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How Your Organization Can Prevent Employee Burnout

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

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 experienced exhaustion, sleeplessness, headaches, short tempers and other symptoms that made them look, act and seem depressed.

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

Burnout is real, and it can substantially impact 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."

Most definitions of burnout cluster around three concepts:

  • Exhaustion;
  • Cynicism; and
  • Inefficacy.

Exhaustion in and of itself is not necessarily bad (e.g., someone can feel exhausted but be exhilarated if they are working on something they enjoy); but when it is accompanied by a sense of ineffectiveness, issues can emerge.

When employees are exhausted, feel ineffective and believe nothing they can do will lead to better results (cynicism), they are perfectly poised to be at risk of burnout.