When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout an official "occupational phenomenon" in May, it confirmed that burnout is not just a buzzword for feeling stressed at the end of a busy work week. It classified burnout as a serious, widespread health concern.
A 2018 Gallup poll revealed 23% of the 7,500 full-time workers it surveyed feel burned out very often or always. Another 44% of those employees said they are burned out sometimes. That means people on your team, including you, could be battling with burnout right now.
Burnout: Taking its toll on employees and employers
According to WHO's 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, burnout is "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Royston Guest, CEO of Pathways Global and Pti Worldwide founder, put it in simpler terms. "Burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion," Guest told HR Dive in an interview. "It is caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations or scenarios."
While burnout is always caused by stress, not all stress leads to burnout. The intensity of the stress, its duration and how employers and employees handle it determines if it morphs into burnout, Guest said. As lean organizations expect fewer employees to do more work and do it faster, the possibility of burnout is established, he explained.
Burnout causes problems for employees and companies alike. According to a "systematic review aimed to summarize the evidence of the physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout," burnout is a "significant predictor" of conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, depressive symptoms, use of psychotropic and antidepressant medications, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and presenteeism. Burnout affects businesses, too. It results in $125 to $190 billion per year in healthcare costs, according to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Burnout affects employee engagement, productivity, safety, and retention.
Make the business case for addressing burnout
For HR leaders, it can be challenging to get the C-suite to prioritize addressing burnout, Anne Grady, speaker and author on mental illness, told HR Dive. "I was in the HR function for a long time, and it's hard to get a seat at the table and have your voice heard because a lot of times, these issues are perceived as touchy, fluffy, feely," she told HR Dive.
HR leaders may snag the C-suite's attention and make the business case for addressing burnout by presenting research from the numerous studies that demonstrate workplace wellness programs' effectiveness, she said. HR professionals can also poll employees, she added; Instead of conducting an engagement survey, conduct a burnout survey. As companies take steps to improve well-being, they should measure improvements in areas like worker's compensation, employee conflicts or sick days, she said.
Changing culture by changing expectations, communication
Being committed to addressing burnout means intentionally changing the company culture. "Organizations play a massive role from a broader well-being perspective," Guest said. Leaders and managers must be trained to see the signals of stress, he said.
But this isn't always simple. Most signs of burnout are psychological and therefore not outwardly apparent, Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communication for HALO Recognition, told HR Dive in an email. "Many times, employees will hide their symptoms out of fear of repercussions. It really takes regular engagement and check-ins to stay informed about what's going in their lives and how they are feeling to catch all the signs," he said. A workplace culture that prizes kindness and emotional intelligence, sensitivity and openness will serve as a preventative measure against burnout, he added.
Guest suggested companies establish "soft contracts" with employees upon their arrival. These contracts ensure employees know that, if they feel overwhelmed, they can have a conversation with their leaders, who won't see them as weak for speaking up. This acceptance and expectation of vulnerability comes as a "cultural nuance" — a thread running through the organization, Guest said. To reinforce that nuance, leaders need to talk about it regularly.
After the new expectations have been established and communicated, leaders need to follow through. If you see signs that someone is working toward burnout, intervene, Guest added. Although symptoms of burnout can include absenteeism, lack of engagement and taking long lunches, it is also vital to identify when burnout is on the horizon.
When managers observe patterns of behavior indicative of burnout — such as employees working longer hours or skipping lunch — the manager needs to step in, Guest said. Supervisors should ask the employee about the behavior, offer help and consider doing a work analysis to determine how to manage workflow and workloads.
Employers may want to incorporate a discussion of personal well-being into performance reviews, Grady suggested: "Just like you are reviewing whether this person is a team player or a problem solver or an effective communicator, you're measuring things like, are they taking time to disconnect? Are they engaging in whatever self-care you've pre-identified as important to them? Are they doing things regularly to make sure that they're being deliberate rather than reactive in the way they work and the way they live?"
To create this cultural shift, leaders must model the behavior they want to see, Grady said. If a supervisor tells a team to take care of themselves but sends emails at midnight, the supervisor is creating an unintentional (or worse — intentional) expectation that the team should respond, Grady said.
What's more, leaders can't be fully engaged and present nonstop without contracting burnout themselves. If leaders fail to disconnect from work, they will inevitably hit burnout, and they won't be able to heal unless they change the culture they work in, she added.
Creating the best of both worlds
No organization wants to have its employees burn out, but with so much pressure to deliver results immediately, leaders may not feel they can slow down. Some organizations are finding it's worthwhile to make the sacrifice, Grady said. "There are certain progressive tech organizations that are starting to see that when they offer wellness support, they're starting to find that even the highly analytical result-driven folks are getting better results, higher quality, quicker," she said.
Those who can't slow down to change the culture still have options for improvement, Grady said. Companies that focus on building resilience and a growth mindset can create little changes that increase employees' sustainability, even when in a stressful environment, Grady added.
Organizations can address burnout without sacrificing objectives, Guest said. "It is possible if you are conscious and deliberate in thinking about your strategy and what you're trying to achieve, where you can deliver your goals as an organization," Guest said. "And you can do it in the right way, where you are mindful of the well-being of your employees. But it takes effort, it takes focus and it takes the priority."