Defining Employee Burnout

Everywhere you look, you hear about employee burnout, but what does this really mean? Isn’t burnout just a problem with employees losing motivation? Short answer, no. Burnout is a serious workplace hazard that you need to be on the lookout for.

Over 80% of workers report feeling stress as a result of their job and 25% list work as their number one life stressor.1 It’s no secret that stress has serious physical and mental health repercussions. The Japanese even recognize a medical condition called Karoshi, translated loosely into ‘sudden overwork death syndrome.’ All over the world, people are literally working themselves to death.

So what leads to burnout? How do we help employees suffering from it? What can we do to prevent burnout in the future? The biggest key to these questions is understanding what burnout really is.
Defining Burnout
Burnout may have gained major media attention in just the past few years but the term was actually coined back in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger wrote an entire book around the concept and published The High Cost of High Success in 1980 with his co-author Geraldine Richelson. In the book, Freudenberger compares a burnt out person to a burnt out building; while it may look alright from the outside, the inside is hollowed and in ruins.

He calls burnout a “demon born of the society and times we live in.” At the time of his research, Americans were dealing with Vietnam protests, the Watergate scandal, and a renewed emphasis on hard work and long hours to contrast against the ‘lazy hippies’ of the 1960s. Today, workers struggle with similarly turbulent world and domestic politics. There is also pressure to work harder to avoid being seen as ‘lazy millennials.’ It’s no wonder burnout is becoming more and more prevalent.
Where does it come from?
In 2014, a Cornerstone research survey showed 68% of US workers were suffering from work overload, which decreases productivity.2 It’s a vicious cycle. Assigning workers more tasks means more hours at work, which means less getting done every day due to decreased productivity, which means working even longer hours to get their tasks finished, which leads to even further decreased productivity, inaccuracy, irritability… I think you get the idea.

Burdening high-performing employees with too much responsibility can directly lead to burnout. This cycle leaves no time for breaks or vacations which goes directly against a major cause of employee unhappiness. Thirty-two percent of workers said too much overtime/after-hours work was the cause of their burnout. Employees may see their portion of work as larger than anyone else’s which increases pressure and can create resentment.

Your parents probably told you from a young age, life isn’t fair; but when staff perceive unfairness in the workplace, things can go sour. Unfair compensation was cited by 41% of workers as a contributing force to their burnout.3 Money isn’t the best source of motivation for an employee, but if salaries are low, you offer limited benefits, and there’s nothing more to incentivize workers, it may be time to lessen the workload on your employees.

Every individual will experience burnout in their own way and their own time, but workplace culture needs to change if it is to be avoided in the future. Remember, burnt out people are like burnt out buildings; they may look whole and sturdy until you open the door and see the hollowed remains where their fire and passion for work once burned. This is why it is important to recognize the signs of burnout.