How to Prevent Employee Burnout

Workers are burning out at record levels, but it doesn’t have to be that way

Jennifer Moss
Jennifer Moss

The pandemic may be receding, but its impact still is profoundly felt in the workplace as employees — reeling from stress and overwork — continue to leave jobs in record numbers in what’s being called the Great Resignation. As such, employee burnout is one of the leading problems facing organizations today.

“It was already an issue reaching a boiling point before the pandemic,” says Jennifer Moss, a noted speaker and workplace culture consultant. “But now I’d say it’s a bigger problem than ever before. The root causes of burnout have exploded … and it’s a global phenomenon.

“There’s a lot of cynicism and hopelessness — employees are tired and disengaged.”

In fact, about a year before the pandemic even hit, the World Health Organization classified employee burnout as an official disease in 2019, notes Moss, who also wrote a recently published book titled The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.

Moss says there are six major causes of burnout:

 Overwork, which is the leading factor.

 A lack of fairness, particularly in terms of discriminatory behavior toward women.

 Insufficient agency as employees have little or no chance to disconnect from work, even late at night, and often are asked to pick up the slack of departed colleagues.

• Insufficient pay or rewards for their extra efforts.

 Lack of community, which leads to feelings of loneliness and isolation as employees work from home and don’t always get a chance to meet new co-workers or even new managers.

 Mismatched skills as employees take on additional duties that departed colleagues leave behind.

“We need to view burnout as a serious problem, not just whiny millennials complaining about their work/life balance,” Moss says.

Self-care isn’t enough

Many employers take steps to alleviate burnout. But while they’re well-intentioned, these efforts often are off-target and misguided. As an example, Moss cites things such as meditation and yoga rooms and providing days off of work.

These things can be helpful, she notes. But too often, people don’t have the time or the energy to practice self-care.

“And giving someone a day or two off from work doesn’t resolve the workload issue, so they’re just putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” she says. “We’re helping people downstream, but we need to help them upstream.

“We’re giving people ice cream when they need water,” Moss continues. “Everyone loves ice cream, but they can’t survive without water.”

Telltale signs of burnout

How can managers tell if their employees are suffering from burnout?

High turnover is one telltale sign, as is high-performing employees that suddenly become withdrawn and disengaged, underperform or call in sick frequently.

“When high-performing employees suddenly stop performing, managers tend to think they’re just underperforming when they’re actually burning out,” Moss notes.

In addition, managers need to be attuned to the language employees use when they talk about work. If they use “fixed” terms, such as “always” and “never,” that’s another sign of burnout, Moss points out.

“Managers need to be much better at actively listening. They can play a huge role in identifying the language of burnout.”

Superstar employees that leave high-paying jobs or that make sharp career pivots also are strong burnout indicators.

Policy-driven solutions

Because burnout is typically an organizational problem, not an individual one, and the root causes are institutional and policy-driven, it requires policy-driven solutions.

The good news is that organizational leaders have several strategies at their disposal.

“For example, we need more psychological safety for employees,” Moss says. “Employees shouldn’t be forced to answer emails at 11 p.m. and should be protected from bullying and sexual harassment.”

Workers also need more equitable maternity leave and better child-care policies, she adds.

Furthermore, on a larger level, organizations need to think more about how to value, inspire and protect employees instead of trying to solve burnout with downstream, self-care tactics.

Setting boundaries helps, too

That’s not to say that individual employees can’t advocate for themselves, either, she points out. For example, high-performing employees generally tend to be perfectionists who think everything is important and needs their attention.

But it would behoove them to do some self-reflection and understand they must set up buffers that can help relieve stress. A good example is deciding to not attend certain meetings that aren’t central to their jobs — and then not taking it personally when they’re not invited to those meetings, Moss says.

“They need to look at that as a time blessing,” she suggests. “If you’re working on urgent needs all the time, then you’re not actually working on priority needs — and that’s simply not sustainable.

“So high performers need to create space and manage stakeholder expectations. They should use their out-of-office notification when they need a few hours and block off time on their calendars. We all need to learn how to better manage our technology.”

Paradigm shift required

Employees also need to be more diligent about separating their work and home lives. Furthermore, team managers — as well as organizational leaders who create a culture that prizes employees who are responsive and connected to work 24/7 — need to change those expectations and honor employees’ needs to focus on home and family, Moss says.

“Burnout isn’t resolved unless everyone is committed to it. And if you have a conversation with your employer and nothing changes, then maybe it’s time to quit.”

Employees need to realize it’s not a sign of defeat to take another job. And with record levels of job opening, it’s actually a good time to be looking, she notes.

“But I’d also warn people to not just make a change for the sake of change. You need to ask potential employers the kind of questions that you need answers to. Do your research on things like levels of attrition, mental health policies and which industries are more prone to employee burnout.

“The last thing you want to do it is take a new job and find the new company has the same culture as the organization you just left.”

Despite the gloomy statistics about burnout, however, Moss is heartened by what she sees occurring in companies and organizations that recognize burnout as a legitimate issue and are doing something about it.

“From what I’m hearing and seeing, there’s a huge shift occurring across the board as organizations take more responsibility for their employees’ mental health than ever before. That’s a great sign and it bodes well for the future.”


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