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We Didn’t Start the Fire - Employee Burnout Is Already Ablaze

October 17, 2019
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Regardless of the industry, slow economic recovery has led to a greater need for company efficiencies. Becoming more lean and agile is a common trend, which is placing higher expectations on the workforce – with fewer resources. Such expectations are creating the perfect environment for employee burnout.

Even though unemployment rates are at historic lows, employee retention continues to be an issue for many companies. If employee turnover is a concern for you and your organization, managing employee burnout should be at the top of your list of priorities. Having experienced and recovered from burnout, I have some thoughts on how to best identify and manage it.

Definition of Burnout

Dr. Herbert Freudenberger first termed the word “burnout” in the 1970s, using an analogy of a burned-out house: The outer shell may seem almost intact, but the inside reveals the full force of the desolation. People who are burnt out may not appear that way on the outside, but like a burned-out house, “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”

Researches have divided burnout into three parts:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Inefficacy

Employees who are experiencing exhaustion from burnout could become easily upset, have trouble sleeping, get sick more often and struggle to concentrate. Those who are experiencing cynicism often feel alienated from the people they work with and lack engagement in their work. Employees who are suffering from inefficacy do not believe in their ability to perform their jobs well and have decreased productivity.

Depending on the extent of burnout in your workforce, these symptoms can have a serious impact on the company bottom line and an even more serious impact on your employees’ overall health and wellness. When Kronos Incorporated surveyed human resources professionals at 614 organizations, 95 percent of respondents cited burnout as an obstacle to employee retention. Nearly half of respondents reported that up to 50 percent of their turnover was related to burnout. Furthermore, the University of Phoenix’s Job Burnout Poll for 2018 revealed that more than half of employees have experienced job burnout. The report cites anxiety, fatigue, depression and anger as signs of the problem.

Causes of Employee Burnout

Interestingly, burnout is not the result of working too hard for too long, according to Association for Psychological Science writer Alexandra Michel. Burnout occurs when the demands of work and other stressors outweigh the reward or recognition. Ethnographer and author Simon Sinek has said, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

When work is not aligned with employees’ needs or passions, they experience burnout. As an employer, how do you really know what motivates your employees and if their workloads and rewards are aligned?

Identification of Burnout in Your Workforce

Measuring employee engagement is a good way of identifying employee burnout risks in your organization. Employee engagement is the emotional connection an employee has to the organization and to its goals. When employees are engaged with their work, they’re more fulfilled, more productive and more motivated. Higher levels of employee engagement, or emotional bonds, correlate with higher employee satisfaction, loyalty, customer satisfaction and organizational financial performance.
The Raddon Employee Viewpoint Survey helps identify the levels as well as the key drivers of employee engagement. Raddon categorizes employee responses in four levels of engagement (see Figure 1):

  • Cheerleader
  • Content
  • Complacent
  • Detached

The employees in the cheerleader and content categories make up an engaged workforce. Those in the complacent and detached categories are considered disengaged, making them more at risk of burnout. Even though Raddon works primarily with financial institutions, a recent Raddon Research Insights study reveals levels of engagement across multiple industries. About 70 percent of all respondents are considered disengaged, while 56 percent of financial institution employees are disengaged, according to the Raddon Viewpoint survey (see Figure 2).

Employees are motivated or passionate about different things. Understanding what drives employee engagement helps mitigate the risk of burnout. Raddon identifies and measures these drivers of engagement in four main categories:

  • Social: Atmosphere & enjoyment
  • The job itself: Confidence & work
  • The company: Vision & commitment
  • Rewards: Accomplishment & recognition

A recent Raddon study revealed that Millennials, in general, are likely to agree with or be engaged based on the social statements in the survey, whereas Baby Boomers are more likely to agree with elements of the job itself.

Tips on Mitigating Employee Burnout

An organization’s culture, in my opinion, is the No. 1 factor in igniting or extinguishing employee burnout. In order to understand and manage individual employee passions, an engaged management team with an open-door culture is necessary. Employees must feel comfortable and empowered to speak up and have candid conversations with their immediate supervisors. It is management’s responsibility to establish, demonstrate and nurture such a culture. If employees are not comfortable speaking openly and honestly, managers are less likely able to identify and manage the effects of burnout.
Varying degrees of emotional support both inside and outside the workplace help employees work through burnout. Disengaged employees who do not have a support group or those who are not willing to speak up are more likely to experience burnout, based on recent findings by Raddon.
Having a management team who is willing to listen to employees and validate their concerns is only one piece of the puzzle. Encouraging work-life balance is critical to reducing the percentage of burnt-out employees in the workforce. A 2018 Robert Half poll of 2,800 employees found that 39 percent of respondents felt their employers were responsible for creating work-life balance. In a separate survey, only 26 percent of business leaders cited work-life balance as the employees’ concern.
Management sets the tone and expectations for its workers and their performance. Too often, employees feel they would not be able to get ahead if they requested time off. When company cultures demand allegiance of their employees to their jobs, at the expense of their personal lives, employee disengagement and resentment fester. However, when companies encourage work-life balance, the business benefits as much as the employees do. Employees who take a week or more of vacation are more likely to be driven to contribute to their company’s success than workers who do not take time off. Also, when organizations give employees flexibility, they retain and attract more talent, according to a Hiring Lab report. It is important to create a culture where requesting time off and avoiding an “always-on” electronic connection to the workplace is encouraged and expected of employees.
In addition, organizations can establish formal mentor programs to help combat impending employee burnout. Mentoring helps establish a trusting relationship between two people that lays the foundation for open and honest communication, even on sensitive subjects. According to Michael Gill and Thomas Roulet’s “Mentoring for Mental Health” research, both mentors and mentees feel the positive effects of a mentoring program, including reduced stress and anxiety as well as increased feelings of meaningfulness in their work. Job performance and satisfaction among employees increase at companies that establish formalized mentoring programs that encourage regular meetings between mentors and mentees.
Finally, establishing a volunteer program can also help mitigate the risk of employee burnout. People need to spend time in activities they love. Helping employees find the time to do the things they’re most passionate about also drives engagement. Volunteering was the perfect prescription for my personal burnout. I took author James Sudakow’s advice and added something new to my already demanding work and personal life schedule. As backward as it sounds, that approach to alleviating burnout worked. My weekly commitment to volunteering at an organization I’m most passionate about rejuvenated me. Not only was I even more committed to my work duties, I found increased energy and focus as a wife, mother and friend. Oddly enough, I found balance.
It is not a question of if and when your workforce will experience burnout. It’s a matter of how many are currently experiencing it, how many more are on the brink of burning out and whether your organization is prepared to do something about it. The ability to carry out your mission lies with your people. You can fight the fires of employee burnout, but proactively establishing fire-prevention measures is more effective. When you drive a culture of employee engagement, you have less burnout and less turnover. Therefore, you are better able to deliver your brand promise at a superior level to your customers.

Interested in learning more about employee engagement? Raddon’s newest research study, Employee Engagement: How to Build Loyalty and Your Brand, investigates what drives engagement nationally and how FIs can keep their employees satisfied.  Download your copy today!