Employee burnout: the causes, the effects, and the solutions



Times are tough. For everyone. No sooner are we creeping cautiously out of a global pandemic that affected the lives of every single one of us (with some suffering far more personal devastation than others), than we are witnessing a brutal and bloody war in Europe, with talk of chemical or nuclear weapons beamed direct to our TVs and smartphones on a near-daily basis. This is interrupted only by news of a spiralling cost of living? Only those cursed with a complete absence of empathy or blessed with an inhuman lack of anxiety would fail to be affected by what we are witnessing.


Now, more than ever, is the time for us all to look out for our colleagues and our employees as well as our family members, friends and loved ones. How sad that the vulgar display between Chris Rock and Will Smith so overshadowed the gentle kindness between Lady GaGa and Liza Minnelli at the Oscars this week, just as the world needs to see more of the latter!



The effects


I can’t even tell you how many working days were lost last year to stress because Covid screwed that up too. But I can tell you that an estimated 38.8 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2019/20 (source: Labour Force Survey at hse.gov.uk).


On top of those 38.3 million missing days, we know that employees who are at work but approaching burnout or dealing with unusual levels of stress will not be performing at their best. They are also more likely to make mistakes.


We also know that, if left untreated, stress will quickly lead to disengagement. Burnt-out employees will eventually see leaving the company as their only option for survival, even if the stress didn’t start there. For this reason, employers that don’t proactively support the wellbeing of their people suffer from lower performance and productivity and higher staff turnover.


According to Mental Health UK, 46% of UK workers feel “more prone to extreme levels of stress” than they did the previous year (March 2020), and only 23% said their employer “had a plan in place to spot the signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout”. This is despite 1 in 5 feeling “unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work”.





The causes


On top of the stress triggers listed in my opening paragraph, employers and leaders need to be mindful that the blurring of boundaries between work and homelife caused by the pandemic has amplified the pre-existing work-based pressures. Gallup listed the following five factors as the leading causes of burnout:


1. Unfair treatment at work

2. Unmanageable workload

3. Lack of role clarity

4. Lack of communication and support from manager

5. Unreasonable time pressure


Add in the extended working days that inevitably resulted from the home becoming the office and having to cover or compensate for colleagues unable to work (for reasons of infection, loss, or furlough) and you have more people dealing with more stress more of the time.





The solutions


Communicate and listen


Revisit your comms strategy or treat it to a full health check to ensure that all of your people are empowered and motivated by receiving the information, advice and guidance they need to do their job effectively. Are you facilitating collaboration, teamwork, and knowledge sharing?


And are you listening to the feedback, ideas, fears, and concerns of your people? There are so many ways to do this, regardless of your setup. Remote townhalls using an interactive polling and Q&A platform, online pulse surveys, and walk-and-talks (planned to include those who may struggle to access the digital options) are all effective solutions. Even more so if all three are used together.


Don’t be afraid to run a pulse survey specifically about what is troubling your people. What better way to know and understand what is stressing our people out than to ask them?


Manage time more effectively and fairly


We can help our people avoid burnout by encouraging a few protective practices. Consider implementing no meeting zones so that colleagues can have a protected lunch hour. Can you even go as far as initiating a full meeting-free day per week to allow people to “get on with the day job” uninterrupted? Can meetings be assessed and tagged as ‘essential’, ‘optional’ or ‘beneficial’ so invitees can decide whether to attend and how to prioritise?


Work with leaders to ensure they are not punishing their people with endless tight deadlines or unrealistic targets. Sometimes, our employees pay the price for their leaders’ disorganisation, lack of forward planning or over-ambition.


Focus on wellbeing


Dedicate time and comms space to promoting wellbeing and raising awareness of the pitfalls, barriers and triggers. Can you share survival tips and relaxation techniques? Can you introduce mental first-aiders or peer-protectors? Are you facilitating and promoting downtime or social events? Peer-to-peer recognition can also offer a significant boost to morale and mental wellbeing.

You could get some more ideas on how to improve employee wellbeing here.


Manage and support your managers


This isn’t about playing a blame game or starting a witch-hunt. But there is no escaping management’s responsibility and accountability for most of Gallup’s Top 5 above. And if your stress survey, town halls or walk-and-talks return any recurring themes, then perhaps some training, support or directives are required for those responsible for those business areas. It may even be that some of your management is struggling with stress and burnout of their own, and this is how it is manifesting. They are, of course, entitled to the same sympathetic ear and support as everyone else.



Read more: How to promote psychological safety in the workplace

Read more: 35 examples of good internal comms



We can’t change what’s going on in the world or remove all traces of stress from the lives of people we work with or manage, but we can reduce the stresses we put upon them. We can also offer, and encourage a wider culture of, empathetic support. And we really should, given all that is going on in the world. Let’s be more Lady GaGa and less Chris Rock or Will Smith!

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