6 Causes of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent Them

Ross Brooks
6 Causes of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent Them

Employee burnout might seem like a problem that only affects individuals, but it’s one of the biggest threats to employee engagement. First coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can lead to cynicism, lack of engagement and even an inability to complete normal day-to-day activities.

According to one survey of over 600 senior HR leaders, nearly half (46 percent) say work burnout is responsible for between 20 to 50 percent of their annual workforce turnover. If the conditions for employee burnout are present in your organisation, then it’s never been more important to understand what they are and how to deal with them properly.

What causes work burnout?

While some cases of burnout can happen as a result of individual personality factors or issues outside of work, it’s normally organisational issues that contribute to excessive stress.

To help identify the contributing factors of burnout, Maslach & Leiter developed a framework that identifies how well matched (or in the case of burnout, mismatched) someone is within six different domains of their job environment. We’ve highlighted each of those domains below, along with suggestions for each on how to reduce stress in that particular domain, so you can help people feel more engaged, reduce stress-related health problems and build a better sense of community within your organisation.

1. Overwhelming Workload

Unrealistic expectations and conflicting priorities can make it impossible to manage a heavy workload, which quickly results in burnout. A workload mismatch can also result from the wrong kind of work, which usually happens when people lack the skills or inclination for a certain type of work – even when it’s only required in small doses.

Overwhelming workload can lead to employee burnout

Here are a few suggestions to help employees manage their workload better:

  • Set clear priorities and goals for team members at the start of the week. Instead of letting people work through an endless to-do list, get them to highlight at least one, and no more than three things they want to focus on for that particular week.
  • Schedule regular catchups to check progress and highlight blockers. Daily standups can also be an effective way to stay on track and break down bigger projects.
  • Don’t overload your employees with too many tasks at once. Multitasking is 40% less productive than monotasking – give them time to focus on just one thing.
  • Be realistic – some projects take longer than expected and it’s impossible for people to succeed at absolutely everything. If you’re talking with your team members on a regular basis, you can plan around unexpected delays and re-prioritise as needed.

2. Lack of Control

Not having enough authority or control over the resources needed to do your job can contribute to stress in the workplace. It’s important that people have the freedom to pursue their work in what they believe is the most effective manner.

New employees and recently promoted managers may also feel overwhelmed by their level of responsibility, especially when they’re committed to producing results but feel they lack the capacity to get the job done.

Giving people a sense of control is a balancing act between support and autonomy:

  • Outline exactly what’s expected of someone in their role and try to understand if they need any additional training or support. Give them a clear plan for the first 30 days – you could even consider using a 30-60-90 day plan with all new starters.
  • Give people clear deliverables and let them decide the best way to complete their tasks. It’s also important to keep an open line of communication and get regular feedback from your direct reports so you can take action as it’s needed.
  • If you know someone is a creative thinker, don’t overload them with spreadsheets and other analytical tasks. Discomfort is important for growth and development, but don’t overwhelm people with tasks and projects you know are a bad fit.

3. Insufficient Rewards

Paying your people a reasonable salary is an important part of preventing employee burnout, but there is a caveat. Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory demonstrated that insufficient extrinsic rewards can have a negative effect on employee motivation, but extrinsic rewards on their own won’t raise people’s motivation beyond a certain point.

Lack of financial rewards is one reason that contributes to employee burnout, but what most companies overlook is a lack of social rewards i.e. recognition for a job well done. This lack of recognition devalues both the work and the workers, which can also impact and reduce intrinsic motivation (like pride in doing something of importance and doing it well) over time.

Intrinsic motivators are much more important than compensation, but it’s important to pay your employees properly first. After that, recognition is the most effective way to have a positive impact on performance. According to Deloitte, productivity and performance are 14% higher in organisations with an employee recognition program than those without.

Offering more financial rewards is fairly straightforward, but social rewards take work:

  • Recognise people for specific actions, results or behaviours. E.g. When someone goes above and beyond for a customer, or overdelivers on their quarterly target.
  • Share stories, not just feedback. It’s important to recognise people for a job well done, but providing it as part of a story (especially if it comes from a peer) helps increase engagement and promote positive behaviours within the business
  • Make it easy to provide feedback, whether it’s through regular surveys, or a platform that allows colleagues to reward each other with points that can be exchanged for concert tickets, travel discounts and other rewards.
  • Create a link between employee recognition and your company values. We do this at Peakon using our values: Elevate People, Valued Partner and Drive Change.

