6 Causes of Employee Burnout Risk and How to Prevent Them

Employee burnout is one of the biggest threats to employee engagement and wellbeing. By using the Areas of Worklife Survey, businesses can create a shared understanding of what leads to burnout and how to create a culture that promotes a positive employee experience.

This article was updated to reflect new information on September 21, 2022.

Employee burnout is a reality of any work environment. Regardless of how inclusive your workplace is, employees will still feel the effects of burnout, whether due to stressors outside of work, exhaustion with their current workload, periods of economic uncertainty, difficulties with mental health, or any other number of factors. As employers and employees it’s our responsibility to provide everyone the support they need at work, and minimize the negative impacts of workplace stress. 

For businesses that don’t have the right safeguards in place, employees are voting with their feet. Our 2021 report “The Great Regeneration: Turning the Tide on Employee Resignations” found that 27% of employees had engagement scores that indicated they were at a high risk of attrition. But how can businesses increase engagement and reduce burnout risk when there are so many potential factors at play, some of which extend outside of work?

The first step is taking stock of the current burnout risk. Using the Areas of Worklife Survey, a renowned assessment designed to evaluate employee perceptions around their working life, businesses can better understand what workplace factors contribute to burnout and how best to prevent unnecessary risk. In their research, Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach identified six focus areas for assessing potential burnout risk:

  • Workload.
  • Control.
  • Reward.
  • Community.
  • Fairness.
  • Values.

Taken in isolation, each of these factors is important. But together they unlock the key to supporting at-risk employees and making meaningful changes for the future. Over the course of this article, we’ll provide a working definition for employee burnout and outline the impact burnout has on key performance indicators, before doing a deep dive into each of the above topics. In doing so, we’ll provide you with a theoretical framework you can apply to your own organization, ensuring your employees recognize they aren’t solely there to work—they’re part of a community. 

What Is Employee Burnout?

First coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, employee burnout refers to a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can lead to reduced employee engagement, increased cynicism, and an inability to complete normal day-to-day activities. Significantly, it doesn’t only impact employees during working hours—it can take a toll on their life outside of work as well. 

When employees feel unheard and overworked, it’s not only their morale and sense of wellbeing that is affected—it’s the entire business.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. The organization defines it as: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” In categorizing it, the WHO points to three essential characteristics:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job and feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

This clinical definition of burnout emphasizes how critical it is that businesses take it seriously. However, it’s important that we distinguish between clinical burnout, which would require assessment by a trained medical professional, and burnout risk, which is assessed through workplace experience-based indicators. Not only do such surveys help identify employees who are in need of professional support, they also help prevent future burnout. That’s why the bond between employer and employee is so vital. 

The Relationship Between Burnout and Engagement at Work

If you’re familiar with employee engagement surveys, you might have noticed a parallel between the way engagement is measured and the six factors for identifying burnout risk. Much like burnout surveys, engagement surveys typically ask employees how they feel about a variety of different workplace factors, from their feelings of accomplishment to their relationships with peers. That conceptual overlap means that engagement scores and measures for burnout risk have a strong correlation. 

While burnout was once positioned as the yin to engagement’s yang, we now recognize that engagement and burnout are independent states rather than two separate poles, each benefiting from individual study. But the two are inextricably tied. The definition of an engaged employee—someone who feels enabled to do their best work and actively advocates for the business—runs counter to an employee at risk of burnout—someone who is emotionally distanced from their work and struggles to contribute. 

That means that we should consider each of the factors contributing to burnout risk in parallel with employee engagement. Are you measuring engagement currently? What areas are your employees discussing? And what initiatives have you taken to improve employee engagement? The answers to those questions will be decisive in developing a corresponding strategy for tackling employee burnout. 

For a more comprehensive overview of employee engagement, read our introduction to employee engagement

What Is the Impact of Employee Burnout?

