Workplace burnout isn’t always easy to talk about, but after living through nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic, employers really can’t avoid it — it’s very, very real.
In the past, when mental-health experts talked about workplace burnout, they tended to focus on giving advice to employees. Experts may have also offered suggestions on how employers can mitigate the risks and manage the impacts.
There are also some general best practices for keeping employees from burning out — things like paid time off, setting work-life boundaries and practicing healthy coping mechanisms. But burnout is more than an individual problem; it’s an organizational issue. Employers need to look at the patterns inside an organization that contribute to burnout and then make changes to support psychological health and safety.
Burnout has six main causes, according to research by Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley; Susan E. Jackson, a distinguished professor of human resource management at Rutgers University; and Michael Leiter, professor of psychology at Deakin University. The causes are unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of a supportive community, lack of fairness and mismatched values and skills.
While there are many signs and symptoms of burnout, here are six that employers can look for as well as some possible solutions.
1. Unsustainable workload
Signs: Employees are regularly working more than their standard full-time hours and/or are working on their days off, including vacation and sick time.
One solution: Actively involve employees in how to manage their workloads better. Work together to manage deadlines and to prioritize, reduce or eliminate unnecessary tasks.
2. Perceived lack of control
Signs: Employees have stopped using their own efforts to try to improve the workplace.
One solution: Give employees more autonomy and leave room for employee-led innovation.
3. Insufficient rewards for effort
Signs: Employee effort and/or passion for the work is depleted because the rewards don’t match up.
One solution: Recognize individual and group accomplishments, rewarding all levels of staff for successes big and small.
4. Lack of a supportive community
Sign: Employees have unproductive or negative interpersonal dynamics.
One solution: Support and create team-building activities so employees get to know each other socially and can build positive rapport.
5. Lack of fairness
Sign: Employees frequently report unfairness through hiring, promotion and termination.
One solution: Implement a specific process to promote fair and equitable hiring and promotion and review this process when complaints are made.
6. Mismatched values and skills
Sign: An employee consistently demonstrates poor performance due to misunderstanding about roles and priorities and to misaligned values.
One solution: Clarify employee roles and responsibilities and review the organization’s mission and values. Make this information readily available to all current and prospective employees.
Often, stress and work go hand in hand. Leaders should make it the norm to talk about it with their team. Employers that are unsure what employees are feeling or experiencing should ask. When leaders normalize the experience of stress at work, employees will hesitate less to raise concerns about burning out.
Employers can help avoid the worst impacts of burnout by starting with empathy and genuine connection with workers. Perhaps most importantly, leaders should work on building trust since, if there’s no trust and a workplace isn’t psychologically safe, employees won’t speak up.