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Recognizing and Managing Employee Burnout in 2020

In what seems like a never-ending effort, organizations continue to increase their throughput on a yearly basis and attempt to do so with the same number of employees from the previous year. In the case of 2020, many organizations are likely doing so with fewer employees due to lay-offs related to the current pandemic. This has put more and more pressure on employees to complete their routine tasks related to their job while also taking on the new responsibilities of the employees that were laid-off. To add to the pressure, COVID-19 has caused organizations to change not only how employees complete their day-to-day tasks, but where they complete their tasks. Nevertheless, employee productivity still leads the pack as a top priority for employers as they attempt to bounce back from a stagnant start to 2020. While employers have every right to be concerned about employee productivity, employee burnout could be dampening any potential for employees to be productive at all.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized employee burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” The WHO describes employee burnout in the 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a syndrome stemming from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Further, the WHO characterizes burnout in the ICD-11 by breaking it into three dimensions: 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. (www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/) Due to its elusive nature, burnout may easily go unnoticed which can be devastating to an organization’s workforce. Therefore, executive teams must team up with their safety managers and HR teams to develop strategies to recognize employee burnout before it poses a risk to both the organization and its employees.

Managers are likely asking themselves, “How will I know if my employees are experiencing burnout if they don’t tell me?” This is a great question as burnout may be exhibited differently from one employee to the next. Typical indicators of employee burnout include: increased absenteeism (in-person, or virtually), difficulty creating open lines of communication, lacking enthusiasm or energy, a newly negative attitude, and increased errors, to name a few. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of symptoms, experienced managers who know their employees well will likely notice a change in attitude or work habits when an employee begins to experience burnout.

Similar to how burnout may be exhibited differently from one employee to the next, the causes of burnout may be different from employee to employee as well. To start, the technological era and the ability to work from virtually anywhere has greatly impacted an employee’s ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This is even more true today in 2020 as more organizations are allowing and/or requiring their employees to work remotely. For some of these employees, it may be their first time working remotely and are working to develop a discipline that has never been required of them prior to this year. This may pose a risk as some employees who are now working remotely may lack the discipline it takes to “turn-off” at the end of the workday. “One more email” can quickly turn into 30 more minutes of work in the blink of an eye. Creating clear boundaries between work-time and personal-time is crucial as this is one of many aspects of creating a healthy work-life balance.

A negative work environment has shown to be one of many reasons that employees experience burnout. Low employee morale, bullying, harassment, discrimination, and unrealistic work expectations are several causes of a negative work environment that will likely take a toll on employees. Employees will either quit or attempt to “ride it out” without ever saying anything to a manager. This does two things, neither of which are positive: causes employee turnover which is costly by itself, and causes other employees to take on additional work responsibilities. Neither employee wins in this scenario as the employee who leaves feels they have no choice other than to leave and the employee who stays inherits the exiting employee’s job tasks causing them to become overworked. To combat this, organizations must ensure that they have a well-written, clearly defined workplace harassment policy in place in their employee handbook that allows an employee numerous reporting options to ensure they feel comfortable reporting such behavior (e.g., a manager, the human resources department, or the CEO). In addition, an open-door communication policy to communicate any employee concern is crucial in fostering and maintaining a positive and inclusive work environment. For those employees who are working remotely, it is essential that managers encourage communication not only through email but also video conferencing applications such as Zoom, or Microsoft Teams so that a virtual “face-to-face” meeting is possible. It is much easier for employee burnout to go unnoticed when communicating through email as opposed to a virtual “face-to-face” call. 

While it is important to recognize the signs of employee burnout, the most effective measures are those that are taken to proactively curb employee burnout before it ever occurs. The following list contains proactive measures that all organizations may take to help their employees continue to be productive without experiencing burnout:

  • Create job expectations that are specific and measurable so that employees are able to understand what is expected of them. Encourage employees to create daily and weekly goals based on the aforementioned job expectations.
  • If employees exhibit one of the many signs of employee burnout, organizations should urge managers to inquire about the underlying cause, whether that be through one-on-one interviews, small group meetings, or team meetings.
  • If the underlying cause is personal, or confidential, consider partnering with an employee assistance program (EAP) for employees who may be experiencing burnout. EAP’s offer a number of counseling sessions at no cost to the employee and also have the ability to make outside referrals if deemed necessary.
  • Celebrate an employee’s successes and victories. This could include immediate and personal praise, or could also include opportunities that will aid in the employee’s growth and development. It is crucial to understand what employees value the most as an employee who lacks confidence is one who may be experiencing burnout.

Employee burnout can be a destructive force, but training managers to recognize the signs ultimately helps managers spot it early and take swift action. As organizations adapt to the uncertain circumstances of the current pandemic, organizations who place an emphasis on investing time and energy in their employees’ well-being are more likely to avoid employee burnout and will continue to function as a productive and engaged team.

For additional information on recognizing and managing employee burnout, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.

Written by: Patrick McKenna, SHRM-CP


                     HR Consultant




New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.