09 Jun 2022

Why employee burnout is the new workplace epidemic

According to the latest workplace research, the number of employees experiencing burnout has tripled since the COVID pandemic began. We explain why workplace environments are a large contributing factor – and what leaders need to do about it.

A cautionary tale

You’ve probably heard the story of the canary in the coalmine. Healthy canaries were once taken into the mines by workers to act as an early warning detection of poison gas. If the canaries stopped singing (or, worse, died), it signalled hazardous issues with the environment.

Just like the canaries, employee burnout is a product of the environment. Yet much of the advice related to burnout has traditionally focused on what is within the individual’s circle of control. As we explain, leaders need to shift their perspective.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organisation has upgraded the classification of burnout to a syndrome that results when chronic workplace stress has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by:

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.

2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity, or cynicism related to one’s job; and

3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Some potential signs of workplace burnout include:

  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • An increase in irritability or conflict
  • Restlessness or insomnia
  • Decreased productivity or quality of work
  • Mental health concerns – such as anxiety and depression

Other signals of burnout can include a pessimistic outlook, decision fatigue, as well as concentration or memory issues.

What causes burnout?

According to research, the primary causes of burnout are:

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

Like the canaries in our story, these are all impacts of the environment – and not the responsibility of the individual. If leaders had started prevention strategies much further upstream, many of the significant causal factors could be averted.

Why the leadership approach needs to change

In their book Time, Talent and Energy, Michael Mankins and Eric Garton looked inside companies with high burnout rates. They saw three common culprits – excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work.

These forces not only steal employees’ time when it comes to completing complex tasks and allowing for idea generation, but they also reduce the downtime that is necessary for restoration.

Behavioural change expert, Dr Fiona Crichton, says that there is often a disconnect between how employers think they are doing in terms of valuing their workforce and how employees feel.

As leaders, we need to ask ourselves if the way we manage teams is helping – or potentially harming – their well-being.

Essential reading for leaders

Continuing our series on employment burnout, next we’ll share how leaders can recognise if there are issues in their workplace and practical ways to help resolve these.

To delve further into the research on burnout, take a look at the recent Gallup study and (closer to home) AUT’s Wellbeing@Work survey.

If you’re seeking expert advice when it comes to fostering employee well-being, we’re here to help. Ensure your leadership is supporting those within your workplace by contacting us now for a few complimentary suggestions.