Since burnout can affect every employee differently, the impacts can be simultaneously widespread and unpredictable. When employees feel unheard and overworked, it’s not only their morale and sense of wellbeing that is affected—it’s the entire business. 

According to a landmark WHO study “Mental Health in the Workplace,” workers struggling with employee burnout and mental health issues potentially cost the global workforce $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. And while putting a financial figure on burnout shouldn’t overshadow the personal difficulties employees who are burned out face, it serves to underline the severity of the crisis—especially as businesses face times of economic uncertainty. 

If we move from a global view, we can further see how potential burnout risk changes from industry to industry, emphasizing the need for businesses to take a personalized approach to reducing burnout risk. Industries that saw workers on the front line during the pandemic are still dealing with the repercussions, while other businesses are facing new issues raised by remote work, the potential danger of recession, and increased employee expectations. 

Correspondingly, our report “Addressing Employee Burnout Risk in 2022” found a huge disparity between industries in terms of burnout risk. Of the companies analyzed, 60% of those in the transportation industry, 54% in government, and 50% in manufacturing had a high risk of burnout, versus only 20% in financial services and 13% in technology.

Unsurprisingly, burnout can also be influenced on a region-to-region basis, a further indication of the extenuating factors at play. It’s not surprising to see the UK at the top given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the impact of Brexit, with 41% in the high-risk category, while Denmark’s 11% at-risk figure is unsurprising given the consistently high quality of life and corporate safeguarding of employee work-life balance there. 

What’s important is that companies are listening. Four out of five human resources (HR) leaders consider health and wellbeing a top priority for their organization, according to the 2022 McKinsey Health and Wellbeing Survey. However, McKinsey also observed that the root causes of poor employee wellbeing aren’t a lack of wellness resources—they’re organizational-level issues. Addressing these shortcomings has to be a No. 1 priority for companies. 

How Do You Prevent Employee Burnout Risk?

No individual employee is the same as another, which means there can be a huge amount of variance in burnout risk and severity. Regardless, certain factors recur far more frequently than others. In the aforementioned McKinsey Health and Wellbeing Survey, employees most often cited “the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support” as the main reasons behind burnout. 

That means that the causes behind burnout risk are mostly found at the organization level. 

To better identify burnout risk, Maslach and Leiter developed a framework that identifies how well matched (or in the case of employee burnout, mismatched) someone is with six different areas of employee experience. While there are many alternate means for identifying burnout risk, for our purposes these areas provide a robust framework for assessing workplace risk. 

We’ve highlighted each of those areas below, along with suggestions for how to reduce stress, prioritize employee mental health, and alleviate burnout risk. By not only identifying potential issues but also creating corresponding solutions that foreground your employees and their needs, you can help people feel more engaged, reduce burnout risk, and build a better sense of community within your organization.

1. Burnout Risk: Overwhelming Workload

For most employees, their workload is unlikely to be consistent during their career. There will be periods of high stress, boredom, and unexpected change, especially during times of economic uncertainty. What matters is the freedom that employees are given to manage their workload and the support they receive from their people leaders. Workload only becomes overwhelming when an employee feels they can’t communicate their needs or the stressors they are facing.

Unrealistic expectations and conflicting priorities make it impossible to manage a heavy workload, dramatically increasing the risk of employee burnout. A workload mismatch can also result from employees being pushed to do the wrong kind of work, which usually happens when people lack the skills or inclination for a certain type of work. Even work that’s only required in small doses can increase burnout risk if the person finds they are incompatible with it, especially if it’s outside of their job specifications.

Preventing Workload-Related Burnout Risk

Managing workload is about more than hiring additional staff. Managers need to be proactive in communicating with their employees to account for their individual needs and ensure their workload is aligned with their job role and personal work patterns. Here are four effective actions for addressing burnout risk:

  • Set clear priorities and goals for team members at the start of the week. Instead of letting people work through an endless to-do list, get them to highlight at least one point of focus for that week, and no more than three—any more risks increased pressure. Not only will you get a better oversight on any potential problem projects, you can also better distribute existing work. 

