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We can see that burnout is a serious problem that is painful for those experiencing it. But just how prevalent is it in today’s workforce? Here are some job burnout statistics that show why it’s so important for employers to take notice.
In the 1970s, a psychologist working at a substance abuse clinic in New York City began noticing a troubling trend among the clinic’s most dedicated staff. These once enthusiastic volunteers would often lose their charisma, become cynical and even show signs of physical illness. But despite their exhaustion, they’d put in more and more hours, even as their work became less and less effective.
What was happening? This psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger, had personal experience with these exact symptoms and decided to call it “burnout.” Freudenberger further investigated this occupational phenomenon and would later publish articles and a book about it. Thanks to him, the term “burnout” became a familiar term for an all too common ailment.
In Freudenberger’s book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, he defines burnout as "a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.”
Over the years, job burnout has become better understood, and instead of being limited to clinical settings, it can be present in any kind of workplace.
In a move crucial to underscoring the impact of job burnout, the World Health Organization updated its definition of burnout in 2019 to be more detailed:
"Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
To sum it up:
Given the detrimental effects of this occupational hazard, it’s wise to be on the lookout for signs of job burnout in yourself and in your team.
The WHO outlines three dimensions of job burnout:
In his articles written about the subject in the 70s, Freudenberger included even more signs of job burnout:
So what causes job burnout? Well, as we saw above, the WHO describes burnout as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” So anything that stresses you out at work for an extended period can potentially lead to burnout.
Here are some common causes of job burnout:
Feeling like no one appreciates your work never feels good. And as it turns out, it can even contribute to burnout. According to Dice's Salary Survey, 36% of tech pros reported that a lack of recognition caused them to feel burned out.
Physicians at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have a burnout rate of just 13%, well below the national average. What made the difference? Well, UAB provides these physicians with the autonomy to choose what aligns with their purpose and even provides leadership development programs with coaching.
“Unfair treatment at work” is one of the five causes of burnout Gallup found in its study. When an employee feels strongly “that they are often treated unfairly at work,” it more than doubles the likelihood that they’ll feel highly burned out.
Overworking can cause job burnout, whether it’s from an overbearing boss’s unrealistic expectations or from the employee’s own commitment to their work.
As Freudenberger saw with the free clinic staff, those with job burnout often make the mistake of working even more, in the hopes they can improve outcomes—only to find that they’re getting less done.
Even if an employee doesn’t work too many hours, they can still feel stressed if there are no clear work-life boundaries. According to a 2018 Virginia Tech study, when an organization expects its employees to answer work emails after hours, those employees feel like they’re “always on,” which harms their health—even if they’re not doing any actual work.
Taking time off is good for employees’ well-being. The American Psychological Association's 2018 Work and Well-Being Survey found that 68% of Americans reported improved mood, 66% reported more energy and 57% reported feeling less stressed after returning to work from a vacation.
But, the same survey found many barriers to American employees taking a vacation, including:
These findings point to a need for a cultural shift in organizations to help employees feel comfortable taking the break they need.
According to Dynamic Signal’s 2019 State of Employee Communication and Engagement Study, 80% of American employees feel stressed because of poor communication at work. Sixty-three percent of them have been so stressed by it that they've wanted to quit their job!
According to an article by the American Medical Association, Dr. Christine Sinsky says treating burnout should “focus on fixing the workplace rather than focusing on fixing the worker.” Dr. Sinsky goes on to say, “The ICD-11 definition of burnout is consistent with our research and our approach, which is that burnout is related to stressors within the environment rather than related to weakness on the part of susceptible individuals.”
Because job burnout is caused by workplace stress, which is sometimes beyond our control, it needs a two-pronged approach: individual and organizational.
As we saw above, taking a vacation can reduce stress levels and help you feel more energized. Even if you don’t travel anywhere beyond the confines of your own house, detaching from work completely can help you to recharge—regardless of where you are.
Maybe you can’t take a vacation from work, but perhaps you can lighten your workload and set clearer work-life boundaries. If you feel comfortable, talk to your boss about adjusting expectations around your work, and see if you can delegate tasks so you’re not so overburdened.
Signs of burnout can manifest as mental and physical symptoms. It’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing so they can provide medical advice.
Talking to a therapist can also ease the mental and emotional burden of burnout. Find out if your employer provides mental health services via its Employee Assistance Program. If not, online therapy services such as BetterHelp and Talkspace have made it easier and more affordable to access licensed counselors.
Employers would do well to better communicate tasks and expectations. Employees who don’t know what’s expected of them can become anxious because they can never be sure if they’re doing their job right.
Managers should be regularly checking in with their direct reports to ensure they’re feeling fulfilled at work and aren’t being overloaded with tasks. The only way you can know about your employees’ workloads is to ask them about it. Regular one-on-one meetings are useful for this.
Further, checking in on your processes is vital so you can find any inefficiencies. Inefficiencies drain resources and time; removing them can decrease job burnout.
Employees who are experiencing job burnout may be hesitant to admit it. They may fear that their boss will see them as less committed to their job. But as Freudenberger discovered, it’s actually the most committed workers who are the most prone to burnout.
Managers should be prepared to spot signs of mental distress in their teams and point them to the proper medical and mental health resources.
Because a lack of recognition can lead to burnout, organizations should implement formal and informal ways of showing appreciation for employees’ hard work. It can be anything from an employee appreciation program or simply adding 10 minutes to every team meeting to praise people for their achievements.
You’d think overworked employees would be jumping at the opportunity for a vacation. But according to the U.S. Travel Association, in 2018, Americans left 768 million vacation days on the table. More than half don't use their PTO.
What can employers do to make taking a vacation more enticing? We find an interesting case study in Buffer. The social media management software company has experimented with three types of incentives:
Beyond company policy, managers should lead by example. Employees are unlikely to take time off if they notice that their boss never does. This is something that even Buffer’s leaders noticed. When co-founders Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich went on their first vacation after three years of building their company, they realized how important taking a break is, and they hoped to set a good example for their employees. It was after this that they instituted the policy of paying their team to take vacations.
As we saw from the research, job burnout doesn’t mean your employee lacks dedication—far from it. As Freudenberger observed at his clinic, it’s the ones who are the most dedicated who are most prone to burnout.
The good news is job burnout is preventable and treatable. First, become familiar with the signs of burnout so you can more easily detect it in your team. Then, by improving company communication, lessening workloads, providing support and encouraging time off, you can help your committed yet overworked employees recover.
It’s important to realize, however, that you as a manager can only do so much. If you think someone on your team is experiencing physical or mental symptoms of burnout, it’s always a good idea to point them to a medical professional who can properly evaluate and treat them.
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