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Hannah Taylor

What is Employee Burnout? Definition, Causes & Effects

Not just a buzzword, but a major occupational health hazard. Let's dive into the definition of employee burnout, as well as the causes and effects.

According to Indeed, over half of workers feel burnt out. Whether one or twenty members of your team are struggling with this occupational phenomenon, it’s your responsibility as their leader to understand how to identify the signs of burnout.

In this article, we’re exploring the signs, causes, and effects of burnout, so you can better understand and prevent employee burnout. Let’s get started.

What is employee burnout?

Burnout isn’t just a buzzword used to describe overtired workers who desperately need a holiday; it’s an occupational phenomenon that has been officially recognized by the World Health Organization. Despite being first theorized in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, burnout was first included in the International Classification of Diseases in 2019. 

According to the World Health Organization, burnout isn’t a medical condition but a syndrome resulting ‘from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ Yet, long-term burnout can have a seriously negative impact on employees’ physical and mental health. WHO characterizes employee burnout by three dimensions:

  • Energy depletion and exhaustion
  • Negative feelings towards your job, including frustration or a lost sense of purpose
  • Reduced professional efficacy at work

All employees struggle with negative feelings, low energy levels, and reduced efficiency from time to time. What differentiates short-term stress from true burnout is that the latter is felt consistently, and negatively impacts employees’ professional efficacy.

What are the signs of employee burnout?

In 2010, BMC Public Health revealed employees can experience three — yes, three — types of burnout, each with their own set of symptoms. Let’s take a look at the definitions of each and the signs of burnout.

Frenetic burnout: Employees experiencing frenetic burnout tend to go above and beyond to reach their goals and pride themselves on their above-average work ethic. They may work themselves to the point of chronic fatigue, displaying symptoms of poor physical or mental health such as anxiety, insomnia, chronic stress, and physical fatigue.

Under-challenged burnout: Under-challenged burnout arises from a loss of purpose at work triggered by understimulating work, a lack of acknowledgment, or an absence of development opportunities. Because they aren’t being challenged in their roles, these employees will likely feel disillusioned, helpless, and cynical.

Worn-out burnout: Have you ever felt pushed to the brink at work due to consistent poor management, a toxic team, or a sense that your contribution isn’t valued? You may have experienced worn-out burnout, which goes hand in hand with disengagement, frustration, and a negative outlook towards work.

What are the causes of employee burnout?

Whether your team members are showing signs of employee burnout or you want to unlock the secrets to preventing burnout, we’ve outlined the top causes below.

Poor work-life balance

Poor work-life balance due to overworking is one of the most common causes of employee burnout. 

Working one or two long days isn’t enough to trigger feelings of burnout, but consistently working into the night, checking emails when off the clock (or worse, on vacation), or even thinking about never-ending to-do lists while tucked up in bed inevitably leads to overwhelm and emotional exhaustion.

Employees who overwork may be overutilized by management or shoulder too much responsibility within the team, such as by helping out others when they’re already at capacity. Being overutilized means that an employee is assigned a heavy workload that exceeds their availability, forcing them to miss out on regular breaks or work longer hours to hit their deadlines. Most importantly, it requires them to prioritize their work over their personal life, leading to a poor work-life balance and burnout.

A lack of appreciation

When team leaders fail to acknowledge the effort employees put into their work, they begin to feel undervalued by their team and the business, leading to a loss of motivation. After all, why should they go the extra mile if no one will notice?

It’s important for employees to feel their contributions make a difference that is recognized and appreciated, as this will encourage them to engage more deeply with their work. There are many ways for leaders to make employees feel valued, including bonuses, raises, verbal praise, and company-wide recognition.

A lack of challenge

If overworked employees sit at one end of the spectrum, those who are underworked sit at the other. Interestingly enough, both overworking and underworking can lead to employee burnout.

Underchallenged employees tend to lack motivation because they’re underutilized or they find completing tasks mind-numbingly dull as their employer is failing to make the most of their skillset. When highly motivated employees feel they’re not achieving anything, they quickly become disengaged.

Most employees want to develop their skills and further their careers, and they can’t do that if they aren’t given the opportunity to challenge themselves. Plus, there’s nothing exciting about repeating the same tasks every day. Cue extreme boredom.

A toxic work environment

A toxic workplace perpetuates stress and impacts employee well-being, and feeling unhappy at work is a slippery slope to burnout. Here are some commonalities in toxic workplaces:

  • Poor management practices
  • Unhealthy team dynamics
  • A culture of overworking, which is an issue in many service organizations
  • A lack of support from management
  • No recognition or opportunities to progress

What’s more, when workers feel their employers’ values don’t align with their own, they can become demotivated.

A lack of autonomy

No one likes a micromanager, but 79% of employees have experienced micromanagement. It’s important for workers to feel empowered to take control of their work, including their working hours, time management, processes, and decision-making. If they know someone is constantly looking over their shoulder, they may become stressed or feel they are not trusted by management.

How does burnout impact employees?

Burnout can impact people in many different ways depending on their personality traits and the type of burnout they’re experiencing. Here are some of the most common ways burnout impacts employees’ well-being and effectiveness.

A change in attitude

When someone reaches the point of burnout, their attitude towards their job changes. 

Let’s look at an example. If a designer is consistently working at 125% capacity, they’ll likely become exhausted after several months and lose all motivation. This is worsened if their additional effort isn’t acknowledged by management. They’ll quickly go from being the most on-the-pulse member of the team to struggling to meet deadlines. 

Failing to live up to the high expectations they’ve set can create feelings of guilt, further feeding the cycle of burnout.

