Employee Burnout: What Long-Term Exhaustion Looks Like at Work

August 15, 2023 • Previsor

Employee burnout affects nearly 77% of today’s workforce. With such a large portion of employees affected, this issue is one employers should keep their eyes on. But what does the word ‘burnout’ really mean? What does it look like in affected employees, and what risks does it bring to the workplace?

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Dr. Arpit Aggarwal. He is the Medical Director of Psychiatric Emergency Services at the Missouri Psychiatric Center and more than ten years of experience in the field of psychiatry.

First, we’ll talk about what employee burnout is. Then, we’ll share what causes it. Finally, we’ll share how employers can actively combat employee burnout in the workplace.

Listen to this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast or read the show notes below.

What is employee burnout?

According to Dr. Aggarwal, the concept of ‘burnout’ has been around since the late 1970s. For more than 50 years, people have been searching for a way to describe the familiar sense of exhaustion and frustration they encounter on the job. Dr. Aggarwal highlights burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis. But it does have its own symptoms and consequences.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as a state of physical or emotional exhaustion. Sometimes, it’s accompanied by reduced accomplishment on the job. People who have experience burnout often feel that they’ve lost their personal identity. They don’t find work as rewarding or complain about the job frequently.

Signs of burnout in employees

Employee burnout has long been perceived as a personal problem. It’s often reflected in changes in appetite or sleep patterns. “Burnout for the majority of these last fifty years was viewed as an individual problem,” Dr. Aggarwal explained. “If you’re feeling burned out, that means that you have to do something at an individual level.” But its impact on workplace performance has changed that perception. Employees may:

Employee burnout presents safety risks

Employee burnout presents safety risks in the workplace. A distracted employee on heavy machinery could make a critical mistake. An overwhelmed nurse could be tempted to cut corners to keep up with the workload. “It’s definitely a safety issue,” Dr. Aggarwal confirmed. “The quantity or the magnitude of safety depends on the kind of job you’re doing.” 

What causes employee burnout?

Conditions in the workplace can be a culprit for burnout. “There are some risk factors that can put you at a more risk for having burnout,” Dr. Aggarwal explained. Employees working in understaffed businesses are often at risk. Some work in industries where higher levels of burnout are present.

Other reasons employees often feel a sense of exhaustion include heavy workloads, agreeing to work more hours than they really want, and working in professions that require a lot of emotional labor.

Employees need community

Isolation is possible in even the busiest of workplaces. Whether they work alone in remote field locations or in a bustling office, every employee needs a friend in their corner. A lack of community is a quick way to burn out: no support, no one to lean on, no one to share experiences with.

Employees need to feel rewarded

It’s easy for employers to perceive a salary as all employees need to be satisfied at work. But when it comes to burnout, this just isn’t true. Many employees want to know that they are contributing towards the success of their organization. Others want to know they are doing their job well. Without that sense of satisfaction and feedback from leaders, it’s possible to feel that their work isn’t impacting anything at all.

What can employers do to reduce employee burnout?

The first thing is be aware that burnout is real and as an employer, burnout in your employees can have financial and emotional impact on your business,” Dr. Aggarwal explained.

As such, employers can asses their teams for burnout. Simple surveys with a few questions asking about wellbeing can help start the conversation. They can be formal, sent via email or on paper, or informal – asked at a meeting or one-on-one. Then, employers can combat burnout by:

  • Budgeting for wellbeing. Set aside money to show employees rest and wellness is important to your organization. It can be as small as yoga or meditation class, or as large as a retreat or workplace program.
  • Offering confidential help. Employees facing burnout need an outlet. Whether it’s professional help, or simply an employer with an open door, make sure employees have someone they can talk to.
  • Creating workplace communities. Support plays a significant role in reducing the risk of burnout. Having a friend on the job, or activities that connect fellow coworkers, makes a difference. Set up opportunities for teams to engage with one another in a relaxed setting.
  • Recognizing heavy workloads. Certain industries experience seasons of heavier workloads and increased overtime. Recognize these times and their potential impact on employees.
  • Providing flexibility. Life and work often become intertwined. Where possible, offer employees flexibility in hours or schedules to help them maintain work-life balance.

Burnout looks different for everyone, but there’s no shame in it. “There is that stigma always associated with ‘Hey, I’m feeling burnt out at some level’,” Dr. Aggarwal pointed out. “That doesn’t mean ‘I’m not strong enough’ or ‘My coworker is able to work so many hours and I’m not able to do that’. That’s different for everybody, so there should not be any shame or stigma associated with it.”

To him, employee burnout is preventable. It can’t be prevented in every single case, but with timely questions and the right resources, many can get the help they need.

August 15, 2023
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