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How to prevent burnout in the workplace: 3 ways experts recommend

Published: February 1, 2023

Even before the pandemic, 76% of employees reported feeling burned out. With the enduring stresses of new work dynamics, economic concerns, and work-life imbalance, it’s not shocking that the general workforce is struggling.

But what causes burnout, and who is responsible for preventing it?

What is burnout?

Burnout is what happens to the body and mind when someone is under chronic stress. The 3 main symptoms of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

While the rate of burnout increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not a new idea; in fact, a psychoanalyst in the 1970s coined the term. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) also officially recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” which contrasts its former definition of burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion.”

What’s going on with the workforce?

In a Fall 2020 study by Harvard Business Review, 89% of respondents said their work lives were getting worse, 85% said their well-being had declined, and 62% reported that they were struggling to manage their workload and had experienced burnout in the last 3 months.

The rise of remote and hybrid work has increased the amount of hours worked on average, but workdays were lengthening well before COVID-19. Annually, Americans in particular work longer than other nations: in 2018, US employees worked 106 more hours than Japanese workers, 248 more than British workers, and 423 more than those in Germany.

But it isn’t just long hours affecting employee burnout. Gallup details 5 main causes: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure.

Why are stress and burnout such big problems?

To put it bluntly: overworking decreases physical health and can lead to premature death. In the US, work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths per year. According to a study released in 2021 by WHO based on research done from 2000 to 2016, working more than 55 hours per week increases the risk of stroke and heart disease. Long hours are also more dangerous than occupational hazards (such as carcinogen exposure).

Beyond affecting the physical well-being of employees, stress and burnout also affect a business’s bottom line. The rise in depression and anxiety among workers costs companies an estimated $1 trillion a year. Higher healthcare costs, lower productivity, and increased attrition are all contributing factors.

Companies have an opportunity to prevent burnout and build resilience among their workforce. Not only is this the right thing to do for employees, but it also can help businesses continue to perform during tumultuous times.

What organizations can do to prevent burnout

Approaching the issue as an organization rather than at the individual level is the best way companies can prevent burnout. Providing wellness benefits and encouraging employees to practice self-care is important, but it’s crucial for businesses to inherit the onus of reducing burnout and increasing structural resilience.

Here are 3 ways to get started:

  1. Clearly communicate expectations to your employees
  2. One of the main causes of burnout according to Gallup is murky top-down communication, so it’s important to set realistic and achievable goals not only as a business but also as teams and managers. Employees who don’t have a handle on the impact of their work, performance metrics, or company processes become frustrated and disengaged.

    Within this, leadership should make it clear how work contributes to the organization’s goals and solves real problems. These don’t necessarily have to be meaty issues, and companies can start small.

    During periods of increased stress, Deloitte encourages leaders to “maintain reasonable and flexible expectations for workforce adaptation when the crisis begins to resolve, and support workers who may need additional time and interventions for stress mitigation.”

  3. Create opportunities for meaningful connection
  4. Workplace isolation can also drive burnout, but collaboration and meaningful connection can counteract this. Gallup says co-workers “provide an essential line of emotional support for employees who are struggling [and] often understand the stress of a job better than managers do.”

    If teams are together in an office, making sure collaboration spaces are inviting is another strategy for preventing burnout. This might include room to physically move around, communal writing spaces (like a whiteboard for ideas), and digital conferencing capabilities to meet with employees in other locations.

    In addition, connection can (and should) go beyond day-to-day work. Some of the most successful support services established at companies include facilitating or encouraging peer-driven groups for employees. Simple activities, like happy hours or coffee dates, can also foster a feeling of belonging among teams.

  5. Engage with employees regularly
  6. To increase resilience, establish psychological safety in the workplace. According to Deloitte, this entails “the condition of candor, or trusting and feeling respected … without fear of negative consequences.”

    This atmosphere sets the stage for increased employee engagement and collaboration, and it creates a safe space to deal with any crisis. In addition to preventing burnout, upping engagement has a slew of other positive effects like increased performance, higher retention, and better customer experiences.

    For managers, it’s also important to actively listen to reports. This shows professional investment in the individual as well as personal respect. In fact, employees with managers who are always willing to hear work-related challenges are 62% less likely to experience burnout.

    The final case for preventing burnout

    Preventing burnout goes beyond reducing employee stress. It requires systemic changes, from improving leadership communication to fostering continual team connections. Although individuals can invest in self-care, it is really up to companies to build burnout-prevention tactics into their organizations.

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