Burnout in the workplace is real. It’s pervasive, and it has serious implications for individuals and the companies they work for. Chances are, some of your employees are silently suffering from it, either not knowing that they have burnt out or are hiding it to keep their jobs.
While prevention and treatment of burnout depend to a certain extent on the individual, businesses need to take the lead in developing anti-burnout strategies that move beyond apps, wellness programmes and perks. They have to acknowledge their role in worker burnout, take steps to prevent it, and provide a solution-based framework to help those already affected.
We take a closer look at exactly what workplace burnout is and the measures leaders can take – from upskilling employees to developing empathetic leaders – to ensure their employees remain happy, healthy and productive.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently redefined burnout as a syndrome that ‘refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ The WHO has now officially recognised burnout as a medical diagnosis.
Burnout is not a new phenomenon; during the second half of the nineteenth century, the condition was described as nervous exhaustion associated with the demands of urban life, called neurasthenia or ‘Americanitis’. The term itself was first described in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.
Freudenberger defined burnout as ‘the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.’ In the 1990s, the Japanese started using the term ‘karoshi’ to refer to an extreme form of burnout, where people literally work themselves to death.
Statistics from 2019 show the hotel, food services, and hospitality industries have the highest burnout rate worldwide (80%), followed by the manufacturing and medical and healthcare industries (76%). New research also reports 86% of employees who work remotely full-time experience burnout. And burnout also affects leaders; according to the Global Leadership Forecast 2021, 60% of leaders feel ‘used up’ at the end of the workday – a strong indicator of burnout.
Burnout has a profound impact on the health of employees, their future ability to work, and the workplace, where it decreases productivity and leads to absenteeism and high staff turnover.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
A recent study by the WHO found that, globally, 745,000 people died from stroke and ischemic heart disease as a direct result of having worked excessive hours – 55 hours a week or more. Other research points to burnout leading to substance abuse and illnesses such as insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure and poor immune function (getting sick more often). This highlights the importance of identifying the signs and symptoms of burnout before they manifest as debilitating health conditions.
When an employee is burnt out, their mental state is often described in studies as emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, disengaged, irritable, stressed and withdrawn. They will participate and contribute less, become combative and argumentative, speak negatively about the company, and will no longer be open to feedback. Those in human service occupations additionally suffer from ‘depersonalisation’, or mental apathy, which manifests as negative attitudes towards clients and others.
Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic, says the following factors lead to employees hitting the wall and checking out:
- Overwork and unsustainable workloads
- Lack of empathy and active listening
- Discriminatory behaviour
- Feeling the need to be constantly connected to work
- Lack of community and support tools
- Micromanagement with an overemphasis on being productive
- Loneliness and disconnection in remote workers
- Values mismatch between employee and company
- Lack of rewards, from public praise to incentives
- Wage gaps/discrepancies in pay among people in the same job
- Lack of opportunities for development and training
- External stressors such as the economy and socio-political issues
What are the solutions to burnout?
Stellenbosch University law professor Karin Calitz says burnout is ‘cutting a swathe through the SA workforce, but its victims are on the back foot because no law covers their psychological safety’. She’s urging the Department of Labour’s Compensation Fund – which doesn’t currently cover any mental conditions – to protect burnout victims through formalising measures such as a 40-hour or four-day work week, a national code on the ‘right to disconnect’ by ignoring after-hours WhatsApps and e-mails, extended sick leave for burnout victims, and by funding psychotherapy for those affected.
That said, the employee does have the responsibility to guard against personal burnout by speaking out, seeking help, practising self-care and setting boundaries. At the same time, the onus is on employers to create a healthy working environment. Here’s how they can help:
- Provide flexible work options
- Be clear on goals and expectations
- Encourage time off
- Create clarity, vision, purpose and consistency to manage changes
- Offer workplace wellness programmes
- Give regular feedback
- Lead with empathy
- Ensure employees have all the resources they need
- Help employees set priorities
- Create (anonymous) feedback channels
- Establish Diversity and Inclusion policies
- Provide upskilling opportunities to develop talent
Ways that upskilling can help employees avoid burnout
To combat burnout, many companies are turning to upskilling – providing employees with additional training and education to help them improve their skills and advance their careers – as a way to avoid the pitfalls of overwork. Learning, development and career progression create a sense of being invested in and valued. Here are other ways it benefits employees and prevents burnout:
Increased confidence and job satisfaction – When they have the skills and knowledge needed to do their jobs well, employees are more likely to feel confident in their abilities and stay engaged and motivated.
Improved time management and productivity – By gaining new and relevant skills, employees work more efficiently and effectively, which helps them get more done in less time.
Increased job security – When employees have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their roles, they are more likely to feel secure and content.
Enhanced career opportunities – Employees with up-to-date skills and knowledge are more likely to be considered for career advancement opportunities.
Beat burnout by upskilling your employees
Burnout doesn’t stem from personal failing; instead, it signals a workplace in need of change. To combat burnout, leaders must understand its causes and effects and give their teams the support they need. Our leadership courses empower those in management to lead with intention and empathy – soft skills essential to employee retention and happiness.
Through MasterStart’s high-quality career-focused programmes, companies can build a learning culture that encourages employees to pursue personal and professional growth while providing regular intellectual challenges, all of which will help to prevent burnout.