  • Schedule regular catch-ups to check progress and highlight blockers. Daily stand-ups can also be an effective way to stay on track and break down bigger projects. When working remotely, create a thread via email or an instant messaging profile where people can share information and make roadblocks visible, and add any notes directly onto shared documents.

  • Don’t overload your employees with too many tasks at once. In a study of 1,100 workers, University of London researchers found that multitasking during cognitive tasks caused a greater decrease in IQ than losing a night’s sleep, so give employees time to focus on just one thing. A chaotic schedule is far more likely to lead to employee burnout.

  • Be realistic. Some projects take longer than expected and it’s impossible for people to succeed at absolutely everything. If you’re in regular communication with your team members, it’s far easier to plan for unexpected delays and reprioritize as needed.

2. Burnout Risk: Lack of Control and Agency

When employees have limited responsibility and agency, they also feel undervalued. Not having control over the resources necessary to do your job or how that work is executed can contribute to stress in the workplace. It’s important that people have the freedom to pursue their work in what they believe is the most effective manner—if an employee was hired for a specific role, they should be trusted to perform the full extent of that position.

Workload only becomes overwhelming when an employee feels they can’t communicate their needs or the stressors they are facing.

New employees and recently promoted managers may also feel overwhelmed by their newfound level of responsibility—especially when they’re committed to producing results but feel they lack the freedom to get the job done their way. Onboarding remotely has only exacerbated that, leading to scenarios where employees have a high degree of manager oversight but limited direct contact.

Providing Employees Control Over Their Work Life

Ensuring that employees feel trusted without being isolated is a careful balancing act. The solution? Finding the sweet spot between support and autonomy:

  • Outline exactly what’s expected of someone in their role and discern if they need any additional training or support. New employees should have a clear plan for the first 30 days—you could even use a 30-60-90-day plan to provide coherent goals across their first three months. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, consider how needs may change depending on their role and work location.

  • Give people clear deliverables and let them decide the best way to complete their tasks. By aiming at a shared key result rather than policing personal progress, you provide employees with freedom while maintaining quality. It’s also important to keep an open line of communication and get regular feedback from your direct reports so you can take action as it’s needed.

  • If you know someone is a creative thinker, don’t overload them with spreadsheets and other analytical tasks. Pushing an employee to leave their comfort zone can be important for growth and development, but it’s important to avoid overwhelming people with tasks and projects that are a bad fit. Giving employees greater control over the way they work should extend to the style of work as well. 

3. Burnout Risk: Insufficient Rewards and Recognition

People may come to work for a lot of different reasons—to expand their professional skills, to meet people outside of their existing circles, and to contribute to wider society—but chief among them is getting paid. Unsurprisingly, paying your people a reasonable salary is an important part of lowering employee burnout risk—especially as we face uncertain economic times.  

But there is a caveat. 

As demonstrated in Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory, insufficient extrinsic rewards—such as poor salary, bonuses, and benefits—can have a negative effect on employee motivation. However, extrinsic rewards on their own won’t raise people’s motivation past a certain level—which is why companies need to prioritize recognition as well. Lack of recognition devalues both the work and the workers, while also impacting intrinsic motivation, such as an employee’s pride in executing a project well.

Preventing Employee Burnout Risk With the Right Rewards

First and foremost, it’s important that your employees are paid fairly, but after that, recognition is the most effective way to have a positive impact on performance. According to Deloitte, productivity and performance are 14% higher in organizations with an employee recognition program than those without.

Offering more financial rewards is a fairly straightforward process, but social rewards take work:

  • Recognize people for specific actions, results, or behaviors. If you set a goal or target, it’s important that reaching that goal is acknowledged, especially on an individual basis. If someone goes above and beyond for a customer or over-delivers on their quarterly target, bring it up in your next one-to-one—or even in a community communication channel, if that would be appropriate.

