6 Causes of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent Them

6 Causes of Employee Burnout and How to Prevent Them

Employee burnout — two words everyone needs to take notice of in 2021. The wider working world may have been focused on remote offices and faltering lines of international distribution, but it’s burnout that most affected employees.

In fact, of the 8,000 respondents we surveyed for our Holiday Click-Off survey, 29% said they were on the cusp of total burnout by the end of 2020.

Employee burnout is one of the biggest threats to worker wellbeing and employee engagement. According to a landmark World Health Organisation (WHO) study, Mental health in the workplace, employee burnout can cost the global workforce one trillion dollars in lost productivity each year.

To help frame this discussion of how to prevent employee burnout, we’re using the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a widely used measure of aspects of the burnout syndrome. It identifies six domains that contribute to work burnout:

  1. Workload
  2. Control
  3. Reward
  4. Community
  5. Fairness
  6. Values

But simply listing this six domains isn’t enough. Reducing employee burnout means fully comprehending these six domains, and applying that knowledge to workplace initiatives — with Peakon’s well-tested advice as essential support.

What is employee burnout?

First coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, employee 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 (further corroborated by our own research on the reasons why employees leave).

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 employee burnout?

While some cases of burnout result from individual personality factors or issues outside of work, it’s normally organisational issues that contribute to excessive stress. The global pandemic will undoubtedly have impacted overall employee wellbeing, but you can still reduce employee burnout with the right approach.

To help identify the contributing factors of burnout, Maslach & Leiter developed a framework that identifies how well matched (or in the case of employee burnout, mismatched) someone is with six different domains of their job environment.

We’ve highlighted each of those domains below, along with suggestions for how to reduce stress in that particular domain. That way, 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 employee 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 point of focus for that week — and no more than three. That way you can help balance team workload.
  • Schedule regular catch-ups to check progress and highlight blockers. Daily stand-ups can also be an effective way to stay on track and break down bigger projects. When working remotely, create a Slack thread or Google Doc where people can make roadblocks visible.
  • Don’t overload your employees with too many tasks at once. Multitasking is 40% less productive than monotasking — give employees time to focus on just one thing. A chaotic schedule is far more likely to lead to employee burnout.
  • 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. Onboarding remotely has only exacerbated that.

How do you ensure employees have control?

Avoiding employee burnout is a delicate balancing act. The solution? Finding the sweet-spot 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 use a 30-60-90 day plan with all new starters. Consider how their needs may change when working remotely.
  • 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. Leaving the comfort zone can be 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 for employee burnout, but what most companies overlook is a lack of social rewards (e.g. 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 handling something important well).

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.

Preventing employee burnout with the right rewards

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

  • Recognise people for specific actions, results or behaviours. For example, 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 structured story (especially if it comes from a peer) helps promote positive behaviours.
  • Make it easy to provide feedback. Whether it’s through regular employee surveys, or a dedicated platform that allows colleagues to reward each other.

4. Poor sense of community

Jobs and office environments that isolate people from each other are one source of stress in the workplace — a particularly tricky prospect when so many of us are working separately. However, it’s chronic, unresolved conflict with others that eventually leads to employee burnout.

“People thrive in community and function best when they share praise, comfort, happiness, and humour with people they like and respect.”

Christina Maslach Social Psychologist

Promoting community, preventing burnout

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. You can’t 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, especially at a time when people are feeling more disconnected.
  • Acknowledge things that are happening in the wider world. Recognising the burden of the pandemic lets your people know feeling burned out is natural, not a personal failure.
  • Make time for events and team building. Away days and after-work socials may feel like a distant memory, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Scheduling time in your calendar for digital social events is even more important now.

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

How transparency deters employee burnout

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 employee satisfaction results with the people involved, and collaborate on better solutions. That should 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 personal values and company values can create conflict, and conflict typically leads to employee burnout.

People can also get caught between conflicting company values. For example: a lofty mission statement that is in no way connected with the way a company actually does business.

Man looking stressed at his laptop

Company values and employee burnout

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 reinforce 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.

How do you overcome employee burnout?

The financial cost of neglecting employee wellbeing has become glaringly apparent. Burnout alone is estimated to cost the global economy $322bn each year. Measures to support wellbeing are increasingly becoming a ‘must have’ for companies that want to hold on to their best people and attract new talent too.

We’re currently living through one of the most testing periods for employee burnout in history. With more employees turning to their employers for support, it’s never been more important for leaders and managers to listen to the needs of their workers, and to make them feel heard by taking action.

Christina Maslach highlighted the need to pay more attention to the social and organisational environment in which individuals work in an important 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

If you want to learn about how Peakon can help you engage with your employees, and take action on what you hear — book a demo today.