The professional world has done a rapid U-turn when it comes to burnout. Just a couple decades ago, it was regarded as trivial, probably a sign of weakness – arguably nonexistent. As studies began showing the massive economic costs of employee burnout, burnout became accepted as a not only real but serious phenomenon. Very quickly, the thinking around burnout shifted in a huge way.
Today, burnout is seen as more of an institutional problem than an individual one – and is even recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a medical condition.
So what causes burnout in employees, and how do you prevent it? Let’s touch on what burnout is, some of the main factors that can lead to burned-out workers, and how to mitigate them.
What Does Burnout Look Like?
Burnout is a complex condition that’s often the result of several overlapping factors. Many experts think depression or anxiety can be an underlying factor, as well as individual personality traits and events in a worker’s personal life. It can strike high-earning executives or entry-level interns. Most importantly, burnout is often a product of the environment – in this case, the workplace. High intensity professions like caregivers, firefighters, and other first responders, or even commission-based professions (like salespeople or realtors) with few financial guarantees all experience burnout at extremely high rates.
However, while experts may not all agree on what causes burnout, they do agree on what it looks like. The primary symptoms of a burned-out employee are:
Studies have shown that burnout is most often precipitated by the following causes.
1. Unfair or Inconsistent Treatment
Many employees cite unfair on-the-job treatment as a major contributor to burnout. For example, certain real estate agents making a higher commission rate than their peers could have a huge impact on morale at a brokerage. Nepotism, favoritism, uneven compensation, bias – these all serve to exhaust, frustrate, and anger employees.
When employees don’t think their workplace is fair, they have very little incentive to put forth any real effort or to expect that their efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.
If an employee is given too much work, they could easily end up burned out and unmotivated. Part of this goes back to the principle of fairness: if an employee knows they’re doing the work of two (or more) employees, they’ll inevitably experience a feeling of exploitation.
Combine that lack of trust with the simple, brutal fact of how much effort is required to work through a huge workload, and you have a toxic recipe for burnout.
3. Overly Tight Deadlines
Not having adequate time to complete their work, and being forced to work overtime or work twice as fast, can be extremely stressful for employees. Worse yet, this deadline-related stress accumulates – and when they reach their limit, they burn out.
4. Poor Communication From Management
Employees must feel informed and supported by management, or the resultant ambiguity can lead to anxiety, stress, and frustration. If there isn’t healthy, regular communication from management regarding workplace goals and responsibilities, employees will understandably start to wonder if their managers have their back and if their performance is meeting some unspoken standard.
Open communication is an especially important issue today with managers, with the huge increase in the number of remote workers.
5. Ambiguous Roles
Employees who understand their roles and what’s expected of them are able to perform efficiently – and feel secure in that performance. On the other hand, employees who don’t have well-defined roles are left wondering what to do and if their work is satisfactory. This kind of ambiguity is very frustrating, and the resultant stress and anxiety is a fast track to burnout.
How To Prevent Burnout
Much of the thinking around burnout has concluded that it is a collective problem as much as an individual problem. It’s not that certain employees may be susceptible to burnout as much as certain workplaces may cause burnout in employees who work there.
When you look at the main causes of burnout, most of them are very much under the control of management. Treating employees consistently and fairly, giving out reasonable workloads and deadlines, keeping lines of communication open, and defining employee roles are all within the power of management. More importantly, in the context of the increasing rate of employee burnout, they’re among the most important responsibilities of any manager.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Trying to reduce employees’ stress could involve anything from overhauling your management style to adjusting the noise and light levels in the workspace. Like a lot of problems, employee burnout is deceptively tough to solve – but the benefits are potentially massive.