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Tackling Employee Burnout - Part 1: Beyond the Individual - Burnout as an Organizational Challenge

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

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Imagine a successful football coach at the pinnacle of his career, having achieved what many would dream of, yet feeling an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and detachment from the job he once loved. This is not a hypothetical scenario but the real story of Chris Petersen, the former head football coach for the University of Washington.

In 2019, at 55, Chris Petersen made a shocking announcement: his decision to retire after a notably successful career. Despite enjoying immense success, including conference championships and a top-four ranking for his team, Petersen expressed a profound sense of fatigue and stress. It wasn't the kind of exhaustion that comes from a single, strenuous project but a chronic state resulting from constant pressure without the chance to recover or recharge emotionally. He described losing the excitement and energy he once felt, clearly indicating burnout.

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His decision to step down was not motivated by better opportunities or financial gains but by a genuine need to escape the relentless grind that had taken its toll on his mental and emotional well-being. Petersen's story is not just about a coach stepping away from the game; it's a stark example of employee burnout, illustrating that even those at the top of their profession are not immune to its effects.

In this comprehensive series on employee burnout, we've tackle the issue from multiple angles. Part 1 lays the foundation by exploring the nature and causes of burnout, setting the stage for a deeper understanding of this complex issue.

In Part 2, we shifted our focus to organizational initiatives, highlighting the significance of creating a values-based culture, implementing sustainable productivity policies, continuously measuring burnout, and investing in both individual and managerial training as key strategies for addressing burnout within the workplace.

Part 3 brought the role of managers into the spotlight, emphasizing their crucial role in preventing and reducing burnout through effective leadership practices, open communication, support for work-life integration, and continuous professional development. Together, these parts form a holistic view of tackling employee burnout at both the organizational and managerial levels.

The Official Definition of Burnout and Its Recognition as a Global Epidemic

In understanding how to tackle employee burnout, it's crucial first to recognize its core attributes. These attributes, initially identified and extensively studied by psychologists like Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, have become the cornerstone in understanding burnout. Maslach and Leiter's research identified three distinct symptoms of burnout:

Chronic Exhaustion: This is more than just feeling tired after a long day. It's a pervasive sense of depletion, enduring fatigue that doesn't go away with rest. It stems from an ongoing demand to perform that outweighs the available resources, leaving individuals feeling constantly drained and unable to recharge.

Depersonalization or Cynicism: Often a consequence of chronic exhaustion, depersonalization manifests as an emotional detachment from one’s work. Individuals may develop a cynical or numb attitude towards their job responsibilities and the people they serve. This distancing is a coping mechanism to handle their work's unrelenting pressures and emotional demands.

Decline in Professional Efficacy: This involves a noticeable drop in one's sense of accomplishment and effectiveness at work. The once-driven individual may begin to doubt their skills and contributions, decreasing overall job performance.

Feeling burned out or wondering how many employees in your organization feel so?

Use the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) Assessment— the industry standard burnout assessment tool.

Nearly 34% of managers and 28% of US workers match Maslach and Leiter's definition of burnout in 2022. The prevalence and severity of these symptoms in the modern workforce have led the World Health Organization (WHO) to officially recognize burnout as an occupational phenomenon. This inclusion in the International Classification of Diseases marks a significant shift in how the global health community views burnout.

The escalating rates of burnout, particularly in the wake of challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted the urgent need for a more profound understanding and a more strategic approach to addressing this crisis. Organizations can no longer view burnout as a simple individual resilience or wellness matter. Instead, there is a growing recognition that burnout is a multifaceted problem, deeply rooted in how we work and how our workplaces are structured.

Addressing Burnout Beyond, ‘It’s the employee's problem’ or ‘we just need better leadership'

Traditionally, organizations saw burnout as an individual problem, requiring individual-based solutions such as more time off and benefits, including covered mental health visits, free yoga classes, and meditation offerings. Cleary yoga classes and mindful meditation alone cannot solve the complexities of employee burnout." Indeed, employees can do more to build their adaptability and resilience capabilities, but the burnout epidemic goes far beyond an individual problem.

If it isn't an employee problem, it must be a manager problem. Right? As we discuss solutions, we must address another common misconception: that burnout is solely a "leadership problem" and can be rectified simply through "better leadership." While effective leadership is undoubtedly critical in mitigating burnout, it is not a panacea. Leaders are often among the most affected by burnout, sometimes even more so than frontline workers (34% burnout rate vs 28% for frontline workers). Burnout at the leadership level can have a cascading effect, shaping a culture that inadvertently promotes burnout and affects decision-making.

Organizations must recognize that burnout is most likely deeply embedded in the fabric of workplace culture, systems, processes, and incentives. It's a complex issue that requires a systematic assessment and overhaul of these elements. This isn't just about providing leaders with the right tools and resources; it's about reshaping the organizational environment in which employees and leaders operate.

