Workplace Burnout: Causes, Effects, and Solutions
In recent times, the lines between work and home life have become increasingly blurred. The pandemic has seen many of us working longer hours, worrying about job security, looking after children during the working day, or experiencing significant changes in our means of social interaction.
A study by Gartner (2021) revealed that only 9% of workers are currently considered engaged. Furthermore, the Australian Human Resources Institute (2021) found that only 15% of workers are consistently thriving, and 43% are “really struggling” or “not feeling bad, but just getting by”. Asana’s (2021) research found that 77% of employees experienced burnout last year.
As prevalent as burnout is, it is often misunderstood, stigmatised, and costly to employees’ wellbeing and productivity. Workplace burnout is defined as a special type of chronic, job-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that evokes a sense of job dissatisfaction, reduced accomplishment, and loss of personal happiness. Burnout usually creeps in subtly over time, impacting workers in a way that they almost do not notice. Symptoms include feeling tired, drained, helpless, defeated, detached, alone, or overwhelmed. Burnt-out workers might procrastinate, have headaches, stomach aches, high blood pressure, insomnia, or chronic fatigue. They might display negative outlooks, cynicism, or self-doubt. (Mayo Clinic, 2021; WGU, 2019).
Not surprisingly, these symptoms usually result in reduced professional efficacy. Employee wellbeing is a key factor in determining an organisation’s long-term effectiveness. Many studies show a direct link between productivity levels and the general health and wellbeing of the workforce (International Labour Organisation, 2022).
Causes of workplace burnout
Today’s workers experience burnout resulting from both work and personality factors, including:
Working from home – Disruptive or unsuitable conditions, difficultly in switching off (longer hours), failing technology, insufficient support, lack of collaboration, feelings of loneliness or isolation.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics – For example, a workplace bully, undermining colleagues, low office morale, a micromanaging boss, or general incongruence with the office culture or values.
Unfairness at work – An absence of trust or justice in the workplace (Sonder, 2022).
Lack of control – Inability to influence decisions that affect one’s job, such as their schedule, assignments, or access to required resources.
Unclear job expectations – Uncertainty about one’s degree of authority in a role, or what the supervisor or others expect from them.
Absence of rewards – Lack of positive feedback or recognition.
Work-life imbalance – An excessive workload and time pressures in relation to employee expectations or capabilities. Spending too much time at work at the expense of relationships, rest, healthy eating, or recreational activities can lead to job resentment.
Poor physical health – Physical and mental health are closely connected and rely on each other to function optimally.
Sleep problems – Lack of sleep prohibits the body and mind from functioning properly. As well as impacting concentration and mood, lack of sleep has been linked to a range of conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It can also lead to problems with productivity and safety in the workplace (Health Direct 2020).
Job insecurity and money worries – Low organisational commitment to an employee. 81% of survey responders agreed that money worries contribute to burnout (Mental Health UK, 2021).
Lack of meaningful relationships – Social connections and healthy relationships, both at work and in personal life, can act as buffers against anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of empathy, and even weak immune system function (Better Health Victoria, 2017).
Reliance on self-help digital tools in place of social support – Self-help apps can provide valuable initial guidance, but should complement, not substitute, professional health care and robust clinical governance. Self-help apps risk user drop-off which can result in delays or the absence of care. Most health apps remain largely unevaluated or are limited by poor adherence. The prevalence of inaccurate self-diagnosis is also increased. Furthermore, the absence of social support may further isolate individuals who need human connection the most (Sonder, 2022).
Patient or customer-related stress – When the stress of a worker’s patients or customers transfers stress to the worker (Sonder, 2022).
Caring for others – Many workers carry extra responsibilities, such as looking after elderly parents or children with special needs, in addition to their jobs.
Home-schooling children – Although most children in Australia have now returned to school, home-schooling was a pressure felt by many during the lockdowns.
Personality risks – neuroticism, perfectionism, agreeableness, high or low conscientiousness, low hardiness, low resilience, low extraversion.
Burnout isn’t something which goes away on its own. Rather, it is commonly a sign of deeply entrenched issues in the workplace. Burnout will likely worsen if the underlying causes and risk factors are not addressed. Employees could lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of their jobs which could have knock-on effects to the other areas of their life (Mental Health UK, 2021).
Handling job burnout
While the best way to deal with burnout is to prevent it from happening in the first place, this is not always possible. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for employee wellbeing, and what suits one individual, workforce, or industry may not suit another. Ideally, every risk factor needs to be addressed, and sustainable, supportive and protective systems need to be put in place.
Before exploring ways to handle job burnout, it is worthwhile to consider the employee-wellbeing myths that recent research has debunked.
