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6 Ways Your Workplace Culture Can Cause (Or Prevent) Employee Burnout

After over a year of pandemic challenges, employees are more burned out than ever. Before the pandemic, 79% of employees were suffering from burnout. After a year, 58% say the pandemic caused them to feel even more stress at work.

While employee burnout damages the physical and mental health and wellbeing of individual employees, it also impacts your overall workplace culture. Absenteeism, disengagement, and decreased productivity can all weaken a great company culture.

As companies focus on re-energizing their organizational cultures post-pandemic, managing  (and preventing) burnout should be a priority.

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout is more than just feeling tired at work. In order to effectively define burnout, we must look at the symptoms of burnout:


Exhaustion- physical and mental exhaustion measured in the reporting of both aspects. Futility- cynicism and a perception the employee cannot produce a useful result. Avoidance - intentional distance between the employee and their work; includes dread, absenteeism, avoiding every day situations
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Signs of burnout include:

• Dreading going to work
• Feeling physical and mentally tired every day
• Low motivation and productivity
• Feeling a sense of hopelessness or finding work meaningless
• Cynicism at work
• Becoming irritable or impatient with colleagues
• Lack of focus
• Not wanting to socialize with peers or team members

What causes employee burnout?

In the past, the causes of burnout were blamed on things like occupation (specifically healthcare workers and emergency responders), job responsibilities (like tough demands on customer service workers), long hours, a poor manager, or bad cultural fit when organizations hire people. But now we see employees in every job, of every age, in every type of company experience burnout.

What job has the highest burnout rate? Rather than looking at the type of job, it’s best to evaluate how the work environment and company culture causes burnout. The day-to-day realities, challenges, and hardships that employees face can lead to burnout if they are not supported by their teams, leaders, and organizations.

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Research shows there are universal reasons for burnout. Things like:

• Lack of appreciation
• Conflicts on the team
• Not having a well-defined role
• Job stress

We found poor workplace culture leads to a 157% increase in burnout. The reasons for burnout that stem from organizational culture issues can include:

• Poor leadership
• Lack of purpose
• No opportunity for growth or development
• Not feeling appreciated
• Poor work/life balance

It’s not the physical work environment or the actual work that causes burnout. It’s the absence of the essential culture elements that employees need to thrive at work: purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and leadership.

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Burnout’s impact on company culture

Burnout prevention is crucial for organizations. If companies ignore the signs and symptoms of burnout, they’ll see impact in cultural and business outcomes like employee engagement and high performance.

How does employee burnout affect organizations? Even mild burnout has a negative impact on companies. Companies with employees who experience burnout, even if it’s mild, see:

• 220% decrease in the probability of highly engaged employees
• 247% decrease in the probability of great work incidence
• 210% decrease in the probability an employee will be a promoter of the organization
• 12-point decrease in the reported employee experience rating

And employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:
• 63% more likely to take a sick day
• 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
• 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer
• 13% less confident in their performance

95% of HR leaders admit that burnout is hurting retention at their organizations, contributing to up to 50% of turnover each year. But dealing with burnout is more than just having a wellness program or unlimited PTO. In order to fix burnout, you’ll need to improve the workplace culture that is causing it.

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6 ways to prevent employee burnout

All employees are susceptible to burnout, no matter their age, tenure, job role, level, or industry. But burnout prevention doesn’t have to require extra cost or resources.

Stress and burnout can easily be mitigated by providing a positive employee experience and workplace culture that helps employees feel connected, whether they are at work, remote, or off the clock.

1) Show appreciation. All employees want to feel valued and appreciated for their work, and when they are, they’ll work that much harder next time. But when they aren’t, they can start becoming cynical and feel their work and efforts don’t matter. When the amount of recognition given to employees is reduced, it increases the odds of burnout by 48%.

An easy way to ensure all employees are recognized for their work often is to have a company-wide recognition program. Technology like the O.C. Tanner Culture Cloud app can help leaders give recognition whenever employees do great work. And after a year like 2020, as employees are feeling burned out both at work and at home, everyone deserves to know that their work matters. So make this year a year of employee appreciation, and build a culture where employees feel their work matters and where they can thrive.

2) Provide purpose. Futility and meaningless work are a large part of burnout. There is a 22% increased odds of burnout if employees don’t see the bigger picture or the “why” behind the work they do. Provide employees with a meaningful purpose to work towards. Communicate that purpose clearly and often. Rally your people around it, and then tie each individual employee’s work and unique contributions back to that purpose.

When you gather people around a worthy cause, they’ll be motivated to stick through the difficulties to achieve it. But employees must know how their efforts and work further your purpose. Use opportunities like public recognition or one-to-one conversations to connect your employees to purpose.

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3) Be flexible. A culture of overwork or unreasonable expectations contributes to burnout. Having a decreased sense of work/life balance leads to 26% increased odds of burnout.

During the pandemic, work/life balance shifted to work/life integration. Work and family life have melded in Zoom meetings, as employees answered emails while caring for children or sick family members, and as people took breaks throughout a workday that extended past 5 p.m. Employees are expecting this level of work/life integration and flexibility even as they go back to the office. Provide your employees with the flexibility in where and how they work, and they’ll be more likely to better handle the stress and challenges at work.

Employees who have a high sense of autonomy at work are 2-3X more engaged, more likely to do great work, and have less burnout than employees who have a medium or low sense of autonomy.

4) Build inclusion. In addition to feeling appreciated, all employees want to feel like they belong. Having a decreased sense of belonging increases the odds of burnout by 21%, and employees who feel “different” in some way at work are 126% more likely to suffer from severe burnout.

Create an environment where employees feel psychologically safe and feel a sense of belonging in your organization. Empower leaders to build inclusive cultures: help them see their employees as individual people with their own unique, intersectional identities and needs. Foster an environment that eliminates exclusion and builds inclusion into multiple points of the employee experience. Doing so will help all employees feel they are an important part of the organization and that they belong, which will help prevent burnout.

5) Connect employees. When employees feel connected to purpose, accomplishment, and one another at work, they’ll feel a greater sense of belonging at work and less avoidance or futility.

Purpose is the connection of people's work to the organization's purpose, including understanding what employees do and caring about more than just results. Accomplishment is the sense of satisfaction and achievement created by defining success, advocating for employees' development, and showing appreciation. Connecting employees to one another fosters collaboration inside and outside of teams and introduces teams to potential mentors.
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Help employees connect with other peers at work by providing opportunities for socialization (on the clock), networking, and mentorship. Connect them to purpose by communicating how they uniquely contribute to your company’s purpose. And connect them to accomplishment by sharing their successes with others and recognizing their achievements and contributions.

Use solutions like Culture Cloud to help you seamlessly and continuously connect employees to one another, accomplishment, and purpose, no matter where in the world they are working from.

6) Create modern leaders. Modern leaders naturally connect their people, provide purpose, build inclusion, and appreciate their teams. While traditional leadership practices of micromanaging and gatekeeping lead to a 10% greater incidence of burnout, modern leaders who connect their people have a 57% reduction in burnout.  

Getting to know people as individuals, and not just a mode of production will help identify and prevent burnout earlier. And providing all employees with opportunities to speak up, give input into decisions, and develop leadership skills also gives them the sense of opportunity for growth they need to avoid burnout.

Organizations can fix, and even prevent, employee burnout by making small changes to their workplace culture. Build a workplace where employees don’t just survive, they thrive.

Read more about the latest trends in workplace culture in our 2021 Global Culture Report

Ready to create a positive company culture? Check out Culture Cloud.

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