7 ways to avoid occupational burnout

We look at strategies to manage what experts are calling a “silent crisis at work”

7 ways to avoid occupational burnout

Occupational burnout has plagued workplaces for years – however, the unprecedented pandemic-fueled disruptions have exacerbated the problem to the point where some experts are now calling it a “silent crisis at work.”

A recent survey conducted by Catalyst, a global non-profit advocating equitable workplaces, has found that an overwhelming 92% of employees worldwide are experiencing some form of burnout. Of the nearly 7,500 respondents, about 90% admitted that their burnout is work-related, with an equal number of those surveyed saying that COVID-19 have made their jobs more stressful.

Several studies have also highlighted how women have been disproportionately impacted by occupational pressures during the pandemic. A research by charitable group Oxfam International has revealed that more than 64 million women globally have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, representing $800 billion in lost income. In the US, the number of women who dropped out of the workforce reached nearly 3 million in 2020, according to a CBS report.

Meanwhile, a separate survey conducted by Chief, a US-based private network of women leaders, has found that 70% of women in executive positions felt that they have been shouldering more responsibility at work regardless of their personal situation during the pandemic. Almost a quarter of the 300 respondents also admitted that they have plans of leaving their roles soon because of their company’s response to the pandemic.

These numbers underscore the need for every organization to implement measures to prevent burnout among employees.

What is occupational burnout?

The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterized by three elements:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

The WHO adds that burnout “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life,” meaning it classified as an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition.

Why does burnout happen?

In a 2017 article published in the Harvard Business Review, Eric Garton, global capabilities leader at management consultancy firm Bain & Company, wrote that “companies tend to treat [employee burnout] as a talent management or personal issue rather than a broader organizational challenge” – and that is a mistake.

Garton added that the while “psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees” amounted an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion annually in healthcare spending in the US, the true cost to businesses can be “far greater,” including low productivity, high turnover, and loss of the most capable talent.

He identified the three “common culprits” to occupational burnout as “excessive collaboration, weak time-management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work.”

“These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration,” Garton wrote.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Christina Maslach, renowned burnout researcher and psychology professor at the University of California in Berkeley listed six elements that cause workplace burnout. These are:

  • Having too much workload
  • Lack of or limited control or autonomy over work
  • Lack of recognition or reward for work
  • Toxic workplace culture
  • Unfair administration of workplace policies and practices
  • Having work that does not create meaning or value

What can organizations to do prevent employee burnout?

As the pandemic triggers a rise in cases of occupational burnout, the internet has also seen a proliferation of self-help techniques to combat this workplace phenomenon such as meditation, practicing resilience, and “learning to say no.” However, experts say that these are merely band-aid solutions and the best way to tackle burnout is to start at the organizational level.

As journalist and author Olga Khazan wrote in her article for The Atlantic: “Though wellness influencers might suggest various life hacks to help push through pandemic torpor, actual burnout experts say that tips and tricks are not the best way to treat the condition. Instead, they say, burnout is a problem created by the workplace, and changes to the workplace are the best way to fix it.”

Here are seven ways companies can prevent employee burnout, according to experts:

1. Leaders should confront the issue at an organizational level

Garton explained succinctly: “Employee burnout is a problem with the company, not the person.”

He added that unchecked organizational norms “insidiously create” conditions for burnout, but leaders have the power to change them to minimize the likelihood of burnout among workers.

“Giving people back the time to do work that drives the company’s success will pay huge dividends by raising productivity, increasing productive output, and reducing burnout,” Garton wrote.

2. Place fewer demands on employees

The pandemic has also prompted a major digital transformation among many organizations, leading to an “always-on” digital workplace. Several studies have shown that many employees are logging longer hours as they shift to remote work – and this is one of the biggest causes of burnout.

Additionally, experts say that it is often the most capable employees who are given more responsibility and a larger workload, which can adversely impact their productivity.

