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Addressing Burnout in the Workplace

Author: XpertHR Editorial Team

In the decades following World War II, the picture of the ideal, successful employee was clear. They were dedicated to the company, followed instructions and worked long hours ("Careers are built after 5pm," a saying went), often sacrificing time with their families or setting aside personal interests to focus on work and their careers.

Over the years, though, some of these "ideal" employees were observed to experience exhaustion, sleeplessness, headaches, short tempers and other symptoms that made them look, act and seem depressed. In 1974, American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger published research on the syndrome, calling it "burnout." Further research since has confirmed the existence of burnout and the real toll it extracts from those who suffer from it.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon." The WHO defines burnout as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, and characterized by:

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

Burnout is real, and it has real impacts on employee productivity and mental health within and outside of the workplace. Employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:

  • 63% more likely to take a sick day,
  • 50% less likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager,
  • 23% more likely to visit the emergency room,
  • 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, and
  • 13% less confident in their performance.

Gallup reported in 2020 that 76% of employees experience burnout on the job, with 28% reporting feeling burned out at work "very often" or "always," while another 48% reported feeling burned out "sometimes." Chances are these numbers come as no surprise to harried HR professionals who know full well the level of stress and angst that exists in their workplaces.

The rapid pace of change during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has made the problem worse. Constantly evolving work regulations and safety protocols have required employees to adjust to changes in how and where they work, and disrupted the ability of workers to keep their work and home lives separate. Research on burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic reported by Harvard Business Review in February 2021 found 62% of employees globally reported experiencing burnout "often" or "extremely often" during the previous three months.