Know the signs and symptoms of burnout

The term "burnout" was originally coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to define the nervous breakdowns he and his colleagues experienced while working grueling hours in a substance abuse clinic in New York City. Freudenberger described burnout as when, “people’s inner resources burn out, leaving a great emptiness inside, although their outer shells may be more or less unchanged.”3 Around the same time, Ph.D. graduate, Christina Maslach, began to develop the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is a widely used framework for identifying and measuring burnout. Understanding this system's three scales can help employers identify the signs and symptoms of employee burnout.4

  • Exhaustion. Workers experiencing job burnout feel drained, overextended, emotionally exhausted, and unable to cope. This stress can sometimes include physical manifestations like lethargy.
  • Cynicism. People struggling with burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics cause them to disengage and distance themselves, becoming more cynical about their work conditions and their colleagues. Rather than putting forth their best effort, they’re trying to do the bare minimum and aren’t producing at their highest level.
  • Inefficacy. Burnout not only affects daily tasks but how someone feels about themselves. This manifests as the uncertainty of work quality, feelings of being stuck, and unable to control the future,  People at this stage of burnout have difficulty concentrating and lack creativity, which usually leads to a noticeable decline in productivity and emotional exhaustion.

Six workplace factors that make-or-break employee burnout

Certain elements of a workplace can contribute to employee burnout. It’s true that burnout can look different from person to person, but organization leaders are ultimately responsible for ensuring a healthy workplace for all.  Yes, everyone may benefit from some yoga, breathing techniques, and books on resilience, but it's on workplace leadership and managers to ensure these solutions aren't band-aids to the root causes. Here’s how to tell the difference between burnout-prone work environments and a healthy workplace.  

  Burnout-Prone Healthy workplace
Workload When there’s an imbalance between too many demands and too little resources (i.e. personal bandwidth, support staff, etc.) then workers are fighting a losing battle.

Clear company values communicated from people leaders. 

Values The workplace is devoid of purpose and passion. Employees understand why their work matters and they feel it contributes positively to their own growth and society as a whole.
Reward No recognition for contributions beyond salary and benefits. Regular recognition for contributions.
Community The environment is dysfunctional, with office bullies, micromanagement, and rudeness allowed to rule.

A supportive work community that’s committed to a culture of uplifting each other.

Fairness Unequal, preferential treatment, leads to disengagement.

Recognition and reward. When other people notice and appreciate someone’s work and let them know, that’s meaningful.

Control No workplace autonomy. Workers are trusted to do their jobs, be creative, and express ideas.


Understand the pandemic’s effect on burnout

The shift to remote work led to struggles for many workers who found it difficult to separate work and personal life. Before COVID-19 restrictions, about 20 percent of remote workers found it tough to “unplug” from work. After COVID-19 that number grew substantially to nearly 60 percent and 70 percent of workers reported to be working on weekends as well.5 Creating empathic and compassionate leadership practices that understand the challenges workers are facing can help to reduce and prevent employee burnout. Promoting work-life boundaries can contribute to establishing a caring culture that approaches its workforce with a people-first, rather than profit-first mentality.

“I think that smart employers are creating opportunities for their employees to step away,” said Kelly McDevitt of IBI on the Guardian Edge webinar, “Mind, Body, and Wallet: Workforce well-being in the pandemic era.” “Whether that’s through a flexible PTO program, 3-minute mediations during meetings, or allowing for 15 minutes to read a book on their porch, you have to know what kind of opportunities your employees need. You’re not given the opportunity to unwind if you’re sending emails at 11 pm at night. That kind of burnout is real.” 

Be mindful of how burnout can extend beyond the workplace

The effect of burnout extends beyond the office. Life is complex, and at one time or another, workers may need support to get through difficult times. Workers may have personal issues that are at the root of their burnout. Caregiving, financial woesmental wellnessphysical health, and even a side hustle can contribute to burnout that a worker could bring into the workplace. Historically, companies have been inclined to treat these issues as personal problems rather than organizational challenges. But if you want employees to come to work thinking, feeling, and performing at their best, personal struggles are absolutely issues your organization must address.

Offering benefits and opportunities for employees actively seeking to get the help they need is important for supporting the at-home challenges that workers are facing. Right now, there is a disconnect between what employers think, versus how employees feel, especially when it comes to mental, emotional, and financial wellness since the beginning of the pandemic. . Guardian’s 10th Annual Workplace Benefits Study found some substantial differences.

  • COVID-19 has affected the mental and emotional wellness of working Americans the most. While 70 percent of employers believe they do an excellent job at addressing workforce emotional health, only 47 percent of employees agree.
  • The financial impact of the pandemic is Americans’ largest source of stress. While 60 percent of employers believe they do an excellent job of addressing the financial health of their workforce, only 22 percent of workers agree.
  • Employees report struggling to make time for physical wellness. While 63 percent of employers believe they do an excellent job addressing the physical wellness of their workforce, only 39% of workers agree.

Steps employers can take to help prevent workplace burnout and improve mental health

Openly talk about well-being as a priority for your organization

Reducing the stigma around mental wellness, employee well-being, and burnout is key to creating an environment in which employees can openly share with colleagues and managers. When organizations make well-being a cultural priority — a part of its “why we exist, what we believe in, and how we do things” — it’ll empower employees to discover a healthy, meaningful, and productive work life. Cultural changes can be driven from the top-down. Messaging from leadership that clearly communicates well-being as a priority can be the first step to normalizing colleagues supporting each other to work reasonable hours, taking personal time off, and finding a balanced lifestyle.

Become aware of your employees’ preferences and empower them

Burnout is unique because each employee will have their own motivators and preferences. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Learning what works for each individual employee will help effectively manage your workforce.

“Some employees are really engaged when they’re working a lot when they’re passionate about a project. They want that intense, startup environment. It drives them and staves off burnout. Then there are employees on the other side of the spectrum who really want that true work-life balance,” says Libby Erensen, VP of People at Spring Health during our webinar, “Mental Wellness & and Great Resignation: What you need to know.”

Give employees permission to set emotional boundaries with their work to help find their “work stress sweet spot,” which balances acute stress (good) and chronic stress (bad). Acute stress helps to keep employees alert and ready to meet challenges, whereas chronic stress can lead to problems like burnout and disengaged workers.7

Make sure you’re offering the right benefits and resources

One of the most important ways that employees can start to prevent burnout is by taking scheduled time off.6 Flexible hours, mental health days off, and paid time off give workers the opportunity to recharge.

Additionally, in a culture where well-being is a priority, workers will feel more comfortable asking for help. Offering access to benefits and resources specific to mental wellness is perfect for handling these requests. Opportunities such as in-person or virtual therapy, mental health assessments, and mindfulness exercises have all been clinically proven to drive faster recovery times, increase workplace attendance, and improve overall well-being.Guardian partners with Spring Health to offer personalized mental wellness benefits to our network of plan holders. To learn more about our mental wellness benefits, contact your sales consultant or client manager.

Ensure managers model stress-reducing behaviors

You can “talk the talk,” but your company leadership will need to “walk the walk.” Leadership can set the tone, but managers can become the true conduits of change since they interact closely with a wider range of employees. Observing healthy work practices like sending emails within work hours, practicing gratitude, offering support, being aware of an overwhelming workload, and encouraging time-off will reduce burnout, and help to keep employees engaged and work-life balance in check.

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