employees in a meeting
From discovering what employees want and need to finding ways to authentically demonstrate empathy, there are various ways employers can identify and prevent employee burnout. — Getty Images/pixelfit

Earlier this year, a Gallup survey and report found that 28% of U.S. employees experience burnout very often or always, making them 63% more likely to call in sick and 23% more likely to end up in the emergency room. Human resource managers say burnout causes up to 50% of turnover, which is costly in dollar terms and the loss of intellectual capital.

The pandemic has exacerbated the potential for burnout by piling on a slew of individual concerns over job security and health. That makes employees much less able to handle organizational change, according to a new report from the research firm Gartner.

“The amount of change employees can absorb without fatigue—negative reactions to change such as burnout, frustration, or apathy—has plummeted at a time when more change is precisely what organizations need in order to reset,” said Jessica Knight, a Gartner vice president who researches human-resource issues.

Employers often don’t recognize the signs of burnout and typically fail to deal with this widespread problem, leaving individual employees to shoulder the burden. That won’t work, writes Jennifer Moss, a workplace expert and author of the book “Unlocking Happiness at Work.” Instead, business owners and managers need to work on their own empathy skills and make sure employees stay motivated and productive without feeling overloaded.

Burnout creeps up on people, developing over months or years into a state of chronic stress and exhaustion.

“An employee tends to experience small ebbs and flows of stress and then suddenly, a cliff,” Moss explains in the Harvard Business Review. “That one stressor isn’t any different from any others, it’s just the final blow — the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

What causes burnout

There are factors that fuel burnout, according to Christina Maslach, PhD, a psychologist at UC Berkeley who has been studying the topic since the 1970s:

  • Demand overload.
  • Lack of control.
  • Insufficient reward.
  • Socially toxic workplace.
  • Lack of fairness.
  • Value conflicts.

“When there are these imbalances in any of those six areas, you're going to see people more at risk for experiencing the exhaustion, the cynicism, the lack of competence and efficacy,” Maslach says. “Whereas, if it's working better, then there's going to be more engagement.”

Workers need social support not just from bosses but also from co-workers, Maslach and a colleague wrote in the journal World Psychiatry.

The Gallup report found the risk of burnout increased significantly when people worked more than 50 hours a week. More important, though, even among those who work a lot of hours, is whether they have job flexibility and feel inspired, motivated and supported.

The Gartner analysis concluded that business owners need to focus on building trust and team cohesion—two things that are in short supply these days.

How to spot burnout

The problem is so widespread that last year the World Health Organization added “burnout” to its International Classification of Diseases, defined as follows: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The characteristics to look for and ask about:

  • 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.

Maslach says these symptoms reflect problems in the workplace, not the individual.

How to fix the problem

Bosses need to get beyond the golden rule and lead with true empathy, Moss says.

“If you authentically want to demonstrate empathy you have to “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves,” she writes. “That requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action.”

The key things to listen for: Do your employees feel safe? Do they feel well supported by colleagues, friends and family? What are they anxious about? All these questions have taken on greater significance during the pandemic, the experts note.

Some of your workers might be scraping by financially and worried about job security more than ever. Others may simply fear coming into work amid a pandemic. Parents stuck working from home may have kids underfoot, making those hours and hours on Zoom particularly stressful. And anyone working from home can easily fall into a 24/7 trap, in which they don’t know when or how to stop checking email and otherwise performing.

The Gartner analysis concluded that business owners need to focus on building trust and team cohesion—two things that are in short supply these days.

Most important, it’s vital to find out what employees want and need, rather than thinking you know, and then commit to solutions over the long term, Maslach says. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, she notes. Every small business owner will need to find their own solutions based on their individual company culture.

“The bottom line on burnout is that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness,” Maslach says.

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