The Rise of Employee Burnout

Burnout — we talk about it a lot and for good reason. Businesses first became aware of burnout when the term was coined in the 1970s in the book The High Cost of High Success by Herbert Freudenberger and Geraldine Richelson. Freudenberger compares a burnt out person to a burnt out building; while it may look whole from the outside, the inside is in ruins.

This is exactly what burnout does. On the surface, your workers may appear to be functioning normally and plugging along with their work, but underneath, they are disassociated and depressed. A burnt-out worker will first show signs of mental and physical fatigue. Productivity will slow as workers become less and less engaged with their work and the company. Emotions can range from depression to anger to resentment and beyond. Eventually, the mental stresses of burnout will manifest in physical symptoms and can lead to absenteeism and high employee turnaround.

Why is this happening? I’m glad you asked. The easiest answer is simply the changes that come with economic and social development. More jobs, more competition, and an increased emphasis on getting ahead in business and in life are pushing people to work longer hours and sacrifice their work/life balance for the sake of their career.

Competition for jobs and promotions is fierce and corporate culture is not helping to change this. One corporation even sent out an email encouraging employees to bring pillows so they could sleep under their desks because they wouldn’t have time to go home if they wanted to complete their internship.1 This type of attitude leads directly to burnout.

Another contributor to burnout is technology. Now more than ever it’s easier to stay connected to the office 24/7. While some people are working to change this, checking emails and communicating after work is a new norm for most industries. It’s the same with vacations. Two in three American workers (66%) say they do at least a little bit of work on their vacations.2 This is a steady rise from the 61% reported three years ago.

The biggest problem with burnout is that there is no magical solution to avoiding it. If you really want to combat burnout and its effects on your workers and company, you need to change your corporate culture starting from the bottom up. First, explore how prevalent burnout is in your company by speaking with your employees. Use tools such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a questionnaire that looks at 22 aspects of workers’ lives to determine their current level of or potential for burnout. Once you know what employees want and need, you can start crafting a plan.

Your plan may include education, company-wide training in stress management, or the addition of an employee assistance program. You could consider switching to flexible work hours or offer telecommuting. New mental wellness benefits should be added to your company offerings to support workers’ mental health. And, of course, you need to emphasize travel and getting away from the stressors of the office.

Managers and bosses should be clear on how to request days off and actively encourage employees to take their PTO. Time off work is shown to not only combat burnout but also boost productivity and increase overall happiness. Ensure workers that they will not be contacted while out of the office and stick to your promises. If your employees need assistance in taking time off, choose additional benefits like Taab which help workers make the most of their PTO.

Rates of burnout are still rising. A recent poll indicated 23% of people feel burnt out “very often” and an additional 44% feel burnt out “sometimes.”3 In order to combat the increasing rates of burnout, you need to change your corporate culture to reflect an attitude of balance and relaxation and encourage your employees to take time off for rest and vacation.