Observant leaders recognize that the current workforce is shouldering unprecedented demands. Now, more than ever, employees are expected to do more with less. Burnout is a real and present threat. After decades of being isolated to a small number of specific industries, many global organizations now realize that burnout is more pervasive and may be curbing their ability to succeed. Burnout not only affects the organization and its people, but also the larger communities to which they belong. This precipitates a wider ripple effect of elevated anxiety levels and other psychological and physiological health issues. Organizations need to measure burnout, identify workplace cultural preconditions that foster burnout, and take active steps to mitigate it.
A term once reserved for healthcare workers who put in too many hours in high-stress jobs, “employee burnout” has now extended across industries and applies to all types of workers. Recently, the World Health Organization officially classified burnout as a syndrome related to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”1 Our research found 40% of employees are experiencing moderate-to-severe burnout. 95% of HR leaders admit burnout is hurting retention at their organizations, contributing to up to one-half of annual workforce turnover.2
Burnout can be measured through the following framework:
Employee burnout is costly: burnout is estimated to be attributed to 120,000 deaths per year and $190 billion in healthcare spending. This doesn’t include burnout’s toll on decreased productivity, an increase in errors, absenteeism, and other organizational costs.3 Companies with moderate-to-severe burnout have a 376% decrease in the odds of having highly engaged employees, 87% decrease in likelihood to stay, 22% decreased work output, and 41% decrease in the perception of the employee experience.
Moreover, the effect of burnout goes home with employees: Gallup reports burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.4 Another study5 saw major health risks as a result of burnout: Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol, and even death for employees younger than 45.
Even mild burnout has a negative impact on companies. Companies with mild burnout 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
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 performance6
Poor workplace cultures lead to a 157% increase in the incidence rate of moderate-to-severe burnout. A study by Kronos found 56% of burnout was caused by poor management and a negative work culture.7 Even the smallest lapses in workplace culture can lead to mild burnout.
Past research shows a lack of appreciation, conflicts in cooperation, role ambiguity, and role stress are all found to be strong predictors of burnout8. While Millennials9 are more likely than workers in older generations to feel burned out, burnout is similar in whitecollar and blue-collar workers, leading us to believe it’s not the type or amount of work that causes employees to burn out, but the culture they work in.
Working hard, day in and day out, and not feeling appreciated can accelerate burnout. A reduction in giving and receiving recognition leads to increased odds of burnout by 45% and 48%, respectively. When there was no consistent organizational strategy for recognition in place, the odds of burnout increased by 29%.
When companies treat their people as merely workers, rather than people, employees are more likely to feel burned out. Increased perception that the bottom line is more important than people leads to an 18% increase in the odds of burning out. Similarly, feeling stressed, overworked, and not connected to your team or organization can quickly burn employees out. Decreased work/life balance and decreased sense of belonging at work result in 26% and 21% greater odds of burnout.
In addition to reduced appreciation and wellbeing, we found that negative performance in purpose, opportunity, success, and leadership also increased the odds of burned-out employees:
Purpose: Companies with a non-existent or uninspiring purpose can increase odds of burnout by 39%. If employees don’t have a unifying goal or mission to accomplish, or their organization’s purpose doesn’t resonate with them, they won’t be able to work tirelessly to fulfill that purpose without burning out.
If you don’t know (or aren’t inspired by) the purpose of your organization, and why your work makes a difference, you’re more likely to feel burned out. It’s hard to stay excited when it seems the work you do simply doesn’t matter to anyone. Employees need to know how what they do impacts the organization, customers, and society. If leaders fail to help employees see the larger picture or the “why” behind the work they do, there is a 22% increased odds of employee burnout.
