Turnover, disengagement, wasted time, exhaustion…many of the problems that keep HR leaders up at night can often be traced back to a single monster: employee burnout (also referred to as work burnout).
According to an Accountemps survey, more than half of employees reported feeling stressed at work on a daily basis, and six out of 10 agreed that work-related pressure has increased in the last five years. Some HR leaders have called it a workplace epidemic.
For such a hot topic, burnout is a pretty vague term for many professionals. What do we actually mean when we say “burnout”? The most widely accepted definition comes from three professors of psychology who define burnout as “an individual’s response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors within the workplace.” Their broad definition suggests that there may be different stressors as well as different reactions depending on the individual. And if not every case of burnout is the same, that makes the problem even more challenging to solve.
Because of the unique features of each case of burnout, we wanted to step back and see the whole picture. What are the most common factors that cause an employee to burn out? What are the typical signs of an employee suffering from burnout? When you take all of this information together, you can start addressing employee burnout as a whole instead of solving one case at a time.
The Costs of Employee Burnout
First of all, let’s dive into the true cost of burnout. We’re talking about much more than a handful of tired, disengaged employees. Actually, Gallup estimated just last year that burnout costs the nation of Germany around nine billion euros in lost productivity every year. Taking a look within our own borders, Stanford University Graduate School of Business reported that burnout costs the U.S. 190 billion in health care expenses, as well as 120,000 stress-attributed deaths.
Hold on—deaths?! Unfortunately, it’s true.
In fact, the burnout epidemic has become so bad in Japan that they’ve invented a new word: “karoshi,” or death from overwork. Most recently, 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. As the threat of overwork and burnout rises in Japan, the nation has made efforts to change the cultural attitude toward work.
Obviously, this is an extreme example of burnout, and it isn’t always a life-or-death situation. But even mild burnout among your employees can tank productivity, retention, and engagement. And when the stakes can be as high as someone’s well-being, this is a problem we can no longer ignore.
How to Spot Signs of Burnout and Stress at Work
The first step to addressing a problem is understanding why it happens in the first place and what to look for.
Not every case of employee burnout is the same—especially when you compare workplace burnout to other aspects of your employees’ lives—but watching for these signs of burnout within your workforce will alert you to issues before they become serious.
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 may come to work where she exhausts herself physically and mentally; the stress of the day may weigh on her and prevent restful sleep; the next day, she will come into the office even more tired than before, and the cycle will continue. One study several years ago estimated that companies may lose around $3000 per employee each year due to poor sleep.
- Sleeping at desk
- Inability to focus or think clearly
Another sign of work burnout is an attitude of cynicism. We all know a few cynics in the office—maybe we’ve even fallen into cynicism ourselves. While flashes of frustration or skepticism aren’t uncommon, employees who consistently behave this way may be suffering from burnout.
Cynicism is largely based on our beliefs, perceptions, and reactions to the events we experience each day, as illustrated below. This cycle can be positive or negative, and it can quickly spiral in either direction. The lack of trust and the lack of job clarity are the two biggest factors that can spur employees into a negative cycle of cynicism.
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 wary during the next interaction. If the interactions continue to destroy trust, soon employees will fall into skepticism and refuse to cooperate (or at least contribute their best work).
Even when managers sincerely try to treat employees well, they may fall short in establishing clear job expectations. A recent 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. That probably means about half of your workforce came into the office this morning without knowing exactly what was expected of them.
A lack of clarity can lead to cynicism (and therefore burnout) because of the stress it creates for employees. Meaningful progress or achievement at work is one of the most gratifying things an employee can experience, according to Harvard Business Review. HBR conducted a study measuring the progress of a few different teams within an organization to demonstrate how important job clarity is for effective work. “The teams that made greater progress had more events in which the project goals and the team members’ individual work goals were clear or were changed carefully and where people knew why their work mattered to the team, the organization, and the organization’s customers. By contrast, teams that made less progress reported more events that muddied, confused, or haphazardly changed the goals.”
- Lack of cooperation
- Time wasting
- Poor performance
- Frustration or apathy
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 for a few weeks, or perhaps months, everyone needs to pull a little extra weight to keep things running smoothly. But when that “rush period” never ends, and employees find themselves constantly swamped with too much to do, they are at serious risk of burnout.
Excessive collaboration is one factor behind the huge workloads that some employees face, and it’s becoming more and more common across organizations. Some estimate that non-management employees spend at least six hours per week in meetings and that supervisors spend as much time as 23 hours per week. While these numbers are only estimates, it’s clear that a huge chunk of everyone’s time is consumed in an eternal cycle of collaboration.
By all means, collaboration has its place in the workplace, and its benefits are well known. But when we push all-star employees into more and more collaborative meetings, we leave them almost no time to accomplish their own critical, thoughtful work. One research paper reported 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.
