In 2019, the World Health Organisation first recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as 'a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.' The WHO highlighted three key aspects of burnout:
- Feeling exhausted or depleted.
- Negative or cynical feelings about a job.
- Reduced professional performance.
More simply, Mental Health UK describes burnout as:
'a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.'
Burnout is a real problem in many organisations which has been exacerbated by the stresses of the pandemic. But what causes burnout, how can HR professionals catch it early, and what can you do to manage your employees' wellbeing in the face of this issue? Here's everything HR needs to know about employee burnout.
Who experiences burnout?
Burnout can affect anyone, regardless of their job, workload, or level of seniority. Moreover, while burnout has a few common symptoms, different people can experience burnout differently. For this reason, it's vital that HR keep an open mind when dealing with burnout and never assume that a person cannot be dealing with work burnout if they do not hold a senior role or if they seem outwardly ‘okay’.
In some organisations and job types burnout may be more prevalent, and it has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, research has found that healthcare workers during the pandemic were up to 3.3x more likely to feel burned out compared to other professionals.
Some demographics are also more at risk of burnout than others. A study of workers in six countries found that women and workers under the age of 30 were more likely to experience burnout.
Burnout vs stress
Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, burnout and stress have different meanings. Stress is our body's natural response to challenging situations and can even be beneficial in small amounts. When managed well, stress can help motivate us to perform well and temporarily heightens our mental and physical capabilities, for example during a sports game or test.
Long-term stress, in contrast, can be very damaging to our health. Causing symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, muscle pains, insomnia, altered appetite, and many more, chronic stress is a major problem.
When an individual experiences chronic stress for a long time, this can lead to burnout. Burnout is a severe state of exhaustion and feeling of detachment, cynicism, low motivation, and fatigue in addition to the aforementioned symptoms of stress. While stress may be tackled with a vacation, shorter working hours, or mindfulness exercises, burnout is a far more serious and long-term condition.
You may also be interested in: How HR can manage stress levels in the workplace
What causes employee burnout?
Having an unmanageable workload or having to work long hours is a contributing factor for burnout. The more hours an employee works each week, the more likely they are to be at risk of burnout.
According to Gallup research, employees who feel that they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3x more likely to experience high levels or burnout.
Deadlines and time pressure
Lots of deadlines and pressure can lead to employee stress and burnout due to the demands of getting everything finished on time. Missing deadlines can lead to a spiral in productivity as the employee tries to catch up or becomes so stressed their performance suffers.
Lack of support
Employees who feel supported by their line managers and colleagues are far less likely to experience burnout. According to Gallup, employees who reported that they 'strongly agree' that they feel supported by their manager are less likely to feel burnt out.
Line managers who do not communicate expectations or tasks effectively are another risk factor for employee burnout. When employees feel uncertain in their roles this can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety that can result in burnout.
What are the signs of employee burnout?
While burnout's symptoms may manifest differently for each employee, some signs your team might notice include:
Missed deadlines and incomplete tasks
Employees who are burnt out may experience exhaustion and low motivation, which means that their job performance may suffer. If employees who used to stay on top of deadlines and complete all their tasks start struggling to get everything done, this might be a sign of burnout.
Higher numbers of sick days
The physical symptoms of burnout can range from headaches to sleeping and appetite issues. Mental symptoms include anxiety, cynicism, and a 'what's the point' attitude. Both of these aspects can lead to employees taking increasing numbers of sick days if they feel unable to work. However, absenteeism can also contribute to further workplace stress if employees are not able to get their work done on time.
Reduced quality of performance
In addition to often being slower to complete their tasks and duties, you may notice a decline in the quality of work from burnt out employees. Employees' attention to detail, creativity, and motivation to go above and beyond can suffer, leading to sub-par performance.
Damage to working relationships and teamwork
Workers experiencing burnout may find it harder to collaborate and communicate in a team. Burnout can lead to a negative view of the employee's colleagues or make them feel separated from them, reducing their ability to work well together. Moreover, a worker experiencing burnout may be less productive, potentially causing conflict with other team members who rely on them.
How can human resources respond effectively to burnout?
The first step in responding effectively to burnout is correctly identifying it. Especially in larger organisations in dynamic industries, burnout can be hard to spot immediately. This is why a data-driven approach to burnout is essential.
