Employee Burnout: the Causes, Effects and Solutions

It’s undeniable: we are living in tough times. Just as we are tiptoeing warily out of a global pandemic that affected the lives of every single one of us (with some suffering far more personal devastation than others), other fresh hells emerge. We are bearing witness to a brutal war in Ukraine and trying to survive spiralling inflation and crippling food and energy prices that are previously unimaginable. Only those utterly devoid of empathy or anxiety would be unaffected by the current state of affairs.

By: James Blair on

And so, now more than ever is the time for us to look out for, and check in on, our colleagues and employees, as we do for our family members, friends and loved ones.

The effects

Unfortunately, I can find any statistics for the number of working days lost last year to stress because Covid messed that up too. But I can tell you that somewhere in the region of 38.8 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health in 2019/20.

On top of those 38.3 million missing days, we know that our colleagues who are at work but nearing burnout (or dealing with unusual or excessive stress levels) will not perform at their best. They are also far more likely to make significant and costly mistakes.

We also know that, without intervention, stress will lead to disengagement. Employees facing burnout will come to see leaving their employer as their only option for survival. That can even be the case if the stress didn’t originate there. For this reason, companies that aren’t proactive in supporting the wellbeing of their employees suffer from lower performance and higher staff turnover than those that are.

According to Mental Health UK, almost half (46%) of workers in the UK feel “more prone to extreme levels of stress” than they did a year ago, and less than a quarter of them believed their employer “had a plan in place to spot the signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout”. 1 in 5 reported feeling “unable to manage pressure and stress levels at work”.

The causes

Employers need to be mindful that the blurring of boundaries between work and homelife, as caused by the pandemic, has amplified work-based pressures. Gallup listed the following five factors as the leading causes of burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Factor in elongated working days (with the home becoming the office), and people having to compensate or cover for colleagues who were unable to work (for reasons of ill-health, loss, or furlough), and you end up with more people dealing with more stress more of the time.

The solutions

Communicate and listen

Revisit your comms strategy or treat it to a full health check to ensure that all of your people are motivated and empowered by receiving the information and guidance they need to do their job effectively and efficiently. Do your strategy and practices facilitate teamwork, collaboration, and knowledge sharing?

And are you listening to the feedback, ideas, fears, and concerns of your people? There are many ways to do this, irrespective of your setup. Remote townhalls, online pulse surveys, and walk-and-talks (intended to include those who might struggle to access the digital opportunities) can all be effective solutions. A combination of these options is usually the best bet.

Why not run a pulse survey specifically about what is troubling your people. Is there a better way to understand what is stressing out our people than to ask them?

Manage time more effectively and fairly

There are a few protective practices that can be employed to help our people avoid burnout. Some employers are implementing ‘no meeting zones’ so that their people can have a protected lunch hour. Some even go as far as introducing a mandatory meeting-free day per week, allowing employees to focus uninterrupted on their routine tasks or most pressing priorities. Others try to assess and identify meetings as ‘essential’, ‘optional’ or ‘beneficial’ so invitees can decide for themselves whether they need (or have time) to attend.

Focus on wellbeing

It’s important to dedicate time and resource to promoting wellbeing. Sharing survival tips and relaxation techniques (from senior leaders and peers at all levels) can be highly beneficial. This also offers the added benefit of breaking down “them and us” barriers and can make senior leaders seem more relatable and approachable. Do you have the scope to introduce mental first-aiders or peer-protectors? Don’t overlook facilitating and promoting social events, even if they’re just lunchtime breakouts or activities. We also know that peer-to-peer recognition significantly boosts morale and mental wellbeing, so investing in a platform that shares appreciation, recognition and best practice between your people (without the need for any hard work from management) can be a real game-changer.

Manage and support your managers

Sadly, there is no escaping the responsibility and accountability of leaders and management for most of Gallup’s Top 5 leading causes of burnout. If your stress surveys or walk-and-talks return any recurring themes, then it may be that some support, training, or directives are required for those responsible in those business areas. It’s also entirely possible that some of your leaders are struggling with stress and burnout of their own, resulting in this being passed on to their direct reports. They are entitled to the same support and sympathetic ear as everyone else.

Whilst we can’t change what’s going on in the world or remove the stresses from the lives of our colleagues or employees, we can work to reduce the pressures we put upon them. We can also ensure we offer - and encourage a wider culture of - empathetic support.