Employee Burnout: What It Is and What to Do About It

October 24, 2017
Updated April 7, 2020

Turnover, disengagement, wasted time, exhaustion…many of the problems that keep HR leaders up at night can be traced back to a single monster: employee burnout. According to a Gallup report, 76 percent of employees experience burnout at work at least sometimes, and 28 percent say they experience it “very often” or “always.” Some HR leaders have called it a workplace epidemic.

So what is employee burnout? And more importantly, what can organizations and HR professionals do about it? We’ll give you the information you need to help your people stay engaged and motivated in an ever-changing, fast-paced work environment.

What Is Employee Burnout?

Solving the problem of employee burnout begins with understanding the definition. According to the World Health Organization, employee burnout is “a syndrome…resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is usually characterized by three things:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance, negative feelings, or cynicism around your job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Employees may experience any or all of these symptoms at some point in their careers—we all have bad days. But when employees feel exhausted, negative, and ineffective day after day for an extended period, bad days turn into burnout. And burnout can quickly turn into an expensive and serious problem for both employees and employers.

The Cost of Employee Burnout

The real cost of burnout is much more than a handful of tired, disengaged employees. In fact, Gallup estimated in 2016 that employee burnout cost the nation of Germany around nine billion euros in lost productivity. In the United States, Stanford University Graduate School of Business reported that burnout costs the U.S. 190 billion dollars per year in health care expenses, as well as 120,000 stress-attributed deaths.

Hold on—deaths?! Unfortunately, it’s true.

In fact, employee burnout has become so bad in Japan that they’ve invented a word for it: “karoshi,” or death from overwork. A few years ago, the death of a 31-year-old woman came to light as a case of karoshi. She died of heart failure after logging 159 overtime hours in a single month.

Check out our infographic to learn about the causes of employee burnout.

Obviously, this is an extreme example of the cost of employee burnout. But even mild burnout among your employees can have a significant negative impact. A Gallup report shows that employees who experience burnout at work “very often” or “always” are:

  • 63 percent more likely to take a sick day
  • Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
  • 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room
  • 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job
  • 13 percent less confident in their performance

The cost of burnout is high for individuals and organizations alike; it’s clear your company can’t afford to ignore it.

Signs of Employee Burnout

Knowing the signs of employee burnout can help you recognize and address it early in your workforce before it becomes a huge issue. This is especially important because employees may not let you know when they’re feeling burned out: one survey found that only one in four employees who are burned out have told their manager or HR about it. While not every case of burnout looks the same, watching for these symptoms is a good place to start.

Exhaustion

We are all familiar with the midday slump. The yawning, the drooping eyes, the fuzzy thoughts. It can be tough to work through those slow afternoon hours.

But employees suffering from burnout may feel as if their midday slump never ends. Coming to work each day is, in and of itself, exhausting. And not just physically. Mental exhaustion can be just as taxing.

The biggest danger with exhaustion is that it’s often cyclical. An employee comes to work and becomes exhausted; the stress of the day weighs on them in the evening and prevents restful sleep; the next day, they come into the office even more tired than before, and the cycle continues. One study several years ago estimated that companies may lose around $3,000 per employee each year due to poor sleep.

What to Watch For:

  • Insomnia
  • Falling asleep at desk or in meetings
  • Inability to focus or think clearly

Cynicism

Another common sign of employee burnout is an attitude of cynicism. We all know a few cynics in the office—maybe we’ve even fallen into cynicism ourselves. While everyone feels frustrated or negative at work sometimes, employees who consistently behave this way may be suffering from burnout.

A cynical attitude at work doesn’t develop overnight. Rather it grows over time and with repeated negative experiences. Most often, employees fall into cynicism when they are lacking two things in their work experience: trust and job clarity.

Trust is a relatively fragile thing that’s built and reinforced through repeated interactions with the same people or situations. When a manager acts in a way that betrays an employee’s trust, such as taking credit for the employee’s work, the relationship is damaged, and that employee will be warier during the next interaction. If further interactions continue to erode trust, employees will begin to doubt their organization’s or manager’s intentions and refuse to cooperate (or at least won’t contribute their best work).

Even when managers sincerely try to treat employees well, they may fall short in establishing clear job expectations. One Gallup study found that only 50 percent of employees strongly agree that they have a clear idea of what their job expectations are every day (which means the other 50 percent are lacking clarity to some extent).

A lack of clarity can lead to cynicism (and therefore employee burnout) because of the stress it creates for employees. A study published in Harvard Business Review measured the progress of a few different teams within an organization to demonstrate how important job clarity is for effective work. The teams that made more progress experienced more “events in which…goals were clear…and where people knew why their work mattered to the team, the organization, and the organization’s customers.” On the other hand, teams that made less progress experienced “more events that muddied, confused, or haphazardly changed the goals.”

What to Watch For:

  • Lack of cooperation
  • Time wasting
  • Poor performance
  • Frustration or apathy

Inefficacy

A burned-out, disengaged employee is also an ineffective one. And this inefficacy is often a result of an overwhelming and endless to-do list.

Every organization has its busy periods where everyone needs to pull a little extra weight to keep things running smoothly. But when crunch time never ends, and employees find themselves constantly swamped with too much to do, they are at serious risk of burnout.

One thing that keeps employees from being truly effective in their work is a constant flow of distractions and interruptions. Research from UC Irvine showed that “in a typical day…people spend an average of three minutes working on any single event before switching to another event.” Most often, employees switch tasks after being interrupted, and it can take a considerable amount of time to regain focus. A Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after something as small as an e-mail interruption.

Learn about the top workplace distractions in our free infographic.

