What is burnout?
The World Health Organisation defines burnout as “…A syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Importantly, it does not classify burnout as a medical condition, but an occupational phenomenon with three dimensions:
- exhaustion or low energy levels
- feeling negative and cynical about your job or mentally distant from your work
- reduced professional efficacy.
How common is burnout?
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that most people would be working 15 hours per week by the time his grandchildren were of working age. Sadly, his prediction hasn’t come true. The average Australian works more than twice that amount—31 hours per week—while 30 percent of men and 11 percent of women report working 45 hours or more per week. Australians work long hours and are under considerable stress from various sources, resulting in high levels of burnout. In fact, 77 percent of employees in Australia and New Zealand said they experienced burnout at least once in 2020. It’s a huge problem, with mental health issues attributed to work-related stress costing businesses $10.9 per year.
What are the root causes?
To be able to effectively prevent burnout in your workplace, it’s important to be aware of the root causes. People experience burnout due to workplace-related factors, personal factors or a combination of both. Here are the main workplace and personal factors that cause burnout.
Working from home. Work environments that are disruptive or unsuitable. Having trouble switching off or separating work and personal life. A lack of support from management and/or a lack of collaboration can lead to feelings or loneliness and isolation.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Being consistently bullied or undermined by colleagues. Low employee morale, a micromanaging boss or a general lack of fit with the office culture or values could also play a role.
Lack of control. Not being able to influence decisions about a person’s job, for examples, schedules, assignments or access to necessary resources leads to feelings of frustrating and disengagement.
Lack of rewards. Not receiving enough positive feedback or recognition.
Unfairness at work. Being unable to trust others or experiencing a lack of fairness or justice in the workplace.
Poor work-life balance. Having a very heavy workload or unrealistic expectations from employers. Spending too much time at work and neglecting relationship, rest, healthy eating and leisure time.
Poor physical health. Not being able to function optimally at work due to poor physical health, which might be closely linked to mental health issues.
Inadequate sleep. Not getting enough sleep can lead to problems with concentration and mood, which makes it difficult to perform well and be productive at work.
A lack of meaningful relationships. Feeling anxious, depressed and lacking empathy due to a lack of healthy relationships, both at work and outside of work.
Caring duties. Having extra caring responsibilities outside of work, including looking after elderly parents or children with special needs.
Personality types. People who show signs of neuroticism, perfectionism, agreeableness, high or low conscientiousness, low resilience or low extraversion are more prone to burnout.
6 strategies to prevent burnout in the workplace
The good news is that employers can control many of the factors that lead to burnout. Here are the top six most effective burnout prevention strategies:
1. Make wellbeing part of your culture
Go beyond token, nice-to-have wellness initiatives and make wellbeing an integral part of your culture. This means creating an environment in which employees encourage each other to build work lives that are healthy, meaningful and productive. Working longer hours doesn’t lead to increased productivity. So, reframe work-life balance as the norm, and working excessively long hours as undesirable and counterproductive. Empower your employees to support each other in achieving their ideal work-life balance and making healthy choices. If your business has a command-and-control culture, where your managers are encouraged to give directives and meet performance targets at any cost, actively work to change the management culture to one in which realistic expectations are the norm and employee wellbeing is paramount.
2. Provide stress management interventions
Teaching your employees how to manage stress can reduce burnout in the workplace. This is because they will learn how to adapt to stressful situations, address emotional exhaustion and become more tolerant of distress at work and at home. However, it’s important to recognise that learning to manage stress might not change the main cause of burnout. For example, if an employee has an unrealistic workload or is being bullied in the workplace, they are likely to continue struggling until those issues are addressed. Two effective stress management interventions are cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness meditation.
Cognitive-behavioural training teaches people how to change their thoughts and develop coping skills, while mindfulness mediation helps people learn how to adapt to stressful situations and reduce tension. You could provide free access to cognitive-behavioural therapy and mindfulness meditation externally through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Or, if it’s possible, you could also offer these services internally. However, if teaching stress management is the only strategy used, your employees might feel that they are being blamed for the workplace-related causes of their burnout, which are outside their control. So, it’s important to include other strategies that address the other causes of burnout.
3. Monitor your employees’ workloads
If your employees have been pushing themselves to the limit, they’ll not only be less productive—they are also much more likely to experience burnout. We all need a break and time to recover after putting in extra effort.
Make sure that you consistently monitor your employees’ workloads. Be aware if someone has been working overtime for too long. Give them some time to recover by adjusting their workload. This will help to address the symptoms of burnout, but keep in mind that there may be a deeper root cause. It’s important that you ask about your employees’ overall wellbeing and directly address any underlying issues. Aim to check in with them once a week in a one-on-one meeting. This will show your employees that you are being proactive about addressing their problems and that you care about them as people, which will have a big impact on preventing burnout.
4. Create a sense of purpose
Helping your employees to find a purpose in their job is key to preventing burnout. People want more than just a pay cheque—they want their work to be meaningful and they want to feel that it is valued and important. This is especially important for millennials, who tend to seek out work that is purposeful and oriented towards a mission.
Show each employee how their role and daily tasks connect to your organisation’s mission and values. This will help them to see how their job contributes to the business’ goals and why it is important. Where possible, highlight how your employees’ work is changing the organisation, industry or world.
5. Encourage job crafting
Another way to make work more meaningful is through job crafting—where an employee changes their job to make it more engaging and meaningful. It can include changing tasks, how much contact the employee has with colleagues or customers or the perceptions of the job. The aim is for employees to better align their jobs with their needs and abilities. The result is that employees perform better and are more motivated and engaged.
Much of it may be your employee’s responsibility, but there are several ways that managers can encourage job crafting behaviours. Give your employees the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions about the content of their jobs. Allow employees to choose tasks that play to their strengths but are reasonably challenging, so that they stay motivated. Make sure they can choose from a variety of tasks that require different skills. Finally, provide professional development opportunities. Together, these actions will make your employees feel trusted, valuable and in control, which will help to reduce the likelihood of burnout.
6. Encourage and value input from your employees
It’s important that you make a point of asking your employees for their opinions and ideas. Make sure that you initiate open dialogue and ask employees for their input at any opportunity. Give them honest feedback on their ideas.
Showing your employees that their opinions are valued and that they make a difference will make them feel important and included, which often leads to them taking ownership over their work. This helps to reduce burnout because employees feel that they have control over their work. Encouraging input from your employees will not only help to prevent them from burning out—it will also spur creativity and new ideas, which can improve your business results.
Burnout can take a heavy toll on your employees’ lives and can be costly for your business, with higher employee turnover and lower productivity. Employees need to take responsibility for their own health and work habits, but as an employer, there is a lot you can do to create a workplace that prioritises wellbeing and minimises burnout. With the strategies disucssed above, you can get on top of burnout before it becomes a serious problem in your workplace.