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How to Prevent Employee Burnout

It’s hard to identify the scariest part about employee burnout. It can occur seemingly out of nowhere, spread rapidly like a contagion within your workplace, and place an immense emotional and financial toll on your enterprise. Burnout is a word that’s thrown around frequently, but its definition is still somewhat nebulous. It’s undeniable that you know burnout when you see—or feel—it. Employees experiencing burnout can be alarming, especially when its onset is very sudden. An employee that was once a go-getter, highly enthusiastic, ambitious, positive, and driven, will suddenly be stricken with a noxious combination of depression, anger, cynicism, lack of engagement, and a sense of hopelessness.

How common is burnout?

Burnout is incredibly prevalent in today’s workplace. According to CNBC, “nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.” Burnout manifests physiologically, causing physical exhaustion or stress symptoms that are catastrophic for the body—it’s not just a sense of psychological malaise. For this reason, as soon as you notice the early signs of employee burnout, you need to address the issue immediately. 

What causes burnout?

Employee burnout is directly related to employee productivity, and the harmful tendency for managers and executives to pursue engagement and productivity at any cost. Employees are more excited when they are engaged and challenged in their day to day tasks, of course, but only within reason. If you give them more responsibility or deadlines, you’ll see engagement turn into burnout. Don’t focus too much on fostering engagement and not enough on mitigating burnout. After all, as the Harvard Business Review recently noted, employees can be both “engaged and exhausted” at the same time, so you can’t rely on engagement as your only metric of workplace health.

How do I fix it?

For a long time, the conventional wisdom regarding employee burnout was to implement some kind of holistic wellness initiative, which encouraged employees to form good habits of self-care. Many companies have tried to incorporate yoga, weightlifting, mindfulness training, massage therapists, and dietary workshops. The problem is is that these programs tend not to cure burnout. It makes sense that they wouldn’t work: you’re just giving your employees more homework on top of their daily duties! These programs can be perceived as patronizing since they imply that employees don’t know how to take care of themselves. In these cases, wellness programs exacerbate the problem, rather than solving it.

The fact is that employees feel burned out when they are given more work than they can handle. The dread that a burned-out employee faces at the thought of going to work every day cannot be solved with a wellness seminar or any other “quick fix” solutions. By decreasing your employee workload, and delegating tasks among more employees, bringing in extra contractors, and pushing back deadlines, you’ll still be much more productive than you would be if you just kept pressuring burned-out employees. After all, if your employees are low energy, mentally or physically absent, and dreading going to work every day, you’ll quickly find that burnout goes hand-in-hand with retention issues and all the lost profits that that entails. Therefore, preventing employee burnout means dialing down demands in the short term, for a healthier and more productive workforce in the long term.

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