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The term “burnout” was coined in 1974 by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the effects of stress in “plus caring” professions such as health and social work—jobs that women often did.

Since then, the term has been modified to reflect a widespread reality in many workplaces. 

In 2019, “burnout” was formally recognised by the World Health Organization as an occupational health phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. 


So, what exactly is burnout?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon driven by a chronic imbalance between job demands (workload pressure and poor working environment, for example) and job resources (job autonomy and supportive work relationships, for example).

Fatigue, distant feelings from the job, reduced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional processes, cynicism, energy depletion and exhaustion are symptoms of employee burnout. 

Organizations that fail to address workplace factors that trigger burnout symptoms pay heavy prices like absenteeism, lower engagement, decreased productivity, and employee attrition. 


The stress–burnout relationship

This study on stress burnout relationship provided insights into the relationship by testing and examining the moderating effect of physical activity and intrinsic motivation for off-job physical activity.

Here’s what it entailed:

“A total of 369 university staff (70% females) completed a web survey comprising measures of perceived stress, job burnout, physical activity, and intrinsic motivation for physical activity. 

A three-way conditional process model revealed that the ‘Stress × Physical Activity’ interaction was significant for cognitive weariness and that the three-way interaction between ‘Stress × Physical Activity × Intrinsic Motivation for Physical Activity’ was significantly related to job burnout and to cognitive weariness. 


The results highlight:

  1. that stress was associated with higher levels of job burnout.
  2. that under a high-stress condition, physical activity was negatively linked to cognitive weariness.
  3. that intrinsic motivation for physical activity reinforced the positive moderating effect of physical activity on the stress–burnout relationship, especially when stress is high.”


How to recognise your employees are suffering from burnout?

  1. Uncharacteristic disengagement
  2. Increased absenteeism
  3. Exhaustion
  4. Decreased productivity
  5. Cynicism and negativity 

Most jobs aren’t utopias and many employees have had bad days once in a while. Still, when you constantly hear negativity from someone who was previously a source of encouragement for the rest of the team, they are likely feeling the effects of burnout. 


Ways to help employees experiencing burnout

Many organizations (like Microsoft, Pinterest, and Unilever) and employers have responded to employee burnout by prioritizing the mental health of their employees; providing several wellness activities such as yoga, meditation app subscriptions, well-being days, and trainings on time management and productivity.

While these initiatives are commendable, it is also true that an accident is often caused by an attempt to prevent it. 

The simple truth is that preventing the causes of employee burnout is bound to be more effective than focusing on individual-level interventions, as many organizations do.


That said, here are 4 ways to prevent employee burnout:

  1. Ask about their stress levels
    When employees complain about their work or the projects they’ve been assigned, ask them to share specific details of the perceived roadblocks. Once you understand exactly what leads to the employee’s stress, you can offer streamlined solutions that help the employee find positive solutions to minimize their frustrations.
  2. Delegate tasks realistically
    Ensure that your team managers delegate an amount of work that is not overwhelming and check in with your team at different milestones of the project.
  3.  Acknowledge, reward and promote
    Incentives like awards, bonuses, and recognition on social media posts go a long way to keep morale high.
  4. Communicate openly
    Create a culture where employees can speak openly about burnout with their managers. Pretending burnout isn’t happening only makes it worse.


Benefits of high employee morale

  • High employee retention rates
  • Lower absentee rates
  • Lower attrition rates
  • Increased creativity and innovation
  • High enthusiasm, excitement and energy
  • Increased alignment with company identity and mission
  • Increased group synergy


Final Thoughts

The truth is that employee burnout is not just harmful for the employee, but for your company as well. Who wants a demotivated, perpetually-exhausted workforce spending the majority of their week in a place they don’t feel motivated? 

So, what can we do? A good starting point is asking questions like:

  • Is employee well-being our priority? If yes, what concrete actions show that?
  • How do we tackle toxic behaviours?
  • Is our culture inclusive?
  • Are we holding managers accountable?

The next step after this exercise would be to draft action plans on how to address toxicity and promote inclusion.

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