  • Share stories, not just feedback. It’s important to recognize people for a job well done, but providing it as part of a structured story (especially if it comes from a peer) helps promote positive behaviors. A simple thanks goes a long way, but a structured response communicates far more value.

  • Make it easy to provide feedback. Recognition has to run both ways for it to be effective. If employees don’t have the opportunity to provide feedback, then smaller moments that matter internally will get missed. Whether it’s through regular employee surveys or a dedicated platform, enabling colleagues to recognize and even reward each other is crucial.

4. Burnout Risk: Poor Sense of Community

Part of what makes recognition such an important part of the reward process is the fact that it promotes a more positive and supportive work community. According to our global survey report of 1,150 senior executives “Closing the Acceleration Gap: Toward Sustainable Digital Transformation,” 39% of CEOs said that cultural barriers were their biggest transformation blocker. Dissolving those barriers involves creating a closer-knit community.

"Building engagement is the best approach to preventing burnout."

Christina Maslach Social Psychologist

Physical office environments that don’t easily enable collaboration can be a common source of stress in the workplace—a particularly tricky prospect when so many of us are working separately. Likewise, if teams have poor methods of communication in place or only discuss work, you’ll likely be left with a poor sense of community. Where communication has badly broken down, you may even have unidentified pockets of unresolved conflict between colleagues—a particularly notable burnout risk. So what can businesses do?

Promoting Community, Preventing Burnout Risk

Creating a community at work has to occur organically and certainly doesn’t happen overnight—although the framework necessary for it to grow takes direct action. Business leaders should give thought and consideration to how each foundational aspect of the business can help foster collaboration and social opportunity:

  • Lead by example—get to know your employees. You can’t expect to build a community at work if you don’t make an effort to get to know people yourself. Promote an atmosphere where hierarchies only indicate responsibility and professional stature rather than social standing, encouraging different departments to mix. 

  • Acknowledge things that are happening in people’s personal lives. Learning about your employees’ birthdays, engagements, and other personal events not only shows an active interest in their full selves, it also provides frequent opportunities to show you care by remembering to follow up and check in. 

  • Acknowledge things that are happening in the wider world. Bringing issues and news from the outside world into the workplace can be a tricky prospect, but in some instances it’s completely necessary. Recognizing exterior pressures lets your people know feeling burned out is natural, not a personal failure. After all, the best mitigation of burnout risk comes from employees feeling comfortable discussing their feelings of burnout (and any other mental health issues). 

  • Make time for events and team building. For a long period of time, away days and after-work socials felt like a distant memory, but even when travel isn’t possible, that doesn’t mean your team-building program has to stop in its tracks. Balancing in-person meetups with digital social events isn’t only inclusive, it can help counteract digital meeting fatigue.

5. Burnout Risk: Unfair Policies and Decision-Makers

We all want to be treated fairly. Acting with fairness shows your employees that you respect and value them, which is vital to creating an overall sense of community. Unfairness can occur when there is inequity of workload and pay or poor handling of evaluations, promotions, and grievances. As part of a recent study on burnout stress, Maslach observed, “As demands increase, organizations need to focus on maintaining balance—taking things off the plate when they add something new.” Equity is essential.

There are two essential factors underlying employee perceptions of fairness in the workplace, summarized by a study in the MIT Sloan Management Review: “Trust in decision-making authorities fundamentally shapes employees’ expectations about how they will be treated in the future—in terms of both what the authorities are likely to do and how they will execute their decisions.” Without that trust, burnout risk will only rise. 

How Transparency Deters Employee Burnout Risk

Being fair only has value if employees have visibility over your company processes. Each of the steps below promote better transparency, make procedures more fair, and manage employee expectations:

  • Establish clear rules and be transparent in implementing them. The perceived fairness of procedures and outcomes is often more important than the outcomes themselves—so it’s important to be consistent with how company initiatives are applied. Providing employees with access to key rules and information during onboarding means everything is clear from the start. 