Understanding the the Organizational Causes of Employee Burnout

According to extensive research of the McKinsey Health Institute, burnout arises from three complex factors. First, the leading cause of employee burnout is a toxic work environment. A toxic work environment, often resulting from a hostile culture and hyper-competitive incentives, is a significant predictor of burnout. In such environments, employee relationships suffer, leading to disengagement and cynicism. This atmosphere not only dampens job satisfaction but also amplifies the consequences of burnout, creating a cycle of stress, low morale, and higher turnover.

Second, McKinsey's research showed that the role of supervisors and managers is pivotal. Ineffective, untrained, or lousy management practices contribute substantially to employee burnout. Unreasonable deadlines, lack of recognition, and unclear priorities, and job expectations set by managers can leave employees feeling overwhelmed, uninformed, and defensive.

On the other hand, employees experience significantly less burnout in environments where managers are empathetic, flexible, and supportive. This highlights that effective management can mitigate many drivers of burnout, suggesting a correlation between the quality of management and the overall work environment. However, the one thing good management could not overcome was a toxic work environment. Thus, burnout isn't just a lousy manager problem.

Third, employees who consistently face excessive workloads are more prone to burnout. This chronic workload imbalance creates a scenario of unrelenting stress, leading to feelings of exhaustion and disengagement. Thus, burnout stifles creativity and hampers innovation, as employees overwhelmed by stress are less likely to contribute new ideas or drive growth initiatives.

Additionally, the shift to remote work, significantly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has amplified these three root causes. Without adequate guidelines such as clearly defining "work hours" and "off hours" and providing team-building resources, remote work conditions contribute to feelings of isolation and increased stress, further exacerbating the risk of burnout. In response, many organizations implemented blanket policies forcing workers to return to the office, further exacerbating remote work issues.

These intertwined causes of burnout underscore organizations' need to adopt a holistic approach in addressing workplace culture, management practices, workload balance, and remote work conditions. By tackling these four key areas, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of burnout and foster a healthier, more sustainable work environment.

The Costs of Burnout: Visible and Hidden

Understanding the costs of burnout in the workplace reveals a complex picture where the repercussions extend far beyond the individual employee's well-being, directly impacting organizations' financial health and overall effectiveness. The financial burden is substantial, as evidenced by the staggering $738 billion spent annually by organizations on mental health-related expenses in 2021. This amount encapsulates the direct costs of healthcare related to absenteeism and reduced productivity, emphasizing that burnout is not just a personal issue but a significant economic concern.

One of the most visible consequences of burnout is high turnover rates, highlighted by the record 55 million U.S. workers who resigned in 2022, partly attributed to workplace burnout. Such high turnover causes higher recruitment and training costs and leads to the loss of organizational knowledge and decreased morale among the remaining staff. It is estimated that the cost of turnover is 1.5 times the annual salary of that employee, considering recruiting costs, re-training the new employee, and the loss of productivity throughout this process.

A more hidden cost is absenteeism or the trending social media phrase, "quiet quitting," where employees remain in their roles but are mentally and emotionally disengaged. This trend of doing the bare minimum required results in substantial yet often unrecognized costs for the organization. Quiet quitting can significantly impact employee engagement, affecting team dynamics, collaboration, and customer service, potentially damaging the organization's reputation and relationships. Studies show that disengagement leads to a decline in productivity and innovation. Thus, organizations have a compelling economic argument to address employee burnout.

Lessons from the Supply Chain

In understanding the financial and ethical imperatives of addressing employee burnout, people leaders should consider the lessons from the manufacturing industry’s supply chain model. Pre-pandemic, the industry primarily operated on a 'just-in-time' system, focused on hyper-efficient delivery of goods. While efficient under normal conditions, this approach proved catastrophically vulnerable when COVID-19 disrupted global supply chains, resulting in trillions of dollars in lost economic activity. The pandemic's impact forced a reevaluation, shifting the focus from mere efficiency to sustainability in supply chain management.

This paradigm shift in the manufacturing industry is a pertinent lesson for organizations dealing with employee burnout. Much like the 'just-in-time' model, many employers have historically focused on driving workforce efficiency to its limits, often at the expense of employee well-being. While seemingly effective in the short term, this approach is inherently fragile, as it fails to account for unforeseen disruptions, such as a global pandemic or the widespread impact of employee burnout.

The parallel is clear: just as manufacturers are now prioritizing sustainability over sheer efficiency, employers need to adopt sustainable productivity initiatives in place of strategies that solely focus on maximizing output. This shift involves moving beyond short-sighted efficiency goals and investing in systemic solutions that address the root causes of burnout. By doing so, organizations mitigate the extensive costs associated with burnout and build a resilient, innovative, and sustainable workforce.

The financial rationale is straightforward: investing in comprehensive solutions to prevent burnout saves money in the long run and results in a healthier, more productive workforce, much like a sustainable supply chain ensures long-term operational resilience and profitability.

Stay tuned for part 2: Creating a Resilient Workforce: Proactive Strategies to Prevent Burnout

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