At first, I thought it was the flu. I was exhausted and slept for days, which was unusual for me as a healthy twenty-something. When it happened again six months later, it got me thinking. Had I been working too hard? Was I burning the candle at both ends? Had I lost all sense of balance in my life? The answer was all of the above. I was living in a state of chronic stress and on the road to burnout.
What is burnout?
The World Health Organization categorizes burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The telltale signs of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism and lack of personal effectiveness.
Chronic stress is rampant. According to the American Psychological Association, 40 percent of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. In a recent conversation with burnout expert Faun Zarge, she stated, “burnout isn’t really the result of a stressor or a couple of stressors. It is the result of chronic, ongoing stress, that unrelenting, unsustainable way that we are functioning.”
A workplace issue
According to a recent Gallup poll, 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. The health care costs associated with burnout are estimated to be $125 to $190 billion a year in the US. In addition to the financial impact of burnout, employers are burdened with the added costs of lost productivity and increased turnover. This translates to a very real workplace issue that needs to be addressed, not at the employee level, but at the organizational level.
So, what can an employer do?
Understand the root cause
Workplace meditation, yoga and pool tables are all ways to help employees cope with stress. But these approaches don’t get to the root cause. Stress comes from a variety of underlying issues: job insecurity, a heavy workload, unrealistic time pressures, or an overly demanding work culture. Take time to understand the sources of stress for your employees and address them.
In my 20s, I wish my manager had asked me if I was pushing myself too hard. I thought the way to succeed at work was to work harder and longer. Had my manager been trained to watch for signs of workaholism and burnout, he might have been able to coach me on how to work smarter, prioritize projects, and let go of less important tasks. Manager training and role modeling is essential to create a less stressed workplace.
Encourage the use of vacation time
There is a reason we have paid time off policies. They are important to our well-being, as I’ve written previously. Employees who never take a break are setting themselves up for exhaustion and burnout, especially in this age of “always on” technology and diminishing boundaries between work and home. Time away from work provides a necessary refresh to disconnect from work tasks. Managers should tune into their team’s time off and adjust workloads accordingly.
Leaders can lead the way
Organizational behavior is a reflection of the culture. If senior leaders are attending conference calls and responding to email while on vacation, employees will feel the need to do so also. Leaders who model a balanced life, setting boundaries and disconnecting, will set the tone for employees to follow. Leaders who are always on, pushing their team to meet unreasonable deadlines will experience the costs and impact of burnout.
To achieve your business goals, you need energized and engaged employees. Our people are our most important asset. Let’s make sure they are not suffering from chronic stress and burnout.