Christian, a mortgage broker, shared his story with us. After graduating from college, he landed his first real job. “I loved it,” he told us, “because the harder I worked, the more money I made.” He quickly became one of the company’s top brokers. “It was great at first,” he said. “My boss loved me. I was getting recognized all the time. But then everything changed.” Christian was assigned to a new department where his boss only cared about numbers. “I was still on top and getting great bonuses,” Christian said. “But, it never seemed to be enough. The aura changed. The accolades were over. The bar kept getting raised higher and higher until our goals were completely out of reach. The long hours and weekends were just expected. It wasn’t a happy place where we celebrated anymore. It was high stress.” Christian left the company within a year after the transition. “I was making amazing money. But, I was burned out.”
Opportunity: A lack of learning opportunities, or an increase in a sense of favoritism, can stifle engagement and increase odds of burnout by 16% and 23%, respectively. Employees want to grow and develop in their roles. They want to feel challenged and learn new things. If they feel there’s no opportunity for personal growth and development in the organization, or that those things are reserved for a select few, they are more likely to feel burned out at work.
Leadership: Decreased trust in leaders can increase burnout by 29%. Lack of trust in a leader leads to resentment, disengagement, poor wellbeing, burnout, and, ultimately, turnover.
Wellbeing: Decreased work/life balance, feeling like work has a negative effect on health, or a decreased sense of belonging can increase risk of burnout by 22%, 40%, and 56%, respectively. When employees don’t feel their best at work, physically, emotionally, or socially, they will eventually burn out.
We can’t all do what Dutch design firm Heldergroen does to prevent burnout at work. The company closes shop at 6 p.m. every day, and physically lifts the company’s desks up to the ceiling with steel cables. The floor is cleared of furniture and the space is rented, for free, to the community as a dance floor, reception space, or yoga studio. Creative director Sander Veenendaal says, “We think that doing activities like this makes it easier for people to work here. You know when it is time to relax or do something else that inspires you.”11 Unfortunately, most companies aren’t physically able to follow Heldergroen’s lead. However, there are many other ways to prevent burnout.
A 12-year study of the predictors and consequences of worker burnout found that burnout is a process. It’s not something that happens overnight; rather it’s a slow accumulation of exhaustion and cynicism. Giving employees more information, support, and control over their work could lower burnout levels.12
How can organizations do this? By creating peak and microexperiences that help employees feel connected to their organizations, supported and appreciated by their leaders and teams, clear about their goals and performance, and listened to by their companies.
The same tools that can improve the employee experience (rethinking leadership, utilizing one-to-one conversations, building safe and supported teams, and active listening) also help with burnout. Perhaps the most impactful thing you can do is change how leaders interact with their teams. The many issues that cause employee burnout can be fixed with small changes in how your organization and leaders interact with employees on a daily basis.
Employees are more burned out than ever
The World Health Organization has made burnout an official syndrome
Employee burnout costs companies more than $190 billion in healthcare spending
Burnout is caused by poor workplace culture
1. “Burn-out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases”, World Health Organization, May 28, 2019.
2. “Burnout Is Sabotaging Employee Retention: Three Things You Must Know To Help”, Rachel Montanez, Forbes, June 5, 2019.
3. “The Hidden Costs of Stressed-Out Workers”, Jeffrey Pfeffer, The Wall Street Journal, February 28, 2019.
4-6. “Employee Burnout, Part 1: 5 Main Causes”, Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal, Gallup, July 12, 2018.
7. “Three Types of Personalities Prone to Burnout and What To Do If You Identify”, Rachel Montanez, Forbes, June 3, 2019.
8. “The Process of Burnout in White- Collar and Blue-Collar Jobs: Eight-Year Perspective Study of Exhaustion”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, August 2002.
9. “Millennials are Burning Out”, Ryan Pendell, July 19, 2018.
10. “How Looking Back to the Past Can Help You Confidently Move Forward: One Entrepreneur’s Story”, David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom, Forbes, March 18, 2019.
11. “Five clever ways companies are helping employees fight burnout”, Jena McGregor, Washington Post, September 30, 2014.
12. “Organizational predictors and health consequences of changes in burnout: A 12-year cohort study”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Michael P. Leiter, Jari J. Hakanen, Kirsi Ahola, Salla Toppinen-Tanner, Aki Koskinen, Ari Väänänen, October 2013.
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