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Editorial Team
04 Sep 2019

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Burning out: Why employers must worry

Officially recognized by the WHO as a serious phenomenon at the workplace, burnout is a fire that must be put out at the earliest in the interest of employees and management

Marissa Mayer, ex-CEO of Yahoo!, once said, “I think that burnout happens because of resentment. That notion that 'Wow, I worked 100 hours last week, and I couldn't even have this thing that I really wanted’.” Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, expressed her thoughts a lot more succinctly and pointedly, “The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to.” Put it whatever way you wish, there is no escaping the fact that outside of humorous or poignant rejoinders, burnout is indeed a problem, an issue that companies must comprehend and address.

What, really, is burnout?

As an occupational phenomenon, burnout finds mention in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). It is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy”

Is it common?

According to a survey by staffing firm Autotemps, 96% of senior managers in the US believe their teams experience various degrees of burnout. Rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest level of burnout, 20% managerial respondents rated the burnout level of their team as an 8 or higher. The average burnout level for workers was 5; more than a quarter of respondents, though, rated their burnout between 8 and 10.

Need more statistics? In a 2018 University of Phoenix poll, over half the employees reported experiencing burnout. Earlier in that year, a poll found that 60% of working parents experience the phenomenon. Burnout is now more or less a ubiquitous experience for the entire millennial generation.

What causes burnout?

It clearly is a problem, though its causes appear to be different when viewed by different groups. Employees believe that constant interruptions to their work were the top cause of burnout; senior managers, however, felt that unmanageable workloads were the primary issue. Both groups concurred on the following factors as contributors to burnout:

  • Career stagnation
  • Constant interruptions
  • Toxic culture
  • Dated technology

A study by Gallup suggested that a number of factors were highly correlated with burnout, and leaders ought to focus on these to address the problem:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Insufficient clarity regarding the role
  • Inadequate support and communication from a manager(s)
  • Unreasonable time pressure

This cannot be good! What are its effects?

Burnout has a number of very visible ill-effects. The chief ones include:

A significant difficulty in attracting talent is less visible, though highly probable, the outcome of burnout. In an employee-driven labor market, a survey by HR tech company Hibob suggested that 69% of candidates would reject a job offer if they got to know that the employees of the target company were burned out due to the work environment or the toxicity of the culture there.

This must be fixed! Suggestions?

The urgency of the problem cannot be emphasized enough! There are a number of things that management can do to address burnout, of which some are suggested below:

  • Identify responsibilities that can be reassigned or put on hold: Make sure employees are in positions and in sync with their interests and strengths
  • Make workloads realistic: Assess workloads to see if they are really doable and employees have the skills and resources to discharge their duties. Also, bring temporary hires on board to
    • Alleviate heavy workloads
    • Assist with projects that need specialized skills
    • Provide support with day-to-day needs
  • Encourage workers to take their allocated time off
  • Inculcate and follow a belief in digital disconnection – both mentally and physically – from the workplace post-work hours
  • Help workers reconnect to their workplace when returning from a break period or when they start their day: by allowing some quiet time to start the day and/or initiate a discussion to plan the workday
  • Support work-life balance: Encourage and facilitate completion of work within work hours, and avoid official communication post-work timings
  • Recognize and appreciate hard work

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