The hidden hazards of employee burnout

Renée Gendron
In February 2014, it was estimated that 500,000 workers across Canada would miss one week's worth of work due to work-related mental health issues. One figure estimates that more than 3.4 million Canadian workers are burnt out. Let's be very specific about what burnout is: Caused by stress and overwork, burnout is characterized by depression, an inability to perform, to self-motivate and to regain energy. A burnt out employee may be cynical, disengaged, withdrawn and cope by abusing substances.

Burnout is detrimental for the individual and costs the company in terms of sick days, lost productivity, missed insight and turnover rates. There are additional costs that most companies ignore: the costs of accidents and injuries.

Consider the following situations:

Ida is a project manager. She worked very hard to get promoted to this position. Ida’s philosophy was to showcase all of her abilities and her willingness to take on the work. There was no task too small or too challenging for her. She reminded her bosses “Send the problems to me, I’ll fix them”. And so they did. At first it was an opportunity for Ida to get experience, to expand her network and to do really interesting things. As time progressed Ida lost track of just how much of herself she was putting into her work. From the outside it looked like Ida was the next whiz-kid in the sector, taking on every challenge — and she was, until she just couldn't do it anymore. Building up to her peak performance, Ida had little lapses of concentration. These errors led to work that needn’t be done, to overlaps of responsibilities and confusion on procedures. These types of actions cost the company money and expose people to hidden risks. Working with someone who is experiencing a burnout exposes them to poor judgement, the potential for more accidents and lower morale. The lower the morale of a team or company, the less likely they are to be vigilant, share information and be mindful of their actions.

Vincent is a warehouse manager. In the past decade the company focused on aggressive growth. To hit their targets, the company expanded job definitions and reduced the amount of new hires. Vincent was proud of his company and the direction it was going. He was determined to set the example for his staff and became the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. He didn’t obligate his staff to work overtime but he wanted them to be aware of how much work needed to be done. Quite a few colleagues chipped in extra unpaid hours to contribute towards the success of the plan. At first this was great as it showed team spirit. But the more Vincent pushed for success, the more he requested that this staff do things that were outside of their job descriptions and that they weren’t properly trained to do. Giving all he had also meant that his colleagues’ performances began to suffer because Vincent’s ability to do his own job was beginning to suffer. Worn down and burnt out, Vincent’s colleagues had to compensate for his growing inability to function as a manager, exposing them all to unknown risks and hazards.

What these two examples indicate is that professionals who seem to be operating at peak and contributing their best efforts to the company can only do so for a period of time. Working at full capacity without sufficient rest, meaningful activities outside of work and a more healthy work-life balance puts not only the individual at risk but also those around him and ultimately exposes the company to all manner of liability.

Stretch goals for individuals, teams and companies mustn’t become "break-goals" (goals that if reached will break the backs, morale and strength of those working to achieve them). Burnout is very real in the Canadian workplace. Sectors that observe there is a lack of qualified workers would benefit from a thorough examination of their work environments, particularly in relation to burnout, and work diligently to address their own contributions to the burnout of their employees.