Can you imagine working on a large, complex project in three-minute increments interspersed with 15-minute interruptions? Not only this is incredibly inefficient, but it’s also frustrating and exhausting. Unfortunately, this is what many employees face in their workplace.

What to Watch For:

  • Excessive work hours
  • Poor performance
  • Late assignments and projects
  • Meetings overload

Loneliness

The final sign of employee burnout we’re going to cover is loneliness. It can be tough to tell if an employee feels lonely and disconnected, but if they consistently withdraw from social activities or avoid interacting with teammates, that may be the problem.

Friendships are a vital piece of the employee engagement puzzle. Gallup, after surveying more than 15 million employees around the world, reported that those who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged. Employees with close social connections at work also tend to be better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher wellbeing, and are less likely to get injured on the job.

On the other hand, those who lack these kinds of relationships have only an eight percent chance of being highly engaged.

Humans are social creatures, and meaningful social interaction is an integral part of each day. Research has shown that to have a thriving day, individuals need six hours of social time. With no social time, an individual is equally likely to report having a bad day as having a good day; each hour of social interaction increases the chances of having a good day.

The average employee spends about eight hours of their day at work. If they don’t have any friends among their team members, then it’s likely their social time is limited to a few hours each day before or after work. That could lead to bad day after bad day and, ultimately, employee burnout.

What to Watch For:

  • Withdrawal from coworkers
  • Lack of social interaction
  • Few or no friendships at workplace

What to Do About Employee Burnout

We all have a limited supply of energy each day—let’s imagine it as a full bucket. We empty the bucket throughout the day by working, socializing, exercising, and other activities. At the end of the day, we need to fill our bucket back up by relaxing and recharging so we’re ready for the following day.

Employee burnout is what happens when an employee continues to empty their bucket without refilling it; each day they’re taking out a loan against themselves they can’t pay back.

In an article from Harvard Business Review, the authors explore the concept of resilience. They explained that resilience isn’t just about resting—it’s about recovering. Like refilling your bucket, real recovery is more than just physically leaving the office; it means giving our brains a break from stress, rather than continuing to worry about that big project while at home.

As an HR professional, you aren’t in charge of the mental and physical health of every employee. However, what you can do is make your organization a positive place to work and then give your people the tools to recover effectively. Here are a few focus areas where HR can make a difference in the battle against employee burnout.

Company Culture

Work-life balance needs to become a part of your organization’s culture if it isn’t already. And we don’t just mean printed on a poster in the break room.

What is the unstated culture of your company? Are employees praised and rewarded for staying late and working long hours? Are employees expected to answer emails at 10:00 PM? All of these elements influence what employees believe about your company culture.

To create a culture that helps reduce employee burnout, be sure that managers set fair and transparent expectations with their employees about work hours and responsiveness. Employees should be empowered to work hard and focus while they’re on the clock, and then disconnect from work (and its accompanying stress) at the end of the day.

The Definitive Guide to Company Culture
Turn your company culture into a competitive asset for your organization.

Paid Time Off

Of course, one of the most effective ways to recharge from work is to not work! While employees should be allowed to disconnect and recover each night away after work, sometimes they need a more substantial break. According to Glassdoor, the average American employee who was eligible for PTO only used 54 percent of their available time in 2016. And of those employees who did take vacations, 66 percent admitted to working during that time.

The benefits of vacations are well documented, especially with preventing burnout. At BambooHR, we offer a paid paid vacation benefit to all of our employees each year. This benefit encourages employees to actually use their time off and to use it on a real vacation where they can fully disconnect from work. As a result, they return to the office with more energy, ready to do their best work.

While your organization may not be able to offer a paid paid vacation, you can still take steps to encourage employees to take time off. For example, you can educate employees about your company’s time-off policy and the benefits of taking vacations, and you can make sure the process of tracking, requesting, and approving time off is easy and accessible for everyone.

Regular Check-Ins

Remember that survey we mentioned that showed only one in four employees tell their managers or HR about feeling burned out? That means you can’t wait for your people to speak up before you take action. HR and managers must be proactive in working against burnout by checking in with employees regularly.

Managers are especially important in this process. They should hold regular one-on-ones with each of their team members to foster communication and trust. Try to avoid making performance goals the focus of these conversations; rather, use them as an opportunity for employees to give feedback, voice concerns, or explain their challenges. In turn, managers should ask questions, listen carefully, and when appropriate, offer advice.

HR can support managers by training them on how to hold successful one-on-one meetings and helping them find solutions to any problems that employees bring up. You and your HR team can also seek out employee feedback with employee satisfaction surveys to determine if there are more widespread issues affecting many employees.

The most important outcome of an employee one-on-one (or an employee satisfaction survey) is for your people to feel heard and understood. HR and managers should follow up with employees after receiving feedback to let them know how that feedback is being used. This doesn’t mean your organization must make sweeping changes every time an employee brings up a concern, but each employee should feel their feedback has at least been recorded and considered.

Your Next Steps

When we treat employee burnout as the serious, complex problem it is, we can begin to work on real solutions. It’s not just exhaustion, cynicism, inefficacy, or loneliness on its own. It can be all of these at once, and it can have devastating costs for individuals and organizations alike.

While you may not be able to solve the whole problem single-handedly, making your organization a healthy, positive place to work and helping employees feel valued and understood are two big steps in the right direction. Work on these strategies, and perhaps we can turn this epidemic into a trend of the past.



Tori Fica
Senior Copywriter

Tori Fica is a senior copywriter for BambooHR. Through research, analysis, and writing, she creates content to help HR professionals think and plan more strategically. Her focus is on taking complex ideas and in-depth research and turning them into clear, digestible pieces of content.