Can you imagine working on a large, complex project in three-minute increments interspersed by 15-minute interruptions? That’s like moving a pile of sand one grain at a time with a pair of tweezers. Unfortunately, that’s similar to what many employees are facing, particularly the high performers.
The result? They take work home, either physically or mentally, and cut down on their personal recovery time. And pretty soon, that superstar worker has become an exhausted, overloaded, and ultimately ineffective employee. In the graph below, we see that the employees who offer the most value to their organizations and coworkers also tend to be the least engaged because of work demands.
- Excessive work hours
- Poor performance
- Packed meeting calendars
The final sign of employee burnout we’re going to cover is loneliness. It’s tough to see on the surface if an employee feels lonely and disconnected; after all, there could be any number of reasons that Jennifer didn’t eat lunch with the team like she normally does. However, if an employee consistently withdraws from social interactions or doesn’t seem to interact with teammates, then it might be a red flag.
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 are also 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 8 percent chance of being highly engaged.
Humans are social creatures, and meaningful social interaction is an integral part of each day. To have a thriving day, individuals need six hours of social time. With no social time, an individual has 50/50 chance of having a good day or a bad day; each hour of social interaction increases the chances of having a good day. Consider that six hours for a moment. The average employee spends about eight hours of her day at work. If she doesn’t have any friends at the office, then it’s likely her social time is limited to a few hours each day before or after work. That may mean she’s experiencing bad day after bad day. And that’s dangerously close to the burnout cycle.
What are the signs of employee burnout? Here are a few red flags to watch out for:
- Withdrawal from coworkers
- Lack of social interaction
- Few or no friendships at workplace
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor concentration
- Frequently ill
- Pessimism and detachment
The signs of employee burnout listed above are just a few indicators of long-term work stress but if employees display more then one or two then it may be time to look into a solution.
Employee Burnout Solutions
None of us is Superman or the Energizer Bunny, so we all have a limited supply of time and energy on any given day. We must make choices as to how and why we will expend our limited resources. Clearly, a full-time job consumes a large chunk of our resources as we go into the office every day for eight hours. However, work can take up even more time and energy than this in the form of lingering stress, unfinished projects, or negative feelings. In other words, leaving the office is not necessarily the end of the workday for many employees.
In terms of our limited time and energy, burnout is the result when we continually spend resources without refilling the bucket—like taking out a loan from ourselves that we can never quite payback.
Employees can only do so much to change the demands on their time and energy while they’re in the office. Likewise, we are all limited to 24 hours a day, and that can’t change. So what can we do to battle employee burnout when so many factors are out of our control?
In an article last year, Harvard Business Review explained that resilience, or the ability to bounce back from difficult tasks, is about getting enough quality recovery time rather than simply resting. Real recovery means giving our brains a break from demanding activities of every kind—not just work. Fuming over the latest celebrity Twitter war or worrying about the breaking news on TV might be shifting your mind away from work, but it’s not allowing you to recover. As HR professionals, we can encourage recovery and resilience in our own lives and in the lives of our employees.
Work-life balance needs to become a part of your organization’s culture if it isn’t already. And we don’t just mean that it’s printed on a poster that hangs in the break room. What is the unstated culture of your company? Are employees praised and rewarded for staying late or working after hours? Are individuals expected to answer emails at 10:00 PM? All of this communicates your organization’s culture.
Be sure that managers set fair and transparent expectations with their employees. Here at BambooHR, work-life balance is a focus within our culture. Employees and managers alike encourage each other to disconnect while at home. As our website states, “Do great work.Then go home.”
Paid Time Off
Of course, the best way to recharge from work is to not work! While employees should be able to recover each night away from the office, sometimes a more substantial break is necessary. According to Glassdoor, the average American employee who was eligible for PTO only used 54 percent of their available time in the last year. And of those employees who did take vacations, 66 percent admitted to working during that time.
The benefits of vacations are well documented, especially in the fight against burnout. That’s why we offer a paid paid vacation benefit to all of our employees each year. Enabling employees to not only use their time off but to use it in amazing ways, helps them fully recover from work during a vacation. They’ll return with more energy and enthusiasm, and as a result, produce much better work.
If you do start to notice red flags of burnout in an employee, you may need to take more specific, immediate action. An effective performance management system can be a natural tool for checking in with employees and solving problems as they arise. Managers should be meeting with their team members on a regular basis anyway, and these one-on-ones are an excellent way to gauge their engagement.
Instead of focusing the conversation solely on performance wins or goals for improvement, think of it as an opportunity to exchange feedback and consider individual needs. After all, simple communication can solve a lot of problems—including burnout.
When we treat burnout as the serious, complex condition it is, we can begin to uproot it at its source. It’s not just exhaustion, cynicism, inefficacy, or loneliness on its own. It can be all of these at once. And it could be costing your organization more than you know. Check in with your employees, create a culture of balance and understanding, and perhaps we can turn this epidemic into a trend of the past.