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In March 2021, Microsoft reported that 54% of US workers are actively burned out at work. It’s time to quit thinking about how to prevent job burnout and start thinking about how to address it — it is already here, and unless we take action, it is here to stay.
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What is job burnout?
According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis. But it is a real phenomenon: Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.
So, how did we get to a point where 54% of Americans feel physical or emotional exhaustion tied to work?
First things first: Burnout isn’t new. Social science tells us the problem of workplace burnout was here well before the COVID-19 pandemic. And according to leading burnout expert Christina Maslach, it doesn’t originate from outside organizations: It stems from within. “The burned-out worker might think they are the problem, but actually, they’re the canary in the coal mine,” says Maslach.
The burned-out worker might think they are the problem, but actually, they’re the canary in the coal mine.
According to Maslach, burnout happens at the place where mental and emotional fatigue, physical exhaustion, and a sense of disconnection meet. And there’s a growing body of research telling us that it is the responsibility of organizations to end it, not of the people who work for them. “The bottom line on burnout is that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness,” Maslach says.
Just like free beer and ping pong tables can’t fix a toxic company culture, meditation and yoga will get employees only so far when it comes to reversing workplace burnout. In the end, fighting job burnout from the outside will be a losing battle.
Make no mistake: Job burnout is the greatest occupational hazard of the 21st century. So where exactly does it come from, and what can we do about it?
Address burnout in your org. Read:
20 Proven Strategies to Boost Employee Morale
What causes job burnout?
A 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People,” estimates that roughly 550 million work days and 190 billion in healthcare costs were lost to job burnout in the U.S. annually. In the same year, the problem hit such a level that the World Health Organization classified it as an occupational phenomenon.
The bottom line on burnout is that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness.
Because this level of burnout is a new problem, solving it can feel overwhelming — if not impossible. But just like any other business problem, the solution lies in defining the problem, identifying the causes, and then making a plan to address each one.
According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, these six aspects make a workplace prone to burnout:
🤯 Demand overload
⚙️ Lack of control
🥉 Insufficient reward
☠️ Socially toxic workplace
⚖️ Lack of fairness
💔 Value conflicts
The more of these six factors present, the more employee burnout compounds. To start chipping away at existing workplace burnout — or better yet, prevent it before it starts — organizations need to flip each of the six factors on its head.
20 action steps to address job burnout
Between the demands of hybrid-remote work, a global pandemic, and an always-on society, worker morale and mental health are at risk. Here’s how to fix it:
1. Block meeting-free times for deep work. Back-to-back meetings can lead to burnout fast. Prevent it by mandating 90-minute windows of time throughout each week to give your team time for the deep work that makes them more productive.
2. Relieve pressure to participate socially. After-hours events are great for building connections between team members — but after a long day of work (especially for remote workers), they can feel like another burden. Even though you want the participation, keep social events optional. There’s really no such thing as mandatory fun. (Bonus: Get our tips for keeping company culture alive while working remotely.)
3. Make burnout a regular agenda item. In 1-on-1 Sync-Ups or quarterly performance Check-Ins, add the topic of burnout to the agenda. Ask workers how they’re doing, and use this time to raise and solve issues related to workload, priorities, and work-life balance.
Lack of control → Increase autonomy
Feel like everything is spinning out of control? Your employees do too. Fix this by creating elements of work-life your employees can control.
4. Increase the flexibility of work hours. Flexible schedules allow people to integrate their work into the rest of their lives, and have been proven to be a valuable perk, a morale boost, and a retention-saver.
5. Offer remote opportunities permanently. According to Gallup, hybrid workers are 60-80% more engaged than those who work entirely in one setting. They also register higher levels of well-being.
6. Work with different communication styles. Roll out a company-wide personality test, such as Myers-Briggs or Insights, to learn about employees’ preferred communication styles. (Bonus: Learn more about using the Enneagram test for managers.)
7. Extend new challenges. In 1-on-1 Sync-Ups, be sure to ask forward-thinking questions that communicate a desire to invest in the team member’s future, such as, “Which new projects would you be excited to reach for this quarter?”
Insufficient rewards → Offer rewards that support employees’ lives
Workplace rewards like gift cards and certificates are nice, but they won’t prevent job burnout. Instead, offer meaningful rewards that help employees restore work-life balance. Try subsidizing activities that boost mental health, such as:
8. Turn “sick days” into “wellness days” (and require people to take them). Studies show that during the pandemic, individual have been less likely to take time off. Consider switching sick days to “wellness days” and urge people to take advantage of them to recharge.
9. Incentivize exercise. One recent study examined the effects of regular exercise on workers suffering from job burnout. Participants who consistently exercised were more likely to deal with stress at work without being overwhelmed by it. Incentivize physical wellness by offering access to a local gym, virtual group classes, or an organizations-wide fitness challenge.
10. Find ways to help at home. Caring for children while trying to work from home is a fast track to employee burnout. To combat the creep of domestic duties, try offering a meal prep subscription, an errand service like Task Rabbit, or gift cards for take-out delivery.
11. Reward with therapeutic care. Recent research shows that even 10 minutes of massage improves a person’s resiliency to stress. Offer rewards that include services like chiropractic care, acupuncture, or massage, which often aren’t covered by health insurance but can be a game-changer for employee mental health.
Worried you’ll have to reinvent the wheel to put these tips into practice? No problem. WorkTango’s Recognition & Rewards is set up to allow individuals to choose the reward that means most to them. You can also create an incentive for action in just a few clicks. You’ll be on your way to supporting employees in no time.