An inability to switch off

Employee burnout = high levels of job stress and anxiety. When employees are stressed, they struggle to switch off, which only exacerbates poor work-life balance.

Downtime is important for workers to recharge and focus on their personal lives, but ruminating over mistakes, replaying conversations, and fixating on looming deadlines all prevent people from enjoying their time outside work.

Poor physical and mental health

Long hours, consistently high levels of work-related stress, and a lack of sleep will wreak havoc on employees’ mental health and physical health. For example, extreme pressure from team leaders may trigger feelings of overwhelm, which can grow into anxiety and depression.

When workers experience high stress levels, they may ruminate at nighttime, leading to insomnia. Exhaustion caused by a lack of sleep will only fuel the cycle of job burnout by leading to poor job performance and stress-inducing mistakes.

But that’s not too bad, right? After all, we’ve all experienced a sleepless night here and there. Unfortunately, the health impacts of burnout extend well beyond disrupted sleep cycles.

The APA revealed that employees who experience true workplace burnout have a 57% increased risk of workplace absence, a 180% increased risk of developing depressive disorders, an 84% increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and a 40% increased risk of hypertension.

And for workers who experience burnout long-term, extensive research shows the negative consequences can be fatal. Data from the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization revealed that working long hours contributed to the deaths of 745,000 people from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016.

Reduced productivity

Top-level productivity is only sustainable for so long. While many businesses set utilization goals for employees, setting these too high puts excess pressure on workers to be constantly productive. And that’s just not how work works.

At Runn, we believe time tracking and utilization rates are critical to informing your planning and hiring practices; however, these benchmarks shouldn’t be used to motivate employees to work harder by instilling a sense of fear of failure. This will only push them closer to burnout.

How does work burnout impact organizations?

Employee well-being has a direct impact on business performance, informing its culture and its bottom line. Let’s examine the most significant ways employee burnout can negatively affect organizations.

Company-wide decline in productivity

If job burnout has the power to derail one employee’s productivity, imagine what can happen when a large proportion of the workforce is experiencing burnout at the same time.

Great company performance is dictated by employee efficiency and efficacy, but a lack of focus, motivation, and general energy across the business can significantly impact its bottom line. As workers start producing lower-quality work, missing deadlines, and tackling problems ineffectively, you will see a loss of productivity cascade across the organization.

Breakdowns in communication

A team’s success is bolstered by positive collaboration and communication. However, when burnout runs rampant, it can cause relationships between team members to break down and impact the company’s culture in the long term.

Stressed and exhausted burnt-out employees typically struggle with effective communication, leading to conflict between colleagues. They may also withdraw from social interactions, choosing to tackle their workload instead of engaging in social or team-building activities. Plus, the frustration experienced by overburdened employees can significantly impact relationships between team members and the effectiveness of your operations; this can be mitigated with better workload management.

Low morale and workplace culture

Does your business foster a culture of collaboration by supporting workers when times get tough, or do you instill a fear of failure in your team in the hope of pushing them to deliver better results?

When employees feel supported by senior management, they’re less likely to experience burnout. But when left unchecked, job burnout can grow from an issue to be managed to an unavoidable yet ugly part of your company’s culture.

Absenteeism and high turnover

Absenteeism and high turnover rates are common issues in organizations struggling with burnout. According to one report, there’s a close connection between emotional exhaustion, chronic workplace stress, job satisfaction, and employees’ intention to leave their jobs.

As explored above, burnout can manifest as physical and mental illness, resulting in employees taking time away from work either to recover from burnout-related illnesses or to try to mitigate the issue of burnout itself. For businesses, this means a costly loss of productivity. In fact, according to the HSE, 17.9 million working days were lost to job stress, anxiety, or depression between 2019 and 2020, and 90% of respondents to a CIPD survey from large organizations identified workplace stress-related absences in their organization over the last year.

The long-term job stress and dissatisfaction burnout causes can also push employees to explore alternative employment opportunities. They’ll typically seek out environments that are less stressful, more rewarding, and that prioritize employee retention.

High costs

Unfortunately, poor employee retention is a costly problem to have. A loss of talent, including the high performers who put themselves at risk of burnout to get projects over the line, disrupts projects, and puts strain on resources as managers struggle to cover unfilled roles. Between hiring replacements, bringing in short-term cover, and onboarding and training new employees, having a high turnover rate is immensely costly for businesses.

This report found that turnover and lost productivity due to employee burnout cost businesses around $322bn globally, with the cost of voluntary turnover due to burnout alone making up 15% to 20% of the payroll budget each year.

Damage to reputation

Let’s summarize what we know so far about burnout and its impact on businesses:

  • Workplace burnout can result in lower productivity and decreased work quality
  • Burnt-out employees are more likely to leave for workplaces with better cultures, impacting ongoing projects
  • Burnout can lead to communication breakdowns

We’re seeing an increased focus put on well-being initiatives and workplace culture today, and those seen to be failing to foster a supportive work environment will struggle to onboard great clients and incredible talent. Moreover, when existing clients realize your business can no longer be relied upon to deliver high-quality, consistent work as a result of these issues, your relationships will begin to deteriorate.

In our digital age, word spreads fast, and it can take many years to shed a reputation of having a burnout culture.

What’s next: preventing employee burnout

Employee burnout is increasingly prevalent in modern organizations. But with the right tools, your team can buck the trend. By understanding how to use resource management tools to recognize burnout and stop it in its tracks, you can begin fostering a culture that prioritizes personal wellbeing over profitability.

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