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.