4. Poor Sense of Community

Jobs and office environments that isolate people from each other are one source of stress in the workplace, but it’s chronic and unresolved conflict with others that eventually lead to burnout. This conflict normally results in frustration, hostility and lack of social support.

“People thrive in community and function best when they share praise, comfort, happiness, and humor with people they like and respect.”
Christina Maslach Social Psychologist

Building a sense of community takes time, but here are a few ways to get the process started:

  • Lead by example – get to know your employees. How can you expect to build a community at work if you don’t make an effort to get to know people?
  • Acknowledge things that are happening in people’s’ personal lives. Birthdays, engagements and other personal events are the perfect time to show you care.
  • Make time for events and team building. Away days, company trips, or even something as simple as afterwork drinks can help people get to know each other.
  • Encourage some friendly competition at the office. You could organise a monthly pool competition or create a companywide fitness challenge.

5. Unfair Policies and Decision-Makers

Fairness communicates respect and helps confirm people’s self-worth – which is vital to building a shared sense of community. Unfairness can occur when there is inequity of workload or pay, cheating, or poor handling of evaluations, promotions and grievances.

There are two aspects of establishing fairness in the workplace, summarised by a study in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Trust in decision-making authorities fundamentally shapes employees’ expectations about how they will be treated in the future — in terms of both what the authorities are likely to do and how they will execute their decisions.’

Man and woman having a meeting outside on a sunny day

Steps you can take to make procedures more fair and manage employee expectations:

  • Establish clear rules and be transparent in implementing them. The perceived fairness of procedures and outcomes is often more important than the outcomes themselves – so it’s important to be consistent.
  • Focus on a better process or a better outcome. Ideally you can improve both, but maybe you can only influence the process and not the outcome. If that’s the case, it can still have a significant impact on organisational commitment.
  • Make the effort to understand your employees’ expectations. Ambitions, objectives and job responsibilities can vary significantly between different people, which is why it’s important to set up time on a one-to-one basis.
  • Continuously monitor employee satisfaction, share those results and work with the people involved to come up with better solutions that will help prevent a disconnect between experience and expectation in future.

6. Conflict of Values

The idea of cultural fit isn’t about working with people who like the same music or sports teams as you, it’s about asking how well does this person align with the organisation’s values? A disconnect between someone’s personal values and the values of the company can create a conflict which eventually leads to employee burnout.

People can also be caught between conflicting values of the organisation, for example a lofty mission statement that is in no way connected with the way a company does business.

Man looking stressed at his laptop

You might not be able to redefine your company’s values, but you can live them:

  • Lead by example. Do you know your company values? Can you explain them to a new starter? If not, you might not be doing a great job of leading by example.
  • Make your values part of the hiring process. Skills and experience are important, but what use are talented people if they don’t fit with the company culture? This also helps to reinforces the company’s values with every new hire.
  • Reinforce the company values in your communications. Mention them at all-hands, in your internal newsletter and anywhere else people will see them.
  • Reward employees that embody company values. Use a peer voting system that encourages people to praise and tell stories about value-centric behaviours within the business. Mention them in all-hands meetings and company newsletters.

Employee Burnout Key Takeaways

Employee burnout is characterised by three traits: Exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory identifies six domains that contribute to work burnout:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

The costs of employee burnout can take a significant toll on physical health, psychological well-being, and work performance.

Maslach highlighted the need to pay more attention to the social and organizational environment in which individuals work in a recent journal article in the The European Health Psychologist. In particular, she points to the fact that companies need to be more creative about solutions at an organisational level, rather than just an individual one.

When it comes to preventing employee burnout, Maslach has some very clear advice:

“Building engagement is the best approach to preventing burnout. People who are engaged with their work are better able to cope with the challenges they encounter, and thus are more likely to recover from stress. So building an engaged workforce, before there are major problems, is a great prevention strategy.”Christina Maslach Social Psychologist

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