Memo to bosses: Ignore employee burnout at your own peril

Here are tips to prevent it, diagnose it and heal it.

Burnout at work is a real problem, and it has intensified during the long stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In survey responses gathered by Energage from thousands of employees over recent months, 39% said they often felt overwhelmed at work. Even more worrisome, fewer than two-thirds (64%) said they felt their company cared about burnout.

We’re not talking about run-of-the-mill workplaces. Many of these employees work for Top Workplaces.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Greg Barnett, chief people scientist at Energage, a Philadelphia-based employee survey firm.

While burnout is hardly a new phenomenon, the pandemic has dialed up the stress on workers. It has presented new challenges and high expectations. For many, remote work blurred the boundaries between work time and personal time. Think of people working remotely while also facing child or elder care issues.

And, of course, think of health care workers, who have faced incredible pressure regarding the challenging circumstances of their work, plus the training, the hours and the risk.

Work is rarely easy. But there is a difference between high expectations and unreasonable expectations — workloads with no end in sight. Let’s break down the different kinds of stresses that come with work:

• Positive stress: Think of this as “excitement stress” regarding things like a big project. Putting skills to the test. Working with a team. Meeting a goal for the organization. It can be stressful but exciting in a positive way.

• Short-term stress: Acute or short-term stress happens all the time. It’s triggered when someone says, “Hey, I need this tomorrow.” Or maybe it comes from dealing with a challenging customer. Circumstances can create short-term emotional stress.

• Chronic stress: This is more closely aligned with burnout. It’s created when people work without sufficient resources or under unrealistic expectations.

Chronic stress takes a toll on mental and physical well-being. Burnout leads to more time off work, retention gaps, longer response times for customers and production delays.

In the early months of the pandemic, workers rolled up their sleeves to do whatever it took to get through. In some cases, though, the challenges did not subside, and neither did the expectations.

“You can’t set expectations well above where they were before, and then never return to baseline,” said Kinsey Smith, senior data analyst at Energage. “You can’t expect employees will be able to continue to deliver at that same level forever, without a break, without a reprieve.”

Here’s what forward-thinking employers are doing to prevent burnout:

• Ask the question: Simply asking employees how they’re doing is the first step toward acknowledging the issue.

• Distribute workloads: Make sure work is shared and expectations are reasonable.

• Offer flexible schedules: When possible, using flexible schedules, flexible hours. Remote work can help.

• Celebrate the wins: Instead of jumping from project to project, or crisis to crisis, be sure to celebrate achievements and goals reached.

• Get creative: Adopt things like no-meeting days to give workers a chance to think, create and catch up.

• Give support: More companies are offering mental health resources or coaching.

• Respect boundaries: Allow people time to balance their work and their lives.

Companies have an interest in helping employees recharge and creating a foundation for long-term success, Smith said. “It will feed their bottom line, because if employees burn out, people are going to quit, and the more people who quit, the harder it is to replace them.”

Bob Helbig is media partnerships director at Energage, a Philadelphia-based employee survey firm. Energage is a survey partner for Top Workplaces.