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Employee burnout for employers: costs, causes and cures

Nikoletta Bika
Nikoletta Bika

Nikoletta holds an MSc in HR management and has written extensively about all things HR and recruiting.

employee burnout

Have you ever felt so exhausted and disheartened that you just don’t want to go to work? Many of us have these moments — passing strikes before we revert to our normal, productive selves. But not everyone bounces back.

For example, think of Sam, a sales manager, who used to love his job. In fact, being a top performer himself, he succeeded in building a team of top performers from scratch. But lately, Sam seems constantly exhausted and avoids speaking with others at work. He started missing his deadlines, taking regular sick leaves and, despite being usually cool-headed, he snaps easily when something, no matter how minor, goes wrong. He’s giving his manager and team members a headache, and he’s dangerously close to getting fired, disciplined, or worse, put on a performance improvement plan.

We can’t be sure about the cause of Sam’s altered behavior, but it could well be a textbook case of employee burnout.

What is employee burnout?

All these symptoms that Sam exhibits out of the blue – exhaustion, disengagement, absenteeism, lack of motivation and productivity, irritability – are all employee burnout signs, along with job dissatisfaction and lack of feelings of achievement. Burnout indicates that someone’s emotional and physical resources are spent, and they can no longer function properly at work, being constantly in an oxymoronic lethargic-hyperstressful state. It’s a serious mental health problem that can affect many people’s lives – as of May 2019, it’s classified as a mental condition by the World Health Organization.

As a matter of fact, let’s look at some employee burnout statistics. In the US, 67% of full-time employees reported feelings of burnout with varying frequency, according to a Gallup survey. In Germany, an estimated 2.7 million employees felt burned out a few years back, and the country recently saw a spike in sick leave due in part to work-related mental health issues. And, according to a study completed in 2017, approximately a quarter of French workers were experiencing work-related “hyperstress.”

Plus, nobody is immune to burnout – in fact, a percentage of highly engaged US workers experience employee burnout. Passion for your job doesn’t stave off burnout either. This is probably because the more dedicated you are to your job, the more your workload and job-related responsibilities weigh on your mind. And that could be one of the causes of burnout in the workplace.

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So what are the reasons for employee burnout?

The Gallup survey mentioned above indicates five main causes of burnout at work (note that this list isn’t exhaustive when it comes to causes of employee burnout):

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

This makes sense: when employees are overworked and pressured without having adequate support, they burn out.

All this may have to do with how our work is evaluated: high productivity, quick turnaround, and exemplary dedication are considered important values for workers, and they’re what brings great performance reviews and salary increases. Sam was likely promoted to sales manager because his work was characterized by all these factors. Even attempts to use technology to optimize our work and save time can result in us working more.

However, focusing on hard (and long) work alone to evaluate employees isn’t a sustainable situation, especially if the company leaves employees to do their best on their own without providing them with the resources or support they need. Or if it simply asks too much of them.

The good news is that this, and every one of the causes of job burnout, is within HR and company leaders’ power to change, if they put their hearts to it.

Why you should care about burnout

First, as mentioned, nobody is immune. Burnout could happen to you, too, if the circumstances allow it.

Second, burned-out employees incur significant organizational costs. They’re more likely to take sick leave or look for another job and this may increase your employee turnover rate and introduce other scary costs, like those related to lost revenue or hiring and training replacements. Also, these struggling employees may be normally engaged and productive employees you simply can’t afford to lose. Or they might be managers responsible for entire teams; and manager burnout could spill over to many more levels in your company.

Also, if many of your employees exhibit symptoms of burnout, this may amount to a culture problem in your company. This means that you might also see problems in other aspects, for example, productivity might not be what it should or job satisfaction might be grievously low.

And of course, it’s a matter of caring. While our friend Sam is fictional, the testimonials of real people dealing with employee burnout show the damage this condition can inflict. Many people find burnout an obstacle in their family and other personal responsibilities as well, and they’re also slightly more likely to visit the emergency room, according to Gallup. Helping colleagues, friends or family members get over their burnout, or prevent burnout in the first place, can prove beneficial not just for your company, but for the world as a whole.

How to recognize and manage employee burnout

Recognizing employee burnout isn’t always straightforward, but keep an eye out for the symptoms. If employees who are usually productive and motivated show some signs of employee burnout on a daily basis (exhaustion, disengagement, reduced productivity etc.), then they might be burned out or close to it.

For example, Sam’s manager noticed Sam’s unwillingness to reach out to customers that he already had a good relationship with in the past. Sam also started coming to work half an hour later every day without informing anyone. In meetings, he’s become silent, even when issues within his field of expertise or responsibility were discussed (e.g. his team’s projects for next quarter).

Of course, each employee may experience burnout differently, or these symptoms could result from reasons other than burnout. That’s why you should start dealing with this issue with an open conversation.

Discuss with your team member

Arrange an informal meeting and have an honest discussion. Say that you value them as employees and you know they’ve always been reliable and productive, but you’re genuinely worried about them. Address the changes you’ve observed and assure them that whatever is happening, you’re willing to support them as much as possible.

If your team member is indeed burned out, it’s possible they’re also consumed by loneliness, according to research published in Harvard Business Review. By being there for them, you can alleviate some of these negative feelings and open up the way for reversing employee burnout.

If your team member is going through something else outside of the workplace, such as dealing with an illness, a death in the family, a breakup, or another personal issue, you can still do things to help them depending on the situation. For example, your company might have a sick leave policy or bereavement leave policy your team member didn’t know about or didn’t want to use for fear that they might lose their job.

Sort through the workload

Sometimes, highly competent employees might be carrying too much on their shoulders. They may often try to help their colleagues and take up projects that aren’t included in their job description. This workload can quickly pile up and become unmanageable.

