Recently, the World Health Organization validated something that all busy professionals know about today’s work culture: Burnout is very real. And it has only been exacerbated by forced remote work, which is about to get even more difficult for parents who juggle full-time work from home with full-time monitoring of their children’s virtual education.
The World Health Organization added burnout to its handbook of medical diagnoses. It defines burnout as “a syndrome… resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And describes the symptoms of burnout as:
- feelings of depletion or exhaustion
- feelings of mental distance from or negativity about one’s job, and
- reduced effectiveness at work.
The symptoms of burnout are virtually the same as the symptoms of disengagement, which Gallup describes as “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.” Most employees I speak with lately convey some or all of these symptoms.
According to a survey from Gallup before the pandemic, about two-thirds of employees have felt the symptoms, and just under a quarter say they very often or always feel burned out. My work with clients leads me to believe it may be worse now.
But I’m finding something curious in my conversations with leaders. They understand that burnout is real, but they think it’s a future state that they need to avoid, not a present state that they need to deal with now. And yet when I speak with their team members, I hear over and over again how they feel that they need to be “always on,” they’re working longer hours, having trouble disconnecting, and getting more and more exhausted. And even while they tell me that they like their job and the people they work with, there is always a “but,” and their comments have a tone of some combination of bitterness, negativity and frustration.
Here’s why you need to care now. Extrapolating these Gallup statistics results in a cost of 34% of an employee’s annual salary being lost to burnout. Multiply that by the number of people in your organization (because during this pandemic, probably everyone is feeling some of this now), and that’s how much burnout could be costing your company right now.
Knowledge Work and Burnout Are Incompatible
I work with growing companies whose employees spend the majority of their days working on a computer. This often describes “knowledge workers”—those professionals whose job outcomes are mostly intangible brain activities like analysis, creativity, problem solving, and communication.
Brainpower is the Primary Tool of Knowledge Work
If you are a knowledge worker or manage a team of knowledge workers, you need to start considering the brain and how it’s functioning with the same care you would give to a team of carpenters going to work with dull saws. An underappreciated truth about knowledge workers is that their brains are the primary tool of their trade, and thinking is the primary raw material.
Efficiency and productivity require maximizing the resources available. In the knowledge economy, the most important individual and corporate resources are neither time nor money, but body and mind. Individuals and organizations can’t afford to allow those bodies and minds to become dulled by burnout.
Look for an Underlying Cause of an “Attitude Problem”
Leadership too often dismisses the disengaged, negative employees as having an “attitude problem,” transferring the blame. In some cases, this can certainly be true. But I always encourage my client leaders to take a look at the underlying causes of this attitude, and remind them that a symptom of burnout is “feelings of negativity about one’s job.”
Stress, exhaustion, and feelings of negativity are most certainly impacting the work of an employee whose mood and brain functioning are the primary components of high-quality work.
Solutions for Leaders Dealing with Burnout Problems
Here are two questions to consider if you are a leader in your organization: How many of your employees are suffering burnout right now? Is your culture to blame?
Interview Your Employees
If you have identified employees with an “attitude problem,” deal with it head-on. Try treating them like they have a burnout problem instead. Ask the team members:
- How do you feel about your workload and your ability to manage it?
- How many hours are you working each week?
- Do you frequently check work emails in the evenings, and on weekends?
Constant after-hours communications is a sign your employees are at risk. Work-life imbalance is another risk, so also find out when they last took a vacation (and didn’t work while they were away).
Remember that it’s never comfortable for employees to admit to their boss that they’re struggling, especially if it doesn’t seem like other team members are (they may just be hiding it better). So watch out for that bias during your evaluation.
Encourage (or Insist On) Extended Vacation
If the answers to these questions provide indicators of overwork, encourage (maybe even enforce) an extended vacation. At least a week, and maybe more. Even if your employees can’t travel anywhere because of the pandemic, insist that they completely disconnect from work—no email, no office check-ins, no using their vacation time as “catch up” time.
To alleviate the anxiety of getting behind while they’re out (a major reason employees don’t take their vacation time in the first place), consider an auto-response notifying the sender that the messages that arrive will be deleted. Soften this for customers by providing in the auto-response a contact who can step in for a vacationing colleague.
Then look at how you can create a culture that is less prone to employee burnout, like taking your own time off, not checking in while you’re away, and avoiding late night emails to your team.
Take Responsibility for Your Own Burnout
Here are two questions to consider if you are a manager or an individual contributor: Using the symptoms above as defined by WHO, are you burned out, or headed there? What are you doing about it?
Despite my advice to leaders above, the truth is that we all have to take responsibility for our own burnout. Ultimately, only you can decide whether or not you will allow burnout to take hold.
If you check your email on evenings, weekends, and when you’re on vacation, is your work really invading your personal life, or are you inviting it in?
Recognize that even if you’re not sitting at your laptop, checking email from your phone still counts as “working.” Extended work hours are a primary contributor to burnout. According to SHRM, “Research shows that the clear majority of bosses agree that vacation improves an employee’s focus (78 percent) and alleviates burnout (81 percent).” There is also ample evidence that downtime improves productivity. And beyond work performance, burnout is a serious risk to physical and emotional well-being.
While remote work is very popular, we also have to consider the downside, especially in the context of a global pandemic, social unrest, and the steady stream of negativity provided by the news media.
It’s time to take an honest look at your own feelings of burnout, and if you’re a leader, the evidence of burnout in your organization. You may find that it’s a current problem, not a future one, and that dealing with it now will improve productivity, add real dollars to your company’s bottom line, improve your team’s well-being, and increase your organization’s odds of success.