During the pandemic, many people struggled to balance their work and personal responsibilities while coping with high stress levels, increased isolation, and changing health guidelines. It has become common to hear overwhelmed, exhausted people describe themselves as "feeling burned out," but what is burnout really – and what can be done to manage it?
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” In a recent webinar on managing burnout, Dr. Sofia Gerbase, Clinical Psychologist, Unmind, said, “The overuse of the term [burnout] has made it lose some of its impact when it’s really an important condition that needs to be taken seriously.”
In casual conversation, the words “burnout” and “stress” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Sofia explained, “Stress is too much – too much energy coming in, too much adrenaline, too many demands. Burnout is that feeling of not enough – feeling empty, exhausted, and just kind of beyond caring.”
To be more specific, burnout is often described as having three main characteristics:
Exhaustion: Physical, emotional, and cognitive energy depletion
Depersonalization: Developing increased cynicism and feeling disconnected from one’s work
Inefficacy: Reduced professional performance
Why it’s critical for companies to manage burnout
In the workplace, burnout can affect everything from employee engagement to retention. Culture Amp compared employee survey responses to the statement “I rarely feel overstressed by my work” with their engagement data. Dr. Roza Jankovic, Senior People Scientist at Culture Amp, said, “If they’re responding favorably that they don’t have stress, they’re 89.5% engaged. For those who strongly disagree – those who are feeling overly stressed – they’re only 39.7% engaged. So you can start to see that burnout does impact employee engagement.”
When employee responses to the statement about feeling overstressed are compared with attrition data, it reveals that people who are feeling stressed are more likely to leave their organization within the next 12 months.
The climate at an organization also affects whether employees are vulnerable to burnout. Contributing factors include role overload, which is when employees feel like they have too much to do, and role conflict, which is when employees feel like they’re unable to finish tasks and they don’t have enough support.
Roza said, “Whenever you have high role conflict and high role overload, that's what's going to contribute to this really stressful organizational environment that we know is likely to lead to employee burnout.”
In contrast, at a fully functional organization, employees see opportunities for growth and advancement. These organizations may still place high expectations on their employees, but the environment is more supportive. Employees have resources available to them, and coworkers provide help and cooperation.
In the next two sections, we share tips on how burnout can be managed at an individual level and at an organization-wide level.
Managing burnout on an individual level
If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re not alone. There’s plenty of evidence that burnout rates climbed during the pandemic. In a 2020-2021 McKinsey survey, 49% of respondents reported feeling at least somewhat burned out, and as the survey noted, burned-out employees are less likely to respond to a survey, so the true number may be even higher.
Individuals can take steps to reverse burnout by prioritizing self-care, but Sofia cautioned that overcoming burnout requires more than chocolate and bubble baths. She said, “It's also the hard stuff like saying no, knowing when to prioritize, so we don't have to neglect ourselves, setting boundaries, and pushing back. And that can be uncomfortable in the short term for longer-term gain.”
When you feel burned out, focus on changing the things that are under your control. This might include:
- Assessing your work-life balance
- Leaving work on time
- Setting boundaries on when you check your work email
- Using your paid time off
- Staying home when you’re sick
- Knowing when to delegate
- Asking for help when you need it.
Using data to manage burnout on an organizational level
While the data shows a connection between burnout and engagement, the relationship isn’t always straightforward. Roza noted that someone who is under a lot of stress might appear very engaged in survey results, even if they are on the path to burnout. If wellbeing numbers are decreasing, it suggests that employees are struggling to keep up with their current pace. Burnout develops over time, and companies can prevent it by paying attention to these signs and taking action.
Three steps leaders can take to manage burnout
1. Ask your employees the right questions.
Collect data about your employees, including demographic questions, to learn about their experiences. As you dive into the data, you’ll gain perspective on any systemic issues. Roza noted, “One of the most impactful things about collecting data is that you can really understand and unpack where there are different experiences between different groups within your organization, whether that be different departments or functions or different diversity demographics like gender.”
For example, she shared that HR departments were strained during the pandemic and that feeling of strain showed up in Culture Amp’s data. In the first quarter of 2021, 40% of global HR professionals reported feeling that they were unable to cope with the demands of their role. 61% said that they were unable to switch off from work, and 60% of them did not feel like their work was meaningful. Data like this can alert leaders to challenges in a particular area of their workforce.
One of the most impactful things about collecting data is that you can really understand and unpack where there are different experiences between different groups within your organization, whether that be different departments or functions or different diversity demographics like gender.
— Dr. Roza JankovicSenior People Scientist, Culture Amp
2. Check in with individual employees.
1-on-1 meetings typically focus on what a direct report is working on and how it's going, but they can also be an effective tool for managing burnout. These check-ins are an opportunity for managers to learn how employees are feeling on a personal level and look out for any behavior changes. In fact, managers are often the first ones to notice that something is wrong. Roza noted, “They'll be able to spot things that might signal that somebody is about to start struggling, allowing them to step in with resources.”
Update your list of 1-on-1 meeting questions to include questions about wellbeing, and really listen to the answers. Culture Amp's 1-on-1s tool makes this easy. Ask things like:
- How are you doing?
- How are your work relationships going?
- Are there any burdens or blocks that I can help you with?
3. Demonstrate what a healthy work-life balance looks like.
As role models, leaders and managers have a key role in managing burnout: setting a positive example of work-life balance for other employees. Roza said, “They can serve as the signal themselves by fostering healthy relationships, communicating clearly when there's change, identifying stressors, and setting realistic targets.” This creates an environment of psychological safety.
Show employees the support they deserve – now and in the future
The pandemic highlighted the effects of burnout, but the problem is not pandemic-specific, and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. Roza predicted that employees will continue to experience burnout, and it may become even more prevalent. She said, “Especially as the Great is underway, a lot of organizations are trying to maintain the productivity level that they're used to with fewer employees. So this is likely to impact burnout as well.”
Developing a plan to address burnout now will prepare your company for any burnout-related challenges that may arise in the future. A proactive approach to managing burnout starts with measuring employee data and giving people managers the tools they need to identify burnout early. When companies create strategies for managing burnout, they support employee wellbeing, helping their people succeed in their roles and live more fulfilling lives.
Prevent burnout at your organization
In this webinar, Unmind’s Dr Sofia Gerbase is joined by Culture Amp’s Roza Jankovic to discuss burnout, how it occurs and how to prevent it.