To begin, Sonder (2022) has found that paid time off does not necessary cure burnout. Paid time off can set the tone for a more balanced and healthier workplace, but it seems to be a band-aid for burnout, not a cure. Burnout is a multifaceted, multidimensional issue that can rarely be solved with short bursts of time off work. If a workplace is exhausting staff to the point that they are using their time off to recover, it is likely that a burnout culture exists. A healthy organisation does not leave people drained in the first place. Deloitte (2021) reported that today’s workers were reluctant to take time off because of the inability to travel, difficulty justifying time off in a work-from-home environment, fear of taking time off in an unstable job market, and a prevailing “work martyr” culture. (Sonder, 2022).
Lastly, in an era of increasing employee perks (think onsite gyms, childcare, ping-pong tables, beanbags, food trucks, and the list goes on), it might be surprising to learn that too many employee perks can have a negative effect. These benefits can deliver short-term bursts of happiness, but they do not keep people engaged in the long run. Organisations do not ordinarily offer perks out of generosity; they often provide them in an attempt to get employees to work more (Sonder, 2022).
Fortunately, there are some overarching treatments that might help manage burnout.
Seeking support – Workers can reach out to co-workers, friends, family, therapists, helplines, support groups, or employee assistance programs, to gain the support needed to alleviate burnout.
Evaluating options – Workers can communicate specific concerns with their supervisors and ideally work together to manage expectations, reach compromises, explore solutions and training needs, and set goals.
Exercise – Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve mood. It can also get people out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put them in touch with other people. Regular exercise can reduce stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues. It can also improve sleep (Health Direct, 2020).
Sleep – Adequate sleep is vital for health, but can be hard to achieve when life is busy. Health Direct (2020) suggests:
- Sticking to regular sleep times and patterns
- Using the bed for sleep, not screens
- Spending time relaxing before bed
- Keeping the bedroom comfortable (right temperature, quiet, dark, etc)
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes
- Avoiding naps during the day
- Consulting a doctor if necessary
Relaxation activities – techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or tai chi can help relieve stress.
Utilising a Wellbeing Plan or Stress Risk Assessment – Human resource managers should work to identify employees who may be suffering from burnout, as well as train employees and managers on how to recognise burnout. Wellbeing Plans are tools that help workers to identify what good wellbeing looks like for them, in addition to what it looks like when things aren’t so good. This could be shared among colleagues so that they can help to look out for each other. Stress Risk Assessments are a way to explore stress levels in employees. These work the same way as regular health and safety risk assessments: the risk is identified, then ways of removing or reducing the risk are explored (Mental Health Uk 2021).
Taking breaks and time off – It is important for workers to take regular breaks throughout the workday, no matter how inconvenient they may seem. Taking a break can help reset emotions, provide a much-needed rest, a social interaction, or even a bout of exercise. Reluctant workers might need explicit permission and encouragement from their employers to take extended time off.
Tackling money problems – For example, plan a budget, seek debt advice, or explore welfare options.
Improving the work-from-home situation – For example, structure the day, set boundaries with other people in the home, stay in regular contact with colleagues and managers, and manage time effectively.
Workplace burnout is increasingly common for many employees, but it does not have to be. Even in these challenging times, employees can take actions to prevent or treat workplace burnout and have a career that they find manageable and fulfilling.
- Asana (2021, January 14). Anatomy of Work Index 2021: Australia and New Zealand Findings. From: website.
- Australian Human Resources Institute (2021, May). The Wellbeing Lab Workplace Report. From: website.
- Better Health Victoria (2017, October 2). Strong relationships, strong health. From: website.
- Deloitte (2021, January 22). The disconnect disconnect. From: website.
- Forbes, D., Creamer, M., Phelps, A., Bryant, R., McFarlane, A., Devilly, G.J., Matthews, L., Raphael, B., Doran, C., Merlin, T., & Newton, S. (2007, August). Australian guidelines for the treatment of adults with acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(8), 637-48. From: website.
- Gartner (2021, April 29). Gartner HR Survey Shows a Quarter of Australian Employees Are Seeking a New Job. From: website.
- Health Direct (2020, August). Sleep. From: website.
- Health Direct (2020, November). Exercise and mental health. From: website.
- International Labour Organisation (2022). Workplace well-being. From: website.
- Mayo Clinic (2021, June 5). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. From: website.
- Mental Health UK (2021). Burnout. From: website.
- Rosenberg McKay, D. (2019, June 4) Job Burnout: The causes, symptoms, and ways to prevent it. The Balance Careers. From: website.
- Sonder (2022). 5 Myths of employee wellbeing. Insights. Issue 01. From: website.
- Western Governors University (2019, June 6). Workplace burnout: causes, effects, and solutions. From: website.