore the systemic and institutional factors that are the root causes of burnout that continue to be faced every day by employees.
Causes and Interventions
Dr. Christina Maslach, author of several books on the topic of employee burnout, and leading expert, offers six main causes of burnout.
We define chronic overwork
“… an unmanageable, unsustainable workload or work schedule that does not allow for a healthy balance between work and personal life and with unreasonable or unmanageable performance goals and expectations.”
—Herbert J. Freudenberger and Geraldine Richelson,
Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement
It can take the form of time pressure or inflexible work hours.
Intervention: Fixing the workload problem
- Flexible goal setting is a good strategy for decreasing the potential for overwork when competent employees take on or are assigned too much and feel pressure to deliver in a time crunch. Having the ability to adjust to changing needs when necessary eliminates the possibility of frustration and stress as conditions change.
- Regularly checking in with employees to gauge their comfort in handling their workload displays respect and consideration and will help counteract burnout.
Perceived lack of control
- micromanagement or lack of autonomy,
- lack of access to resources to do your job,
- lack of say in decisions that impact your professional life,
- low levels of influence,
- low task control,
- lack of role clarity,
- vague accountability and expectations,
- frustrating work routines.
Intervention: Fixing the lack of control
- Reduce micromanaging by hiring competent staff with the right skills for the job and trusting them to do their job.
- Evaluate your management style and consider giving employees more autonomy and flexibility.
- Create effective communication channels and an environment where employees feel empowered and comfortable voicing their concerns and their input is valued.
Lack of reward or recognition
Is there an effort-reward gap? Are the high demands of the job met with unfair compensation, appreciation, or promotion prospects?
Intervention: Fixing lack of reward or recognition
- Fair and appropriate compensation packages is the first step..
- Recognition and public appreciation can have a major impact on employee well-being and motivation because employees who feel valued will happily go above and beyond what is expected of them. And of course, they are less likely to leave.
Poor relationshipsRelations between co-workers and or between employees and management might be negative or strained. We might attribute this to poor communication or a lack of support from the manager. In extreme cases, bullying and psychological harassment might be the cause.
Intervention: Fixing poor relationships
- Having a sense of community in the office creates a positive atmosphere and drives belonging, which in turn drives organizational performance. Employers should devise ways of encouraging quality relationships that are based on trust and support among colleagues.
- Give employees opportunities to connect and collaborate outside of normal work tasks, for example, team-building activities, and volunteering. Connecting these activities to the organization’s mission and values also lends meaning and purpose to their work, which positively impacts affects well-being.
- Build an inclusive, cooperative culture that encourages team spirit over competition and individualism.
Lack of fairness
Bias, favoritism, mistreatment, and unfair company policies create a lack of trust. If employees do not trust their manager, co-workers, or leadership, it destroys the psychological bond that is needed for work to be meaningful.
Intervention: Fixing a lack of fairness
- Employees should never feel powerless. There should be a complaint mechanism in place to report unfair treatment. They should also have the assurance that you will take their concerns seriously and respond promptly.
For any relationship to thrive there must be compatibility. Is it a good fit? Fit usually refers to culture alignment but values are even more important because when values don’t align it leads to a lack of motivation, low productivity or unsatisfactory work, and low morale.
Intervention: Fixing a values mismatch
- Just like a vehicle with misaligned wheels will pull to one side and veer off course, so does progress towards organizational goals when there is an employee/employer mismatch.
There should also be alignment with the way teams and individuals work, make decisions, and approach risk.
The Right Intervention at the Right Time
When we examine the causes of employee burnout, the common thread is the quality of the workplace culture, the essential components of which are people, policy, and leadership.
Poor workplace culture leads to low employee engagement, which is the first step on the slippery slope that leads to burnout.
Data from Gallup claims that only 30% of the US workforce is engaged at work. Since employee engagement correlates with retention and performance, it should be no surprise when employees exhibiting Sally’s symptoms end up leaving the organization.
Pixentia is a full-service technology company dedicated to helping clients solve business problems, improve the capability of their people, and achieve better results.