Through the process of tracking the right HR metrics, human resources teams can gain valuable insights into the state of wellbeing and burnout within the organisation. In addition to tracking trends in absenteeism and turnover, which can be sure signs of rising stress and burnout levels, HR can use AI-powered predictive analytics to identify risk factors before they even happen.
Keeping a finger on the pulse of employee engagement and morale is also possible through tracking responses to anonymous surveys, providing useful overviews into the emotional state of the workforce.
Segregating data allows HR pros to delve deeper into burnout in their organisation. For example, your team may use your HR software to create custom dashboards for different teams, locations, managers, or job experience levels to identify trends in burnout. Configuring your dashboards also makes it easier to keep an eye on at-risk staff such as younger employees, women, or certain job types like healthcare workers.
Listening is essential
Of course, the data alone cannot tell the whole story. Human resources staff need to be open to hearing about the causes and impacts of employee burnout and then take action.
For example, a Gallup survey found that employees whose managers always listened to their work-related problems were 62% less likely to be burnt out. When managers fail to listen to the concerns of their employees, it's often down to HR to deal with problems.
However, there are also ways to combat this more proactively; HR can recommend managers undertake training to enhance soft skills like active listening and emotional intelligence in order to provide better support to their employees. Because managers are one of the most influential factors that impacts employee burnout, ensuring that managers have the skills to support their employees is key.
Other ways to create a culture of listening in your organisation include implementing anonymous feedback boxes or surveys, which allow employees to share their struggles openly without fear of judgement. This process is essential for employees who may feel shame about speaking up about their troubles, either because they think that burnout reflects a personal failure or because they feel embarrassed that it is affecting them in the first place.
Offering leave, flexibility, or amendments to work
Under UK employment law, employers have a duty of care to their employees. This includes protecting employees from the negative impacts of stress and burnout. As HR professionals, your duty is to ensure that the right steps and processes are undertaken to help employees recover from their burnout.
These steps may include offering stress leave, re-evaluating the employee's workload to help with their management of work, or offering flexible working options to support their recovery. The changes made will depend on the worker and the root causes of their burnout.
Focusing on recognition
Feeling undervalued or ignored is one of the biggest contributors to burnout at work. When employees feel like their efforts go unnoticed and unappreciated, their risk of burnout increases substantially. For this reason, ensuring that employees receive the recognition they deserve is a key step HR professionals can take to tackle burnout head-on.
How do you create a culture of recognition in a workplace? It starts with management. Training managers on the importance and effective methods of giving appreciation is key to ensure they provide their reports with the recognition they deserve. Secondly, using an employee relations platform as part of your human resources software can help by providing a central company dashboard where employees can be recognised in shout-outs and employee of the month profiles.
You can also go a step further by encouraging peer-to-peer recognition in the workplace, meaning that employees receive support from their peers as well as from management. This can have a significant impact even if recognition from managers is lacking; research shows that 65% of employees would stay in a job with an unappreciative boss if they felt that their co-workers appreciated them.
To cultivate an atmosphere of peer-to-peer recognition in your workforce, using software like XCD Appreciation can make a huge difference. Providing employees with a platform for sharing praise and appreciation for their co-workers, Appreciation is designed to make sure amazing employees get the recognition they deserve.
Providing mental health resources
When employees are reluctant to come to their HR department about mental health -- either because of privacy concerns or because they doubt HR professionals can help -- it's important to provide resources they can access easily on their own. For this reason we recommend expanding your organisation's mental health resources and publicising these so employees know how to access them.
For example, you may create a folder on your internal company dashboard where employees can search for the mental health and burnout resources that are most relevant to them. Or, you might add a 'protecting from burnout' eLearning module to your training and development software which can be accessed remotely and needs no enrollment approval, so employees can use it whenever they need.
You may also be interested in: What is HR technology's role in workplace mental health?
Using HR software for identifying and managing burnout
To tackle employee burnout at its root and take proactive steps to protect both the wellbeing of staff and the productivity of the organisation, powerful HR software is a must-have. With XCD HR and payroll software, HR professionals are equipped with the data-driven tools to catch early signs of burnout, evaluate risk factors, and take action to deal with the issue. From employee relations features such as easy-to-use internal dashboards that create belonging and unity within the organisation to powerful reporting and analytics capabilities, XCD software has everything you need to take control of burnout in your business.