So, if your team member tells you that they’re exhausted or that they’re constantly behind schedule, sit with them and create a list of all their tasks and projects, both recurring and ad hoc. Then, help them prioritize. Keep in mind that you should be ready to strike some items off the list as well, especially if they don’t fall within your team member’s job description, and take responsibility for delegating them elsewhere or putting them on hold.

Reflect on your behavior

Do you send emails to your team member late at night or call them on weekends about work? Do you rarely push back when other departments or teams try to force their projects on your own? Are you rewarding hard work and long hours instead of focusing on results delivered? Do you treat some team members unfairly or struggle with your own work so much that you don’t have time to talk with or help your team?

Sometimes, managers are at least partly responsible for staff burnout. Think on your management style, your behavior toward your team and what you do to actively support them. You might be surprised to find that, despite your good intentions, you might have neglected helping your team members adequately.

Ensure variety of work

When an employee is extremely good at something, their employers tend to trust them with that all the time – and that could wear the employee down. For example, Sam was very good at handling complaints from enterprise customers, so his manager always fell back to him for that. But Sam got tired of hearing complaints and being yelled at all the time; he wanted to have a go at sales operations, but there was never any such opportunity.

As a manager, consider your team members’ type of work. Ask your team what would get them more motivated or enthusiastic and make it happen to the best of your ability. Take chances by assigning them different work every once in a while or make some time for them to shadow colleagues, innovate or even pursue educational opportunities via the company.

Make sure you listen to your team’s own wishes about the direction they want to go. You can’t satisfy all these wishes, but it’s good to know what your team members are thinking and what they’d like to do in the future. Just listen and be honest with them.

Employee burnout prevention: The real challenge

How do I keep my employees from burning out in the first place? This might be tough: there’s no magic strategy to follow to prevent employee burnout. Yet, a proactive and preemptive approach is far easier and better than scrambling to fix employee burnout after the fact. It’ll save you a lot of headaches and organizational costs down the road.

If you’re a member of the company’s leadership or the HR team, you can:

  • Provide advice to your company’s managers on how to manage employee burnout. Organizing company-wide workshops might be a good idea, so you can get insight on burnout from expert psychologists and trainers.
  • Promote a healthy work schedule. If you notice that, at 9 p.m., the office is still abuzz with people who came in at 8 a.m., it’s time to have a talk with executives and inform them about the costs and risks of employe burnout.
  • Consider culture problems. If your company culture is transparent, and your company leaders reward employees, support everyone, and respect work/life balance, employee burnout will be easier to prevent. Build a great culture that recognizes the value of vacation time, flexible schedules, and teamwork (and that can boost your recruiting and retention efforts too).
  • Craft a mental health policy. Talk to your VPs and other executives to propose solutions, such as employee assistance programs, counseling services or therapy sessions covered by the company’s insurance policy.

As a manager, you can give all this advice to HR if you’re on good terms with them (having a good relationship with HR as a hiring manager certainly helps), but you can also try to prevent burnout as far as your team goes. You can:

  • Be clear about roles and responsibilities. Starting with the job description you write for new hires, be upfront about your expectations. Outline all duties for each role and discuss them with your team members to clear any confusion. If the role must change, involve your team member in the process. Avoid delegating work outside of each person’s responsibilities without giving them freedom to say no – especially when projects come from other teams or departments. Your team needs to know that you’ll back them up if they refuse to take up a task that shouldn’t be theirs in the first place.
  • Meet with your team regularly. Chances are, you’ve heard of someone who only speaks to their team members every once in a while. This isn’t enough to build trust. Aim for recurring 1:1 time when you can ask team members if they’d like to change something in their job or whether there are any problems with their workload. It doesn’t always have to be an hour-long meeting; even a few minutes on a regular basis to touch base or give feedback on something can strengthen your working relationship.
  • Follow an open door policy. No number of 1:1 meetings will be useful if your team members don’t feel they can be open with you. Be a good listener and encourage your team to share their thoughts and ideas; don’t shut them down or disparage them, even when they make mistakes. Be honest and transparent and encourage your team members to do the same.
  • Respect your team’s life outside work. Emergencies happen and it’s natural for all of us to put in a few more hours in these cases. But this shouldn’t be the norm: make sure your employees actually use their allotted vacation time and don’t burn the midnight oil on a regular basis. (Pro tip: follow this principle yourself to set the example; no more emails or calls outside working hours unless absolutely necessary, and unplug completely during PTO).
  • Advocate for resources. If your team is understaffed, ask for more hires. If you need new software, make a strong business case for it. Be sure you understand your team’s training needs (1:1s will come in handy here) and find educational opportunities. Neglecting to secure adequate resources for your team and leaving them to pick up the slack is counterproductive.
  • Stop your employees from overworking. We often don’t see burnout coming until it’s too late. Employees may work harder and harder due to their dedication, unwillingness to turn down requests for help from colleagues, or a simple drive to show that they’re hard workers (be aware that the very idea of working hard being the ultimate goal and the best predictor of success has been excessively internalized by many people). So, have a discussion with your team members about what exactly you value in their performance, what your expectations are, and what they’re not. Don’t hesitate to ‘order’ someone to call it a day, if you see it’s needed.

Doing all this will help you prevent burnout to the best of your ability. Sam was unlucky, and his manager and even colleagues must now work even harder as he rehabilitates and recovers, but you can avoid all this trouble by being proactively open, supportive and helpful toward your team members.

And the added bonus? All these are great tactics to ensure high productivity, engagement and employee retention. Sam won’t only be happier and more productive, he will also stay with the company for a long time.

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