How to Properly Manage Employee Burnout
Full disclosure: I wrote the following post as part of a case study for my Management 150 class at York College of Pennsylvania. After final exams, the professor asked if he could use this paper for some of his HR managers.
Since I accepted there, I felt like I could post it here as well.
Here's the background, we were told to find a topic managers face in the modern day workplace and show how managers can solve the problem.
If you're a manager handling employee burnout, or maybe you're an employee trying to deal with it yourself, hopefully reading this can help you through it.
Arianna Huffington admits that she was running on fumes. During one morning in April 2007, the founder of the Huffington Post was answering emails when sleep deprivation caught up to her.
Huffington fainted at her desk and hit her head on her desk on the way to the floor. The hit broke her cheekbone and required five stitches to patch up a cut below her right eye (Huffington, 2010).
In interviews since the injuries, Huffington blames the incident on exhaustion caused by job burnout.
“I began the journey of rediscovering the value of sleep,” Huffington says. “I studied, I met with medical doctors, scientists and I’m here to tell you that the way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep.”
Huffington’s incident is an extreme example of what happens when employees become burnt out, but she’s far from alone in her feelings.
A 2018 Gallup survey of 7,500 full-time employees discovered that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes (Agrawal and Wigert, 2018).
The effects of burnout can be catastrophic as the annual cost of burnout is an estimated $323.4 billion per year (Tottle, 2019).
In any business, it’s important for managers to identify the signs of employee burnout. Once identified, managers can take a page from the National Basketball Association and use “load management” to foster more productive and invested employees (Murphy, 2019).
What is job burnout?
The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as a type of work-related stress that causes physical or emotional exhaustion. The result of that exhaustion brings reduced accomplishment and a loss of personal identity.
The World Health Organization characterizes burnout by three dimensions (World Health Organization, 2019):
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism toward one’s job
Reduced professional efficacy
For managers, noticing the signs of employee burnout can be difficult. How are managers supposed to see how tired an employee is or know that the exhaustion is from work-related activities?
They’re not expected to, however, there are signs a manager can identify. The Muse, a tool for workers to research companies and careers, identifies three tell-tale signs for managers of employee burnout (Douthwaite Wolf):
Decreased productivity and quality of work – Don’t just assume that an increase of complaints or missed deadlines is due to laziness. It might be the beginnings of a deeper issue.
Uncharacteristic disengagement – “In my experience… you’ll see (an employee) glued to his desk, refusing to communicate with his co-workers – or in team meetings, he’ll sit in the corner with his arms crossed instead of offering up helpful tips and tricks like he used to.”
Increased cynicism and complaining – “It’s a bad sign when you suddenly catch your optimistic employee mumbling … ‘I just can’t get ahead on my work’ or ‘this job isn’t going anywhere.’"
What causes burnout?
Employee burnout isn’t something that just happens overnight.
Lisa Gerry, a contributor for Forbes, sites David Ballard PsyD of the American Psychological Association when describing her own burnout as an “extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.
He continues, “a lot of burnout really has to do with experiencing chronic stress… In those situations, the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors (Gerry, 2013).”
With the continued pressure in mind, the Harvard Business Review cites six causes of employee burnout (Saunders, 2019):
Workload – “When you chronically feel overloaded, these opportunities to restore balance don’t exist.”
Perceived lack of control – “Feeling like you lack autonomy, access to resources and a say in decisions that impact your professional life can take a toll on your well-being.”
Reward – “If the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards for your job don’t match the amount of effort and time you put into them, then you’re likely to feel the investment is not worth paying off.”
Community – You may not be able to choose your colleagues and clients, but the stress in this case comes from the dynamic among them.
Fairness – “Think about whether you believe that you receive fair and equitable treatment.”
Values mismatch – “If you highly value something that your company does not, your motivation to work hard and persevere can significantly drop.”
At one point or another, these factors in the workplace will shift in degree of pressure. Managers who can effectively identify the causes of burnout in an employee will be best equipped to stop its negative effects.
What can managers do about it?
There is good news for managers when it comes to employee burnout. While the issue may affect more than two-thirds of the national workforce, there are ways to address the issue without a major financial commitment.
In a story published by USA Today, Maurie Backman of The Motley Fool identifies several cheaper alternatives for companies to utilize including publicly acknowledging an employee’s hard work, being reasonable about deadlines and encouraging workers to take vacation (Backman, 2018).
For those more fiscally robust, managers can give out spot bonuses for stellar performance or hire more employees to share the load, Blackman says.
Mark Murphy, a contributor for Forbes, pushes forward a different approach – load management. The term is commonly used in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to reduce the wear and tear on NBA players throughout the course of the season.
“Load management is fundamentally about ensuring that players don’t exceed their capacity, so they can recover faster, avoid injury and achieve peak performance in the most important games,” Murphy writes.
The NBA does this by letting players sit in particular games that they aren’t needed or could be more demanding on the body, like the second game in back-to-back nights.
In the business world, Murphy encourages two practices.
1) Start tracking time
Murphy cites an online assessment of 17,000 people that asks questions about time management. Of those 17,000, only 31 percent are actively tracking their time.
Murphy believes tracking an employee’s time can help sort activities that are relevant to their time management.
