Occupational burnout is increasingly common across career paths and tiers. According to data from the 2016 General Social Survey, 50 percent of people are often or always exhausted because of work. 20 years ago, that number was only 18 percent.
The alarming increase in burnout has severe implications on individual well-being and business productivity. Burnout is linked to a range of negative physical and mental health outcomes, including hypertension, sleep irregularities, depression, anxiety, and increased alcohol and drug use. In the U.S., the toll of occupational burnout is an alarming $125 billion to $190 billion a year in additional healthcare spending.
A burned out employee can kill a team’s productivity and morale, and their exhaustion may be endemic of widespread operational or cultural problems. Fortunately, whether you notice burnout in yourself, a colleague, or a direct report, there are clear measures you can take to address the problem.
Occupational burnout, explained
According to a study led by University of California, Berkeley professor Dr. Christina Maslach, one of the pioneer researchers of burnout, workplace burnout arises in response to chronic stressors and manifests in 3 main symptoms:
- Exhaustion: Physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue undermines people’s productivity and satisfaction. When exhausted, people struggle to concentrate and accomplish routine or even previously enjoyable tasks.
- Cynicism: Instead of engaging and investing in their team and assignments, people become increasingly detached and negative. Cynicism can stem from work overload, or from frequent conflict, unfairness, or a lack of insight into decision-making processes.
- Inefficacy: Waning self-confidence is usually a result of exhaustion and cynicism, as people begin to believe their constant fatigue and lost passion for work are permanent.
According to the authors of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team's Productive Power, there are several primary culprits of burnout that are common in most workplaces:
Always on: In the digital era, many companies have adopted a 24/7 culture, giving employees no time to disconnect and decompress. According to McKinsey Quarterly, “always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.”
Too many cooks: Excessive collaboration manifests itself in the days of productivity lost to actionless meetings, email exchanges, instant messages, and conference calls. The buzz of collaboration is much easier to observe and measure than focused work, and many companies end up collaborating for collaboration’s sake. While company-wide knowledge-sharing is hugely valuable, the loss in daily productivity is made up for with employees putting in late nights, working at home, or working on weekends.
Multitasking: According to Bain & Company Partner Eric Garton, burnout is “driven by the always-on digital workplace, too many priorities, and the expectation that employees can use their digital tools to multitask and power through their workloads.” Contrary to the norm of many digitally-connected workplaces, a swath of research has shown that multitasking makes employees less effective and efficient. Constant pinging prevents employees from getting into Flow, and it takes more than 15 minutes to return to a productive state after even slight interruptions.
Poor time management: Even though calls, emails, Slack messages, and other digital communications consume hours of the day, few companies treat employee time as a scarce, fixed resource to be invested judiciously. Senior executives on average devote more than two days per week to meetings with three or more coworkers, and 15 percent of a company’s collective time is spent in meetings. Few leadership teams understand of how employees spend the hours they could devote to growing the company, or to their hobbies, friends, and families.
Burnout Recovery and Prevention Tips
Burnout can affect individuals at any stage of their career, with a range of negative personal and professional effects. One common side effect of burnout is growing feelings of loneliness, which can have alarming impacts on physical and emotional health. Studies have shown loneliness reduces longevity by 70 percent (compared to 20 percent for obesity and 50 percent for smoking) and increases your chances of coronary heart disease or stroke by 30 percent. Burnout can also diminish long-term career prospects, fracture relationships, and produce feelings of futility and alienation. If you identify burnout in yourself or a direct report, it’s important to take action and help. Here are a few steps:
Prioritizing sleep, nutrition, and exercise are critical to replenishing your physical and emotional energy. Other popular self-care practices include spending time in nature, journaling, reading, visiting libraries and museums, and limiting time on devices. If you’re struggling to find time for self-care, consider logging your normal schedule in a spreadsheet or calendar app and identify what can be reallocated or cut out.
While at work, set reminders to take short breaks and get some fresh air, consider requesting an occasional work-from-home day, and take advantage of the vacation time you’ve earned. And of course, if your work environment is so toxic and exhausting your efforts are fruitless, it may be time to consider a change of scenery.
People who took fewer than 10 of their vacation days per year had a 34.6% likelihood of receiving a raise or bonus in a three-year period of time. People who took more than 10 of their vacation days had a 65.4% chance of receiving a raise or bonus. -- Shawn Anchor & Michelle Gielan
Tip for managers: American employees fail to use more than 660 million vacation days per year. In 2016, 206 million of those unused vacation days could not be rolled over or paid out - they were simply lost. As a manager, work to establish backups and support systems so you and your direct reports feel comfortable taking time off. What you’ll gain in exchange is a team that is refreshed, engaged, and more productive the rest of the year.
Find value in your work
A popular 2014 Deloitte study found that “Less than 12.3 percent of America’s workforce possesses the attributes of worker passion,” which are closely tied to engagement and performance. Not every job is inspirational and exciting, but even the most unfulfilling roles have value - building your resume, learning a new skill, or providing a means to gain or maintain financial independence. You may not be thrilled with where you are, but you can control where you’re headed.
Tip for managers: Take time to get to know your direct reports on a personal level, and give regular growth-focused feedback. When possible, put your employees at the intersection of passion and contribution, or where they can learn or refine a skill of interest. It is also hugely valuable to explain how your direct reports’ roles fit within the company, and how their objectives align with the team’s and company’s goals.
Don’t bring work home (WFH excluded)
It’s important to set boundaries and ground rules to protect your sanity and health. While this may not be possible during periods of high demand (seasonality, product launch, major deadline, etc.), consider removing work accounts from your phone, and instead establish a way to be reached if there is an emergency. Be sure to work with your team to define what constitutes a work emergency vs. what can be addressed in the morning.
Tip for managers: According to Bain & Company Partner Michael Mankins, “most companies have an opportunity to liberate at least 20% of their collective hours by bringing greater discipline to time management.” Treat employee time as your most valuable commodity by creating formal controls and standards for meetings, responding to digital messages, and communicating work emergencies. This way, outside of urgent situations, your team can disconnect and enjoy their personal lives guilt-free.
If multiple direct reports mention they are more productive at home than at work, it should signal that your current office structure or environment is not conducive to your ultimate goal, which is getting stuff done. For increased office productivity, consider structuring specific no-meetings days so that employees can focus on their work without interruption.
Find and embrace a social outlet
According to executive coach Monique Valcour, the best cures for burnout are rich interpersonal connections and personal and professional development. Whether you volunteer, join a sports club or improv group, or attend yoga at your local brewery, finding a hobby where you can decompress and connect with like-minded people can relieve stress and brighten your outlook.
Tip for managers: A proactive way to support a direct report’s pursuit of social connection is to facilitate strategic introductions and networking opportunities with employees in other parts of the company. This will also create opportunities for cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing, without the organizational drag of meetings. However, what may be more realistic and valuable is creating a time-management infrastructure so employees can spend less time at work or plugged in at home.
Burnout can be exhausting and debilitating, but it’s far from insurmountable. By implementing the strategies we’ve discussed, you can take steps toward helping yourself or your coworker to regain a healthier and happier balance between work and personal life.