The world was surprised when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she would step down because she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do the job. Translation: she’s burned out. Who wouldn’t be? The day-to-day pressures of running a nation while also leading her country through a shocking mass shooting and global pandemic are enough to drain even the strongest among us.
Not surprisingly, the World Health Organization recently added burnout at work as an occupational phenomenon to their latest revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD). According to ICD, burnout “is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is characterized by:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Here in the U.S., employee burnout remains high. In fact, our recent national survey of U.S. workers found that 49% of employees say they are burned out from their jobs. As for the top cause of burnout, nearly half of the workers surveyed say it’s their workload (48%). This level of burnout should raise red flags for business leaders considering burnout’s impact on employee and customer experience, attrition, and ultimately the bottom line.
Nearly half (49%) of U.S. workers say that they are burned out from their jobs.
The recent wave of layoffs at companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft could make the problem worse. Our research also found that staff shortages are the second highest contributor to employee burnout. When asked how staff shortages are impacting workloads, 86% of workers said it’s covering the workload for unfilled positions. This is a clear signal that burnout and stress are likely to grow as more companies implement layoffs and workers scramble to cover the workload.
When asked how staff shortages impact their workload, 86% of workers said it’s covering the workload of unfilled positions.
What’s striking when digesting the news about Jacinda Ardern is that, while it no doubt was a difficult and emotional decision, burnout for leaders is different than for employees. Leaders may have more power to address their burnout because they can make decisions about the people around them (i.e., people who could potentially help lighten their load). Leaders often feel extra weight and responsibility to address staff burnout while also trying to manage their own, which can be taxing and may limit their options altogether. Lastly, leaders may feel more secure walking away from a job to take a break because they’re able to—an option likely not afforded to most employees.
For workers, dealing with burnout is also difficult. Often, employees do not have the luxury of leaving their job because they have financial responsibilities and cannot miss a paycheck, or they may not be able to easily find their next job. And, unlike leaders, employees are likely not empowered to implement changes or make decisions that could help alleviate their burnout. Further, workers may have difficulty even broaching the topic of burnout with their boss, which could exacerbate the issue.
62% of workers who report burnout say they’re comfortable telling their manager or employer they feel burned out.
Here are three ways employees and employers can start constructive conversations about burnout to drive change:
Pinpoint the issues. Before talking, flesh out precisely how and why there is a sense of feeling overworked or burned out. Is it a sudden surge or chronic level of work? Is more training needed? Are workplace relationships causing stress or hindering productivity? Are there administrative obstacles or bottlenecks that are creating frustration? Are work schedules or outside demands impacting productivity? How is burnout manifesting (feeling stressed, tired, overwhelmed, or an inability to prioritize)? Precisely pinpointing the contributing issues will lead to a productive and positive conversation.
Identify specific solutions. Based on the issues surfaced, list two to four feasible solutions that would help. For example, some solutions could be enrolling in a training program, reworking schedules, reprioritizing tasks or placing some tasks on the back burner, collaborating with others on the team to get the work done, or implementing more efficient processes. Pragmatic ideas and solutions often result in progress and change.
Share openly and listen carefully. Schedule regular time to have honest and productive conversations about burnout. Discussions can focus on assessing how things are progressing, strengthening productivity and performance, or talking through new obstacles and solutions. Regular communication and careful listening about tangible issues and solutions will garner helpful feedback, guide productive next steps, and foster trust between employees and leaders.
The bottom line:
Ignoring burnout won’t make it go away. Left unaddressed, burned-out employees will leave or stay in the job angry and less productive. Given the continued strains on the workforce, there’s never been a better or more important time to talk about burnout.