“It’s exhausting, mentally, emotionally and physically.” This is how Terri Prunti Kay, a cashier at Walmart, describes her experience at work.
Facing an increased workload while worrying over COVID-19 and struggling to enforce social distancing, Terri is burned out.
She isn’t the only one. In a national US poll conducted in August 2020 by Eagle Hill Consulting, 58% of US workers reported burnout, compared to 45% polled in the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020.
But what exactly is burnout? How do you know an employee is burned out?
What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological response to an accumulation of work stress. The main symptoms of burnout are:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Reduced feelings of personal accomplishment
Let’s look deeper into each one.
Emotional exhaustion is a depletion of emotional resources. “Employees who are emotionally exhausted typically feel as though they lack adaptive resources and cannot give any more to their job,” describes this study about burnout in organizations.
Also known as cynicism or depersonalization, disengagement is a response to emotional exhaustion. It describes the process by which employees detach from their jobs and stop caring about their performance, their clients, and their coworkers.
Reduced personal accomplishment
The real or perceived decrease of personal efficacy is another sign of burnout. Employees feel unmotivated or that they are not performing well, whether it is accurate or not.
Common misconceptions about employee burnout
1. Burnout is a personal issue
Companies often treat burnout as a personal issue, but it’s actually an organizational one.
While studies show that personality traits do play a role in burnout—for example, people who are neurotic tend to experience higher emotional exhaustion—in most cases, external circumstances are to blame.
These can include job insecurity, a heavy workload, and a frustrating work routine involving too many meetings and not enough creative work.
The belief that burnout is a personal issue leads to measures that focus on helping individuals develop coping skills — an approach that isn’t always effective if external factors are the basis of the burnout. Research indicates that changes to the work environment are often more successful.
2. Burnout affects service workers only
Burnout doesn’t just plague nurses, teachers, and social workers. Although caregivers are more likely to experience burnout because of what researchers call “inequity in social exchange” — they give more than they take — individuals in non-service occupations can also be affected.
For professionals working remotely, burnout can be a consequence of having to be online at all times, juggling too many priorities, or being expected to use digital tools to multitask and power through excessive workloads. “Multitasking turns out to be exhausting and counterproductive as we switch back and forth between tasks,” writes productivity expert Eric Garton in the Harvard Business Review.
3. Burnout is related to hours worked
Most people think that burnout is a direct consequence of long working hours. Although that is often the case, researchers haven’t found that to be a direct cause.
When it comes to burnout and its relation to time, studies suggest that a work schedule that doesn’t agree with your circadian rhythm or your spouse’s working hours can create just as much, or more, stress than working long shifts.
4. Burnout leads to a reduction in job performance
While this is often true, it isn’t true for all people, as a 1995 study on performance and burnout in intensive care units showed.
The study found that nurses who were burned out believed that they were not performing as well, when in fact others thought they were performing better than usual.
5. Job resources don’t protect against burnout
Job resources — such as feedback and social support — don’t cancel out stressful job demands. An employee who works in an environment where he receives constructive feedback and social support will still experience burnout if they are overworked.
What causes employee burnout
“When we looked inside companies with high burnout rates, we saw three common culprits: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work,” says Eric Garton.
Excessive collaboration happens when there are too many decision makers and decision-making nodes. In organizations that have this problem, endless meetings and teamwork beyond what’s necessary rob employees of time they could spend on complex tasks or relaxing.
A culture of overwork
A company culture that celebrates overwork can cause employee burnout. When employees don’t feel like they can leave the office before dark, call off an unnecessary meeting, or choose not to take a work call over the weekend, they can start feeling depleted.
Overload of the most capable
In companies where hiring has not matched growth, the best employees are often the ones with the biggest workload. This, combined with the constant demand for their knowledge or advice, can quickly drain their resources.
Many other factors can contribute to an accumulation of work stress. Social comparison is one of them. Learning that someone in your position earns more than you do, or is treated better than you are, can be a work stressor. Being excluded or attacked for being diverse is another. Being confronted with the reality of a new job or assignment when your expectations were wildly different can also be a source of anxiety.
Companies can address the issues of excessive collaboration, weak time management, and overloading of the most capable by adopting some of the strategies below.
- Adjusting structures and routines
Determine which meetings are necessary, how frequently they should be scheduled, how long they should last, and who needs to attend.
- Adopting agile principles
Use the agile approach to help team members focus on fewer tasks and get better at prioritizing.
- Establishing new cultural norms
Celebrate work-life balance, not overwork. Encourage employees to pursue hobbies and interests outside of work.
- Giving employees a sense of autonomy
Give employees control over their schedule. Do not micromanage.
- Tracking time
Find out how much time is spent on productive activities and how much is lost in less productive ones. Use tools such as Microsoft Workplace Analytics and Harvest to understand how employee time is spent. Redesign workflows to prevent overwork.
- Making social support available
Design programs and processes to increase job satisfaction and promote mental health. Make counseling services or therapy sessions available and ensure they are covered by the company’s insurance policy.
- Adjusting expectations
Conduct realistic job previews and expectation lowering procedures to adjust the expectations of new hires and expatriates.
Burnout is an organizational issue, not a personal one. Preventing it is only possible using organizational measures, such as redesigning workflows and structures to give employees more autonomy and control over their schedule.
What tactics has your organization implemented to deal with burnout?
For science-backed ideas on how to motivate a team, check out How to Motivate a Recruiting Team, which applies to teams in all industries, not just recruiting.