Employee Burnout - How to Combat the Inevitable

The rise in burnout is threatening to erode workplace mental health. What’s driving the increase in burnout? And how can companies create a healthier work environment? Over the past two years, workers have had to learn to do their jobs and collaborate remotely. Parents became de facto teachers while juggling their work responsibilities. As the great resignation picked up speed, workloads increased as colleagues left for other opportunities while those who remained were made to pick up the slack. At the same time, a never-ending news cycle of troubling world events, rising inflation, and general uncertainty have had us all on edge. Those extraordinary experiences we all went through have been taking a toll. Stress and burnout are on the rise, and a growing number of people feel that their employers don’t care about their well-being. 

Many employees feel like they’re not being heard. 

Just 24 percent of U.S. workers feel their employer cares about their well-being, according to a February 2022 Gallup survey of 15,001 people. That’s the lowest level in almost a decade. Interestingly, that stat peaked at 49 percent in May 2020, up from 29 percent in 2019, before the pandemic. The likely conclusion: Workers were generally satisfied with how their employers handled the initial waves of the pandemic—but those sentiments rapidly faded by 2022. As companies roll out their hybrid work strategies, it’s important that they understand employee burnout and look for ways to support their employees.

What is burnout and how does it impact mental health in the workplace? 

Burnout is a syndrome that results from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, according to the World Health Organization. Between the stresses brought on by working through a pandemic and the increased hours workers are devoting to their jobs, it’s not hard to identify where this stress might be coming from. Burnout is not a medical condition, but it does have the potential to negatively impact mental and physical health. It can lead to elevated levels of anxiety and depression, lack of sleep, increased fatigue, and many other issues. What makes burnout especially tough to manage is that it affects the most dedicated employees. Typically these employees take on more responsibilities, work longer hours, and have higher levels of job-related stress. Over time, their dedication and lack of balance outside of work can backfire. They easily end up with more responsibilities as supervisors recognize their effectiveness. 

But sometimes wages, recognition, and opportunities for advancement don’t keep pace. Those dealing with burnout typically exhibit three common characteristics: Physical exhaustion: Chronic feelings of energy depletion, fatigue, and exhaustion are some of the most common signs of burnout. These employees start the day feeling depleted of energy and end the workday by crashing on the couch or going straight to bed. Cynicism: People experiencing burnout often feel an increased mental distance from their job, characterized by feelings of negativity or cynicism. They doubt the importance of their work and wonder if anything they do really matters. Professional efficacy: The third and perhaps most troubling characteristic of burnout is a reduced sense of personal efficacy. No matter how successful, productive, or effective a person is at their work, they grow increasingly convinced that their work doesn’t make an impact and eventually begin to feel incapable of completing even the most mundane tasks.

Workplace stress and burnout go hand in hand. 

Burnout is not a new issue for workers, and while the pandemic didn’t cause the problem, it certainly didn’t help. Feelings of burnout increased from 43 percent in January 2020, before the pandemic, to 52 percent in 2021, according to a survey of 1,500 U.S. workers conducted by Indeed in early 2021. The survey also indicated a greater awareness of the problem, with 67 percent of respondents saying burnout increased since the start of the pandemic. 79% reported experiencing work-related stress. 

In a 2022 report, the American Psychological Association found that both issues were at an all-time high across all professions: 79 percent of the 1,501 U.S. workers surveyed in late 2021 reported experiencing work-related stress in the past month, with 3 out of 5 reporting negative impacts on their life and work. Of those, 36 percent reported cognitive weariness, 32 percent reported emotional exhaustion, and 44 percent reported physical fatigue—all tell-tale signs of burnout. Indicative of the sharp increase in burnout, those reporting physical fatigue jumped to 44 percent, a 38 percent increase since the survey was last conducted in 2019. Chronic burnout also impacts job performance as long hours, overwork, and high stress erode mental health. A 2019 Gallup survey of 12,658 full-time employees across the U.S. found that those experiencing high levels of burnout were 63 percent more likely to take a sick day, 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room, and were 2.6 times as likely to leave their job. 

What can companies do to help? 

There are a number of things companies can do to address employee burnout and support workplace mental health. First, it’s important for companies to take a proactive approach and address the issue head-on. This can be done by conducting regular check-ins with employees, promoting a healthy work-life balance, and providing resources and support for those dealing with stress or burnout. Second, companies should consider offering flexible work arrangements. This could mean anything from allowing employees to work from home a couple days a week to offering more flexible hours. Third, companies should create a culture of open communication where employees feel like they can voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. This can be done by establishing an anonymous reporting system for employees to share their experiences with management. Finally, companies should provide employees with access to mental health resources, such as counseling services, support groups, and employee assistance programs. The pandemic has shined a light on the importance of workplace mental health. As we begin to return to the office, it’s important that companies take steps to address employee burnout and create a healthy work environment.

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