Socially toxic workplace → Increase recognition and appreciation
50% of employees say they’d be willing to stay in their current job if they felt appreciated. Too little appreciation leads to thoughts like, “What’s the point? Nobody cares anyway.” Prevent job burnout and boost morale by connecting with employees through an easy to use (and fun) Recognition & Rewards platform.
12. Practice milestone celebrations. One workplace burnout-fighting tool is simply making sure team members know that someone sees and appreciates their efforts. Did an employee complete a training module? Conquer a challenge? Pass an anniversary of employment? Don’t let accomplishments, no matter how small, pass you by — notice and cheer loudly in a social recognition feed.
13. Make sure praise is heard. Meaningful recognition is timely, specific, and tied to impact. Check out our tips for how to give great employee recognition, and encourage team members to offer focused, peer-to-peer praise by providing an easy-to-use platform for kudos and hi-fives.
14. Build a culture of gratitude. Make part of your everyday for peers and leadership to say thank you verbally, in writing (through hand-written thank you notes), and publicly through shout-outs on recognition platforms and social media. Learn how WorkTango can help.
Keep boosting employees. Read:
25 Heartfelt Employee Recognition and Appreciation Ideas
Lack of fairness → Invest in diversity & inclusivity
With or without a global pandemic, being a member of a minority population at work contributes to burnout. And now, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and women — (especially those with children) are experiencing burnout at even higher rates than others. How can we help?
15. Don’t ask Black employees to help solve your diversity problems. While many Black Americans are happy to (finally) see organizations worldwide make actionable commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they’re also tired. Being inundated with questions about race relations and being asked to help solve problems they didn’t create is emotionally exhausting. Instead, look outside of your organization for help. Create company-wide forums and Q&A sessions to educate large groups, and bring in experts if needed.
16. Create a diversity strategy. Becoming a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization won’t happen overnight; commit for the long haul. Need a framework? Check out our Roadmap for Ending Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.
17. Give women job security. According to McKinsey, women’s jobs have been 1.8X more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs. In the long run, that looks like investing in pay equality and more female leaders. In the short-term, it can look like family-friendly company benefits, such as childcare subsidies and more part-time work schedules.
If you’re wondering how your diverse employees are holding up, why not ask them? Our Surveys & Insights solution allows you to tap into the employee voice around subjects like burnout, DE&I, and psychological safety. Once you’ve got a baseline established, you’ll be able to track trends over time and measure the effectiveness of cultural initiatives.
Are your DE&I initiatives making an impact? Learn:
How to Measure the Success of Your Diversity Program
Value conflicts → Psychological safety
Politics might be polarized, but the workplace shouldn’t be. A psychologically safe workplace is one where everyone feels comfortable being and expressing themselves. Foster psychological safety by using these tips.
18. Create increased personal connection. The more personally connected we are to our coworkers, the less likely we are to experience burnout. Especially in the wake of Covid-19, our workplace relationships may be one of the only lifelines of social engagement we have — making them all the more important. Make the most of these opportunities by using Brené Brown’s tips to honor the emotions of team members, creating a culture in which it’s normal for people to voice how they’re feeling, and setting the pace of vulnerability yourself.
19. Offer training on healthy feedback. Feedback is critical to the learning process as we tackle challenges and learn new skills; and knowing how to give it and receive it well is a learned skill. In order for a team to perform at its highest levels, all employees must be equipped to have difficult conversations, to help others grow, and to learn from mistakes. WorkTango’s Goals & Feedback solution can help make feedback a part of everyday work-life. When that happens, you take fear out of the equation.
20. Embrace change management. The first step in guiding your team towards healthy change is to communicate early and consistently. Which changes will take place, why are they important, and what will be the impact on them? Answering these questions for each and every team member will not only minimize the fear we all feel around change; it will also align your team for the future.
Using technology to address job burnout
When it comes to burnout, there’s no substitute for human connection; however, there’s also a growing body of research that tells us using AI to spot employee burnout has real benefits.
In fact, many workers, especially those in leadership or those in younger generations such as GenZ, demonstrate a preference for automated mental health support. The anonymity provides a sense of safety — which often leads to greater levels of transparency and progress.
That’s why some organizations now offer access to chatbots or other AI-based therapy in the battle against burnout. The intervention could be as simple as a “nudge” to complete a 5-minute self-reflection survey as the workday begins, or a system that tracks patterns within teams and at the organizational level. (For example: “35% of your team has accessed the help module on burnout this month.”) These systems can also identify individual employees in need of attention. And in the event of serious concerns, a licensed therapist can step in to take over.
Technology alone won’t solve the problem of job burnout. But as you make plans to battle burnout, consider leveraging it for the good of your employees.
How WorkTango can help
We hope this guide helped you unpack the causes of job burnout and identify the, ways you can address it in your organization. And if you’re looking for a solution that boosts employee morale and engagement while keeping your workforce aligned and inspired, we’re here to help.
At WorkTango, we’re revolutionizing how the world’s most forward-thinking companies engage and inspire their people. We offer the only holistic Employee Experience Platform built for the modern workplace that enables meaningful recognition and rewards, offers actionable insights through employee surveys, and supports alignment through goal setting and feedback.
WorkTango is built for the workplace we all want to be a part of – where priorities become clear, achievements are celebrated, and employees have a voice. To learn more, check out our platform overview video, or schedule a demo.