Burnout. It’s something people might joke about after a particularly stressful stretch at work or post memes about on Instagram. It’s also a very real phenomenon first described in 1974 and, per a recent article by the BBC, a potential work hazard thanks to a reclassification by the World Health Organization.
Forbes reports that this multi-layered problem is not a medical condition per se but more a result of chronic unmanaged stress. Chronic stress’s impact on health is well documented and includes cardiovascular disease and diabetes as detailed in an article in HR Technologist.
At work, spotting burnout may mean seeing someone exhibiting less energy or exhaustion, negative feelings toward their job or reduced efficacy around professional duties. When declining work quality, more frequent absences, and missed deadlines are noted in the performance of a once-reliable employee, burnout may be to blame.
Other creeping bad habits, like drinking more or eating poorly, can be seen as well. Burnout can manifest, says an article in Quartz, in poor sleep, anxiety or annoyance in the morning before work, an ability to detach from work in the evenings, and tenser personal relationships. People may not connect those feelings before or after work to potential burnout, per an article in HR Executive, but they’re critical indicators that something is imbalanced work-wise.
When burnout is the culprit, it needs to be met with a supportive, compassionate response, not criticism or disbelief. To counteract burnout, companies need to take immediate actions and think long term. Building a list of resources to offer employees is a smart HR step, says Quartz, like having mindfulness or meditation app recommendations, encouraging a walk during a break, and even reminding them of available counseling and therapy. These immediate actions can help employees identify and begin to address burnout.
Additionally, helping current employees feel a sense of connection and purpose improves engagement may check burnout as it begins to fester. Creating an overall culture that supports work-life balance, trusts employees, and builds community can help prevent burnout before it starts.
Assess workloads and employee expectations, like offering always-on availability for email, to help prevent burnout. Encourage team members to set boundaries inside the office, but also for when they are out of work. After all, if employees can never step away from work fully, they are more likely to experience burnout or take longer to recover. Encourage employees to take allotted time off and make sure management models the same choice to help your team get critical out-of-office time in for recharging. Or, another option may be offering a temporary reassignment to provide a break from the tasks or team causing stress.
If your HR team is reluctant to encourage breaks, both during the day and away from work, consider helping them understand the productivity, financial, and staff retention impacts burnout can have. To help quantify it, stress is thought to cost companies eight days of productivity a month, says another article in HR Executive. Yes, a third of the work month is spent being less present and less productive because of stress. The mental health challenges employees already face can have deleterious effects on company productivity. Burnout, a preventable phenomenon, doesn’t need to be an add-on. Once management and HR recognize that engaged, happier team members do better work that benefits the company, they’re more likely to join the anti-burnout push.