“Companies overestimate how much can be accomplished with digital productivity tools and rarely check to see if their assumptions are correct,” Garton wrote. “The overload problem is compounded for companies because the best people are the ones whose knowledge is most in demand and who are often the biggest victims of collaboration overload.”

The use of workplace analytics tools can help business leaders measure excessive demands on their best employees, according to Garton. These tools can also enable bosses to redesign workflows and take other steps to avoid overload and burnout.

3. Give employees more control over how to handle work demands

Micromanagement is another major contributor to workplace stress. It is also one of the biggest factors that drains productivity and causes occupational burnout. To avoid this, experts recommend that organizations give employees a sense of autonomy in handling their workloads.

In a blog post, CIPHR, a cloud-based human resource management solution provider, noted the crucial role autonomy plays in worker engagement.

“Employees who are free to make their own choices about how they go about their responsibilities are happier, more committed, more productive, and more loyal than those whose every action is prescribed,” the firm wrote. “Autonomy [also]… plays a big part in workers’ decisions to stay with an organization or seek a new role elsewhere.”

4. Provide employees support to handle work demands

According to experts, among the strategies that companies can adopt to address the overload problem is by adjusting organizational structures and routines.

“One easy step is to look at the number of nodes in the organization,” Garton wrote. “These are intersections in the organizational matrix where a decision maker sits. A proliferation of nodes is a sign of unnecessary organizational complexity, and nodes act as organizational speedbumps, slowing down the action and stealing organizational time and energy.”

Garton added that equally important was how businesses arrange the composition of their teams. “Instead of isolating star players by distributing them across teams, companies can often get better results by putting the high-energy, high-achieving players together on the same squad and having them tackle the highest priority work,” he wrote.

5. Offer remote work options

In its latest research, Catalyst has found that giving employees the option to work remotely pay huge dividends in maintaining “employee well-being, productivity, innovation, and inclusion.” Data from the survey revealed that compared to workers lacking such option, employees with access to remote worked were:

  • 63% more likely to report being innovative
  • 75% more likely to report being engaged
  • 68% more likely to report high organizational commitment
  • 93% more likely to report being included
  • 30% less likely to look for another job in the next year

Women with childcare responsibilities who have remote-work access were also 32% less likely to report intending to leave their jobs compared to their counterparts who do not have the option to work from home, the study found.

6. Create a culture of remote work that is sustainable, equitable, and humane.

However, Tara Van Bommel, director and statistician of research and innovation at Catalyst, said that offering employees remote work options was not enough.

“To avoid the pitfalls of remote work while reaping its benefits, organizations and leaders must create a culture of remote work that is sustainable, equitable, and humane,” she wrote in her analysis of the survey. “Guardrails that restrain unsustainable workloads and ‘always-on’ expectations and tendencies, training to develop empathy and inclusion, and flexible work policies are key.”

Van Bommel added that organizations needed to invest in tools and training that will ensure all employees can thrive, whether they are working remotely full-time, part-time, or occasionally. These include the following measures:

  • Creating remote-work policies that detail expectations for employees, managers, and teams.
  • Upskilling managers on managing remote teams inclusively.
  • Investing in programs and stipends for employees who need additional childcare options.
  • Normalizing empathic listening through regular check-ins and other opportunities to share life and work experiences.

7. Wellness programs can work, but…

A recent research by management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company has found that while many organizations have offered mental health services, including counseling and enrichment programs, to support employees during the pandemic, fewer had actually “taken steps to adjust the norms and expectations that are most likely responsible for employee stress and burnout.”

For these programs to be effective, experts say that it is important that employees feel that it is alright to take time away from their jobs to participate in them.

“If you, as an individual employee, want to take a mental-health day, but the culture of the organization is not supportive of that, and there’s fear of retribution or backlash, then it’s hard for an individual employee to exercise that benefit,” Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told The Atlantic.

One thing that experts are clear about is that organizations play a vital role in managing burnout among employees. Occupational burnout can be prevented, but companies must implement sound strategies that revolve around workload management, employee autonomy, and support in handling workplace demands.