“It will be tough to discern if you’re misusing your best employees’ time if you don’t know where their time is spent,” he says. “This isn’t about micromanaging… rather it’s about helping your best employees focus their energy on the activities that will drive the greatest value for the organization.”
Certain activities, like writing reports that nobody reads or sitting in meetings that accomplish nothing, are activities primed to be cut.
2) Assess Employees’ Motivation
Using a survey of 31,664 employees, Murphy discovered that 26 percent of employees are motivated but unhappy at work.
“These are workers that are highly motivated to give 100% effort at work, but they do not recommend their company as a great organization to work for,” he writes.
If someone is motivated to give 100 percent, but can’t get past the road blocks, it leads to a downward spiral of frustration. He likens the spiral to an NBA player who plays through injury, only to get hurt again.
“Our best employees will often slog through their frustration until they’ve burned themselves out,” Murphy says.
When managers find the highly motivated but frustrated employee, the best advice is to manage their load and keep them fresh for the biggest opportunities.
Good managerial examples
One of the most prominent examples of a company battling employee burnout comes from the woman who herself was injured due to employee burnout – Arianna Huffington.
Huffington launched Thrive Global as a way to raise awareness for employee burnout. At Thrive, she has what she calls, “Thrive Time.”
Thrive Time is the recognition that certain projects do take extra hours and stressful emotions to complete. Instead of trying to address burnout after it occurs, Thrive Time seeks to be proactive about preventing it.
“It means taking time off to recover and recharge after you’ve met the deadline, shipped the product or worked over the weekend,” Huffington tells Forbes (Robinson, 2019). “It could be a few hours, a morning, a whole day or even more.”
Sheryl Simmons, a Chief Human Resources Officer at Maestro Health attacks the issue a different way at her company. Noticing that technology often leaves employees tethered to the workplace, she’s encouraged employees to “sign off” at the end of the workday (Robinson, 2019).
Instead of answering an email on personal time, she encourages employees to ask the question back, “Is it urgent?” or “Can this wait until morning?” She’s also asked employers to ask themselves, “Is this worthy of interrupting my employee’s down time and giving them a reason to doubt my commitment to their well-being?”
“While everyone struggles with truly disconnecting, especially at the c-level, we all need to hold ourselves accountable,” Simmons tells Forbes. “If leadership truly leads by example, curating a culture of work-life integration becomes not only a possibility, but a norm.”
With the World Health Organization classifying workplace burnout as a syndrome (Martins, 2019), the importance of preventing burnout for managers has never been greater.
The costs for mismanaged employee burnout are staggering.
A Harvard Business School study estimated that workplace stress was responsible for more than $125 billion dollars in health care expenses (Blanding, 2015) and more than 120,000 deaths per year. The deaths were broken into 49,000 for lack of health insurance, 34,000 to unemployment and job insecurity/high work demands which contributed 30,000 deaths.
Managers do have ways to stop employee burnout, even before it starts. Whether it’s load management, allowing for recovery after a big project or simply telling an employee they did performed well, the powers to stop employee burnout and create a high-functioning company remain in the managers steering the ship.
Agrawal, S. and Wigert, B. (2018). “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main causes.” Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx
Backman, M. (2018). “Most workers experience burnout; companies that employ them need to address it.” Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/careers/work-life-balance/2018/04/05/most-workers-experience-burnout-and-the-companies-that-employ-them-need-to-address-it/33473057/
Blanding, M. (2015). “National Health Care Costs Could Decrease if Managers Reduce Work Stress.” Retrieved from https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/national-health-costs-could-decrease-if-managers-reduce-work-stress
Douthwaite Wolf, K. (Unknown). “How to Tell if Your Team is Burnt Out – and What to do About It.” Retrieved from https://www.themuse.com/advice/how-to-tell-if-your-team-is-burnt-outand-what-to-do-about-it
Gerry, L. (2013). “10 Signs You’re Burning Out – And What To Do About It.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/04/01/10-signs-youre-burning-out-and-what-to-do-about-it/#1266a5bf625b
Huffington, A. (2010). “How to succeed? Get more sleep.” Retrieved from http://engmap0337.blogspot.com/2016/12/ted-script-arianna-huffington-how-to_20.html
Martins, A. (2019). “Workplace Burnout Now a Syndrome, According to WHO.” Retrieved from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15057-workplace-burnout-syndrome.html
Mayo Clinic Staff. (Unknown). “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
Murphy, M. (2019). “To Protect Your Best Employees From Burnout, Steal The NBA’s Load Management Concept.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2019/11/17/to-protect-your-best-employees-from-burnout-steal-the-nbas-load-management-concept/#3db3c27c40c0
Robinson, B. (2019). “Playing With Fire: What Some Businesses Are Doing To Offset Burnout. How Is Your Company Performing?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2019/08/05/playing-with-fire-what-some-businesses-are-doing-to-offset-burnout-how-is-your-company-performing/#5fa83d391d5e
Saunders, E. (2019). “6 Causes of Burnout, and How to Avoid Them.” Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/07/6-causes-of-burnout-and-how-to-avoid-them
Tottle, S. (2019). “Burnout is on the rise, and it’s contagious. This is what we need to do about it.” Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-rise-of-workplace-burnout-and-how-to-tackle-it-2019-6
World Health Organization. (2019). “Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon: International Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/