How Your Organization Can Prevent Employee Burnout

Author: Robert S. Teachout, Brightmine Legal Editor

In the decades following World War II, the picture of the ideal, successful employee was clear. They were dedicated to the company, followed instructions and worked long hours ("Careers are built after 5pm," a saying went), often sacrificing time with their families or setting aside personal interests to focus on work and their careers.

Over the years, though, some of these "ideal" employees experienced exhaustion, sleeplessness, headaches, short tempers and other symptoms that made them look, act and seem depressed.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon." The WHO defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Burnout is real, and it can substantially impact employee productivity and mental health within and outside of the workplace. Employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:

  • 63% more likely to take a sick day,
  • 50% less likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager,
  • 23% more likely to visit the emergency room,
  • 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, and
  • 13% less confident in their performance.

Gallup reported in 2020 that 76% of employees experience burnout on the job, with 28% reporting feeling burned out at work "very often" or "always," while another 48% reported feeling burned out "sometimes."

Most definitions of burnout cluster around three concepts:

  • Exhaustion;
  • Cynicism; and
  • Inefficacy.

Exhaustion in and of itself is not necessarily bad (e.g., someone can feel exhausted but be exhilarated if they are working on something they enjoy); but when it is accompanied by a sense of ineffectiveness, issues can emerge.

When employees are exhausted, feel ineffective and believe nothing they can do will lead to better results (cynicism), they are perfectly poised to be at risk of burnout.

5 Steps to Prevent Burnout

Experts point out that the root causes of burnout are created at the organizational level. Therefore, it requires an organizational solution, rather than placing the burden on the individuals who are suffering burnout.

These five steps can help an organization prevent burnout:

  1. Train managers in communicating effectively, balancing workloads, fostering a positive employment environment and providing growth opportunities, removing barriers to employee success and ensuring that employees feel supported. At the same time, remember that managers are also employees and need support from their higher-ups to avoid management burnout.
  2. Structure jobs with reasonable and realistic workloads and timelines, and establish manageable and engaging expectations and objectives. This can help foster a sense of purpose (which helps defend against burnout), as well as increase employees' level of engagement.
  3. Foster teamwork and shared accountability in order to divide the workload, allowing employees to support one another and work together to solve challenges and meet goals. Increasing interactive work also removes the sense of disconnection and loneliness that can lead to depression and burnout.
  4. Design the work environment to be safe, comfortable and inviting by providing employees space to work, to gather for meetings or socialize and to step away for quiet breaks. It also is critical to develop a culture of psychological safety at work, so that employees feel comfortable being themselves and expressing their needs.
  5. Make wellbeing part of your workplace culture, helping employees to align and balance their physical/mental health, financial wellness, community involvement and familial/social relationships with their careers.

Continually Communicate and Listen

Ongoing communication with the employee population at large is a good way to ensure employees understand where they can seek assistance if they are suffering from burnout or related stress, anxiety or depression. Effective employer communication is key to helping employees figure out what benefits can help the most and enabling them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Periodically remind employees of the benefits offered and make sure they know about:

  • The insurance, benefits and services (like Employee Assistance Plans) that are available to them;
  • The details of the plans; and
  • Where to obtain additional information and guidance.

Encourage managers to have regular discussions with their employees, including reminding them that their manager is available to talk with them if an employee is feeling overwhelmed or overworked. Remind employees that it is better to communicate and ask for help before deadlines get missed or a performance problem develops.

HR can remain alert to the signs of burnout in the workplace by doing regular mental health surveys and keeping tabs of the general mood of the employees at work. HR also can serve as a resource to managers to educate them about the signs of burnout and mental health issues, alert them to available resources and assist them in working with an employee showing signs and symptoms of burnout.

Most importantly, HR professionals and managers need to listen to their employees and create an inclusive and safe space where employees can authentically express themselves. Then, follow through by taking employee's concerns and proposals into consideration and creating conversations about those things that are not feasible.

Awareness, communication and a supportive environment can go a long way toward helping employees deal with the stressors around them - at home and at work.

Additional Resources

Ensure Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and Benefit Providers Address Employee Mental Health Checklist
How to Manage an Employee With Mental Disabilities Under the ADA
Mental Health and the Workplace
How To Identify Signs of Suicidal Behavior and Prevent Harm