Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People

In the post-pandemic workplace, burnout seems to be higher than ever. According to a recent study from Indeed, which then compared its results to that of a similar January 2020 study completed right before COVID-19 struck, burnout’s on the rise.

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While many people attribute the rise in burnout to the pandemic and its effects on individual workers, there’s also an element that’s not often talked or thought about: Burnout isn’t just an individual medical condition. It’s actually an occupational phenomenon. It's even listed as such in the “11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases,” and recognized in the same way by the World Health Organization (WHO).


Approximately 52% more respondents indicate that they’re experiencing burnout in 2021, compared to 43% the year before. Millennials appear to be suffering burnout in the highest numbers, with 59% of millennial respondents reporting that they’re experiencing burnout. Gen Z workers (58%), Gen-Xers (54%) are just a little bit behind, with Baby Boomers (31%) also struggling.

In decades past, everyone considered burnout to be a problem of the people. Now, there’s growing evidence that suggests that the responsibility for preventing and managing burnout should no longer be on the individual's shoulders. Instead, leaders must stand up, take notice and start creating a strategy to combat the ripple effect that burnout can have not just on employees but the organization as a whole.


Recognizing the Signs


The term has been around since the 70s, with the WHO announcing in 2019 that it was an occupational phenomenon — a reason that people seek healthcare that isn't classified as an illness or condition. This has created a frenzy of debate about what it is, who should be responsible and how to prevent it. Although burnout places significant strain on mental health, the WHO's working guidance indicates that the conversation surrounding burnout isn't about playing the blame game. It’s about your workplace, but it’s not about liability.


Instead, it's about the importance of employee well-being and the potential costs associated with ignoring it. Before you can start creating a strategy, it’s important to understand the phenomenon and potential signs, which include mental and physical symptoms like:


  • Increased cynicism at work about working conditions and coworkers

  • Increased emotional distance and decreased participation in work-related activities

  • Feeling numb about work, lacking satisfaction from activities that previously brought it and/or achievements

  • Increased impatience and irritability with clients and coworkers

  • Feeling drained, exhausted and a lack of enough energy to perform job requirements

  • Decreased job performance, difficulty concentrating and loss of creativity

  • Physical symptoms like stomach and intestinal problems, headaches


For many, the signs and symptoms of burnout goes beyond the workplace. Difficulty sleeping and an increased risk of depression can also leave individuals floundering in all aspects of their lives.


What Causes Burnout?


High levels of workplace stress don’t inevitably lead to burnout. How that stress is managed, however, can be very telling. Some of the main causes of burnout boil down to five issues: Lack of control, unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, dysfunctional dynamics and a lack of support.


Lack of Control


Not having the ability to contribute to the decisions that directly impact their jobs can increase the odds of employee burnout. For example, having no say in things like their schedules, workload and types of assignments can increase stress and the odds of burnout.


Unfair Treatment


Elements like mistreatment from coworkers, favoritism and unfair compensation play a significant role in causing burnout. Research suggests that those workers who feel like they're not treated fairly are more than twice as likely to experience high levels of burnout.


Unmanageable Workloads


No one can work at 150% all the time. Even the most chipper, optimistic employees will start to feel worn down, overwhelmed and hopeless if they don't feel like they can manage the amount of work on their plates.


Dysfunctional Dynamics


Feeling undermined, micromanaged and bullied create stress that can be difficult to manage. Additionally, a lack of clarity about the role can exhaust employees. Research suggests that 40% of employees don't know exactly what their employers expect of them, leaving them spinning their wheels while trying to determine what they should be doing.


Lack of Support


This is a two-fold problem. First, employees who feel isolated at work because they don't have adequate social support often feel increased stress. However, getting ample communication and support from managers and leaders can provide a psychological buffer. Workers who don't receive that are approximately 70% more likely to experience burnout.


The Costs of Burnout are Higher Than You May Think


Researchers at Stanford University found that workplace stress accounts for approximately 8% of the amount healthcare costs in America -- a total of nearly $190 billion. It also accounts for nearly 120,000 deaths annually. Depression and anxiety, which affects approximately 615 million people globally costs the worldwide workforce somewhere around $1 trillion every year in lost productivity. Among those most at risk of burnout, suicide rates soar.


For companies that don't have the strategies and systems in place to support employee health and well being, the costs come in three forms: high healthcare costs, low productivity and high turnover. Employees who are burned out are 2.6 times more likely to be looking for a new job and 63% more likely to take sick days according to a study from the American Psychological Association.


What Can You Do?


Clearly, burnout is a major issue and experts like psychologist Christina Maslach, who helped create the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which measures burnout, suggest that it's not about what's wrong with people. Burnout is about what's wrong with organizations. And it's each company's responsibility to address it head-on.


Assess working conditions


Be cognizant of what your work environment may lack that could help employees flourish. Also, note what people need to make it safer and easier to be productive and motivated.


Consider the Motivation-Hygiene Theory


Created by Frederick Herzberg, this theory states that employees need two things to remain satisfied: Motivation factors and hygiene factors. Motivation factors include being recognized for achievements, having challenging work, getting opportunities to participate in decision-making and feeling like you're important to the company. Hygiene factors include elements like supervision, status, security, salary and working conditions.


Ask Questions


The best way to assess what's going on in your company is to ask the right questions. Start with small groups or teams, asking, "If our budget was X and we could spend it on Y items for the department, what would be the priorities?" Or you can take surveys to gauge employee sentiment. The most important thing is to ask the questions that will give you insight into what's not currently working.


Prioritize Employee Wellness


What wellness means today is different than it might have a few years ago. Flexible schedules, mental health resources and wellness programs have become increasingly popular in the post-pandemic workplace. Providing employees with tools and outlets to better cope with stress can help prevent burnout. Just remember, the onus is on you, not your people.


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