  • Focus on a better process or a better outcome. Ideally you can improve both, but maybe you can only influence the process and not the outcome. If that’s the case, it can still have a significant impact on organizational commitment, especially when you directly announce the changes being made and the reasoning behind them. 

  • Make the effort to understand your employees’ expectations. Ambitions, objectives, and job responsibilities can vary significantly between different people, which is why it’s important to set up time on a one-to-one basis. Don’t press your employees for hard answers—instead, help them create their own company roadmap for meeting their career expectations. 

  • Continuously monitor employee engagement and share the results. When you gather employee data, it’s important that employees have visibility on the actions that are taken. Share employee engagement results transparently across the company and collaborate on better solutions. That should help prevent a disconnect between experience and expectation in future.

6. Burnout Risk: Conflict of Values

Creating a good company culture isn’t about working with people who like the same music or support the same sports teams as you. It’s about identifying your core company values and living by them. It’s about following diverse hiring practices and ensuring you enable a sense of belonging. And it’s about ensuring that your employees have space to share their own personal values and evolve the company in the process.

People can also get caught between conflicting company values. Pay attention to whether your values are as good in practice as they sound on paper—a lofty mission statement serves no function if it’s disconnected from the way a company actually does business. If your values can’t be connected to your business practices, initiatives, and projects, then it’s time to reevaluate them. 

Company Values and Employee Burnout Risk

If you want your employees to feel an affinity to your company values, you have to believe in them yourself. Here are four steps to make sure your organization is living its values:

  • Lead by example. Do you know your company values? Can you explain them to a new employee? If not, you might not be doing a great job of leading by example. Without practical examples of how those values connect to everyday work life, it’s unlikely that the values will sink in. 

  • Make your values part of the hiring process. Skills and experience are important, but what use are talented people if they don’t align with your company’s approach and ethos? Hiring with your values in mind helps to reinforce company values with every new hire, consolidating their importance at a foundational level. 

  • Reinforce the company values in your communications. Mention your values at all-team meetings, in your internal newsletter, and anywhere else people will see them. Once again, make sure that you aren’t solely reiterating the values—tie them to recent business successes and new initiatives that might be in the pipeline. 

  • Reward employees who embody company values. Implement an internal peer voting system or messaging platform that encourages people to share stories about value-centric behaviors within the business. Those stories don’t only foreground wins and areas for improvement, they’re also great for improving the sense of community—mention them in all-team meetings and company newsletters.

Improve Employee Engagement, Reduce Burnout Risk

What each of the above factors have in common is that positive action is just as critical as tackling negative issues. Overcoming employee burnout risk requires responding to issues when employees raise them and being proactive in improving overall employee engagement, too. Companies may no longer work from a fixed site, but they should have a consistent sense of community and support. 

We’re currently living through one of the most testing periods in history for employee burnout. Of the 10 industries analyzed in our report “Addressing Employee Burnout Risk in 2022,” seven either maintained or saw increased levels of burnout risk between 2021 and 2022. With more employees turning to their employers for support, it’s never been more important for leaders and managers to listen to the needs of their workers and to make them feel heard. 

In the words of Christina Maslach for The European Health Psychologist, “Building engagement is the best approach to preventing burnout. People who are engaged with their work are better able to cope with the challenges they encounter, and thus are more likely to recover from stress. So building an engaged workforce, before there are major problems, is a great prevention strategy.” 

Highly engaged employees aren’t only at lower risk of burnout, they’re also more able to bring their full selves to work. In a comparison of top- and bottom-quartile business units for engagement, Gallup found an 81% decrease in absenteeism, a 43% decrease in turnover for low-turnover organizations, and a 23% increase in profitability. When businesses make a concerted effort to improve employee retention, wellbeing, and engagement, they promote a working environment where stigmas around mental health disappear and those struggling with burnout speak up. That’s the true benefit of tackling burnout risk.

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