American employers are facing a burnout epidemic. About two-thirds of full-time workers today report experiencing burnout, while hourly and shift employees face the highest rates of burnout across industries. With busy season just around the corner, here’s what you need to know about employee burnout—and how to keep your business and team healthy during the holiday rush.
The backstory behind burnout
Everyone has an off day on the job. Every business has employees who don’t give 100% of their effort all the time. But employee burnout isn’t just the occasional off day or slacking on your responsibilities. It’s a symptom of something much deeper.
What is burnout?
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Outwardly, burnout can look like a loss of interest in work, reduced productivity, procrastination, difficulty working with coworkers, lack of sleep, and more.
Combined or separately, these characteristics can often be mistaken for laziness or a lack of dedication from your employees. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As of 2019, burnout is now a medically classified diagnosis. Its effects can be the same as other mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
In an article on millennial burnout that went viral earlier this year, Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Peterson explained, “That’s one of the most ineffable and frustrating expressions of burnout: It takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks, intermingled with other obligations that should either be easily or dutifully completed.”
Top Achievers and Burnout
No matter how much your employees love their work, they’re going to struggle once they experience burnout. This is especially true if employees were over-performing or top achievers before. Top achievers are more prone to burnout because as they succeed, their performance encourages employers to give them more work. This stretches their time and abilities thinner—and the burnout cycle continues.
Recognizing employee burnout
Consider this scenario: Ellen is your top, best-working employee. She’s open to taking on more work and succeeds with every assignment, so you continue to give her more responsibility. Gradually, Ellen’s performance starts to slow down. Although she’s putting in more hours than ever before, you notice her output is dwindling. It’s taking her longer to finish tasks, and you’re seeing more and more errors in the work she does complete. You also note that she’s looking tired and drinking several cups of coffee just to get through her shift. Then one day, she abruptly hands you her letter of resignation—and your best employee walks out the door.
Ellen has a perfect case of work-related burnout. Well, you may wonder, why didn’t she just say something? Why did she push herself until she quit? We all know it’s hard to do your best work when you’re mentally and physically exhausted. But it can also be even harder to ask for space and time to slow down, especially when people are working longer hours and retiring later than ever before.
Technology and Burnout
While technology makes it easy for employees to collaborate and communicate, it means work-life boundaries are more fluid than ever. Work doesn’t end when the shift does. In reality, many employees are always expected to be on the clock—whether that’s responding to work instant messenger, answering emails, or calling in on their days off because they’re on a “just-in-time” schedule.
Mental Health and the Workplace
Mental health and employee wellbeing are tough to talk about in the workplace. Nearly 58% of employees say they wouldn’t be comfortable telling their boss they were diagnosed with a mental health issue. Only 20% believe their manager would support them. But burnout is here and growing at an alarming rate. With the rising costs to business owners and employees, you have to talk about burnout—before it takes your business with it.
How burnout affects the workplace
Employee burnout isn’t a personal issue. It’s an organizational one that affects every part of your business. From lost employee productivity and turnover to an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in health care costs, burnout can wreak havoc on your bottom line. However, business owners aren’t the only ones who pay a price. For employees, burnout can result in heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, even death. It can also put them in harm’s way on the job. In 2015, 79 percent of fast food workers reported being burned at work in the previous year—and that was four years ago.
Like Ellen, the more overworked, under pressure, and on-call your employees are, the more likely they are to become disengaged, leave for a new employer, have poor performance, or be involved in accidents at work. The other side of the story is much different. Compared to employees who are burned out and disengaged, happy employees are 20% more productive and can increase business sales by 37%. Happy workers also make your company more valuable. In a study of companies with low to high employee morale, the stock prices of companies in the high-morale group grew by more than double those of the low morale group.
Finally, employee burnout is harmful to every employee in your business—including yourself. Entrepreneurs have some of the highest burnout rates of all. As we know, being an entrepreneur can be incredibly rewarding. Founders are extremely passionate about their work but are often more socially isolated with limited safety nets. They operate in high uncertainty—all a potent mix for burnout over time. With medical professionals suggesting that depression and burnout come in tandem, it’s important to note that while 7% of the general population report suffering from depression, 30% of startup founders report dealing with its effects.
How to prevent and address employee burnout
The Harvard Threes
According to Harvard researchers, companies with high burnout rates have three things in common: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. If your business is experiencing constant turnover or you’re losing high-performers, it’s time to take a closer look.
Working together fuels creativity, but endless decision-making does not. If your team is already stretched for time, don’t fill their days with meetings—expecting them to keep up with the workload. Know how much time your employees spend on which tasks, and determine whether they’re the ones that are most deserving of their skillset. Thirdly, don’t overestimate how much work your team can handle. Your best employees may be able to accomplish a task twice as fast as their peers. That doesn’t mean they should be doing twice the amount of work.
One of the biggest obstacles when dealing with burnout is how isolating it can make you feel. It’s easy to believe that what you’re experiencing is your fault, or that it only happens to you. While you’re making organizational changes, have an open conversation with your team about their workload and morale. If it’s hard to put into words, try using the emotional rating system and invite employees to rate how they’re feeling about work on a scale from 1-10. Have a code word for mental health that means no questions asked, and introduce easy ways they can tell you they have therapy or doctor’s appointments. You can also find ways to de-stress and re-engage together that show employees that they matter.
It isn’t always possible to slow work down or ease up employee stress, especially during your business’ busy season. Balancing workloads, connecting as a team outside of work, and having an open-door policy on mental health can all go a long way towards preventing employee burnout.
Ultimately, employee burnout an issue every business owner has either experienced for themselves or can learn from. If you notice employees getting tired or struggling to get their work done, don’t immediately take it as a sign of laziness. Instead, treat employee burnout as a call for help—and a sign that something bigger needs to change.Why Employee Burnout is Harmful to Your Business Grace Madlinger