In the Know

Avoiding Burnout: How to Rekindle Employee Engagement

12.11.2017 Linda P. Winston, MFT, CEAP, Employee Assistance Professional

Burnout is a serious problem in today’s workforce.

Although the size of the problem varies by industry and occupation, no segment of the economy is immune to employee burnout. 46% of HR professionals say employee burnout accounts for half their annual workforce turnover.1 And the annual cost of burnout to US businesses is around $200 billion.2

Occupational burnout is a fairly recent term. It dates from a psychology paper published in 19743—the same year the first personal computer was advertised, the floppy disk was invented, and the term “Internet” was coined.4

These are not merely interesting coincidences. There are distinct linkages between occupational burnout and the pace of workplace computerization:

  • Productivity tools—computers, software, and mobile phones—make it possible to do more, so everybody now expects more. This can lead to unrealistic deadlines from managers and unreasonable demands from customers.
  • We’re all expected to keep up with the relentless pace of technology. The older we get and the more technology we have to learn, the harder it can be to simply stay current and competent.
  • More and more of our workplace interactions occur electronically—via email, teleconferences, and so on. But people are social beings. We like to interact with each other in person. And we depend on physical cues—like eye contact—to completely understand and trust one other. Without that “physicality,” we can feel disconnected.

What isBurnout?

Burnout is not simply stress, although chronic stress can precipitate burnout.

Anyone can feel exhausted, overloaded, or stressed out at work. But that is typically temporary and most people bounce back.

On the other hand, the cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout are characterized by “physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations” as well as “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that fails to produce the expected reward.”5

Employees suffering from burnout are less emotive, less energetic, and less engaged. They feel increasingly detached, depressed, and disconnected from their work, their colleagues, and even family and friends.

Burnout can be counter-intuitive in that it tends to strike high performers—star employees with high levels of accomplishment, commitment, and passion. When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. You can only "burn out" if you have been “on fire” in the first place.

Similarly, while exhaustion can be cured with rest, a core trait of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment—which is not usually experienced by people who are indifferent about their work in the first place.

The large body of scholarship on burnout shows that causes boil down to lack of control; lack of alignment between personal priorities and organizational goals; and perceived lack of social support.

More specifically, people who are burnt out report the following complaints:

  • Chronically excessive workload
  • Tedious, unchallenging work
  • Unclear or contradictory goals or job expectations
  • Working in a dysfunctional team or organization with no support from superiors
  • Lack of recognition for accomplishments
  • Lack of autonomy and self-determination

Strategies for Addressing Burnout

The good news is, since we know what causes burnout, we also know how to fix it. We compiled a list of proven best practices and concrete interventions that any organization can implement to ignite employee engagement broadly:

  1. Make sure everyone understands the organization’s mission, vision, and core strategies.
  1. Make sure senior leadership regularly updates the organization on everything from changes in strategic initiatives to important industry news to the status of key performance indicators—the kinds of things many executives think their employees don’t need to know.
  1. Make sure everybody has a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities—not just their job duties, but how their work directly contributes to the overall performance of the organization. Employees excel when they know what to expect—and when they know how they fit into the bigger picture.
  1. Align everyone’s individual goals and objectives with the broader organization’s objectives. And conduct regular, comprehensive, structured performance reviews with metrics that align with the organization’s objectives.
  1. Formally recognize employee accomplishments and exceptional performance.
  1. Make sure compensation is directly linked to organizational goal achievement—and apply that “rule” equitably across the organization—including senior leadership. Either everyone succeeds—and shares equally in the spoils—or everyone suffers the consequences.
  1. Align training, continuing education, and professional development goals around broader organizational goals.

If burnout results from lack of control, lack of alignment, and lack of social support, any successful engagement strategy must seek to reverse those dis-satisfiers by empowering employees, aligning the organization from top to bottom, and creating support mechanisms to maximize employee success.

Counter Burnout In a Way That Fits Your Corporate Culture

There’s one other vitally important factor to consider in addressing burnout—culture.

Every organization has its own unique history and character--its own particular way of doing business--its own culture. As you develop your engagement strategy, make sure your planned interventions fit your organizational culture.

Let me give you a real-word example from my own organization, Providence St. Joseph Health.

Health care is a high-stakes, high-stress occupation—especially for our front-line caregivers, like nurses. We have built a very robust program to help our caregivers manage the incredible stress; to help them set appropriate work-life boundaries; and to help us detect early signs of burnout so we can intervene.

One of the tools we use is an exercise called “Find Your Music and Sing!” We use the Supertramp song, “Give a Little Bit,” at the end of our regular engagement workshops to illustrate the power of having your own voice, expressed through a signature song. Of course, this song is about giving and caring—so it’s an appropriate theme for our organization. But by getting everyone to sing along in the actual workshop—almost like group karaoke—we release tension, we all have a good time, and we all share the experience of creating a powerful moment of truth; “Each of us can and must find our own music and sing!”

But here’s my point.

This exercise works beautifully at Providence St. Joe’s because it fits with our culture. It resonates with our nurses and therapists and other frontline caregivers. So, it makes sense.

But that doesn’t mean it would work to drive employee engagement at your organization. Culturally, it might not be a good fit.

Your organization might have to sing from a different employee engagement songbook. Consider what suits your organizational culture, and implement creative anti-burnout initiatives that boost morale and keep your workforce engaged and fulfilled.

To learn more about we can help your business with workplace wellness strategies for addressing burnout and managing stress, please contact us at foremployers@stjoe.org

References:

  1. Study, Employee Engagement Series, Kronos Inc/Future Workplace, Jan 2017: https://workplacetrends.com/the-employee-burnout-crisis-study/
  2. “Employee Burnout is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person,” Eric Garton, HBR (April 2017): https://hbr.org/2017/04/employee-burnout-is-a-problem-with-the-company-not-the-person
  3. Wikipedia, Occupational Burnout: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_burnout
  4. Web site, The History of Computing Project, (1974): https://www.thocp.net/timeline/1974.htm
  5. MindTools, Avoiding Burnout, Maintaining a Healthy, Successful Career: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/avoiding-burnout.htm