Is office burnout a risk to your employees and engagement levels?

Burnout is one of the biggest risk factors to employee welfare and to an organisation’s employee engagement levels. It doesn’t just affect an individual’s mental and physical health; it can have a knock-on effect on everyone around them and on business productivity overall.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout as a workplace syndrome last year. It has been categorised as a phenomenon which results from chronic, prolonged workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. If WHO is taking employee burnout seriously, then surely business leaders should be doing the same?

What are the signs and how does it affect employees?

Burnout is the result of continual exposure to chronic, long-term stress. While acute, short-term workplace stress is commonly associated with a sense of pressure, urgency, and anxiety, burnout has been linked to emotions such as hopelessness, helplessness or indifference.

The WHO has listed key burnout characteristics as; a sense of exhaustion and energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativity and cynicism, and decreased effectiveness. The signs to look out for include an uncharacteristic lack of interest, isolation from colleagues, increased mistakes, irritability, negative thinking, and obvious symptoms of continual exhaustion. Once an employee reaches the point of burnout, they have become emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. The average recovery time is estimated to be six to nine months. Even more worryingly, scientific research has linked burnout to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and other chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and dementia.

Why shouldn’t it be ignored?

Burnout is more prevalent than you may realise. A recent Gallup study found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report show there are 602,000 people in the UK suffering from workplace stress, depression, and anxiety. That is a lot of employees who are potentially at risk of burning out if they are not supported.

How does it affect employee engagement?

Burnout has a negative impact on engagement levels because it damages the connection people feel to their job and depletes the sense of satisfaction employees get from achieving goals. It leads to people thinking negatively about work and to them distancing themselves mentally.

Anyone can suffer from burnout, even the most highly-engaged and top-performing employees. A recent study by Yale University showed that one in five employees reported both high engagement levels and high burnout. These were employees who were passionate about their work but had become depleted, exhausted, and overworked. The great performance and enthusiasm shown by highly-engaged employees can mean they are given more work and responsibility. If this isn’t accompanied by additional time, resource and support, they may end up struggling to deliver at the same level. Without intervention, they could eventually burn out.

Employee burnout can also have a significant knock-on effect on the engagement levels of others. When an employee is on the brink of burnout, they are more likely to be irritable and impatient, their negative thinking could have a real impact on the workplace atmosphere and their reduced performance could impact on colleagues’ workloads.

How can it be prevented?

Because burnout can creep up slowly, employees may not spot the signs themselves. This shows just how much impact employers and colleagues can have in preventing burnout if they are aware of what to look out for. Cultivating and maintaining a culture that is good for mental health will help to prevent the occurrence of workplace stress, avoid it becoming chronic and foster positive conversations in which employees feel able to ask for help and are encouraged to support each other. It’s also a great pillar for employee engagement overall, as recently explored in the Best Employers Eastern Region article on the role of health and wellness in creating engaging workplaces.

A recent study by Gallup revealed there were five factors most correlated with burnout and highlighted how these all have a strong link back to how employees are managed. The five factors were unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, lack of role clarity, lack of communication or support from managers, and unreasonable time pressures. When workloads are out of control and time pressures are overwhelming, employees are most likely to turn to their managers for help. Likewise, great managers are the ones who can give employees clarity on what is expected of them. Ultimately, people are most at risk of burnout when they feel isolated and unsupported. This all suggests that helping managers to be better equipped at leading, managing and supporting their teams could also play a big part in preventing and managing workplace burnout. There are many people who have found themselves with management responsibilities, usually due to being highly successful in their own job, but who have not had any official training. They are much more likely to be effective at helping their team, and themselves, to prevent, spot and manage stress if they have had some formal guidance in people management. The engagement benefits of investing in developing managers and equipping them to support their teams are also explored in another of the Best Employers pillars of engagement articles.

The best employers are those who recognise that office burnout is real, and that it could be a potential issue for their employees and for their business. Those who take it seriously will be the most committed to understanding more about it, to putting preventative measures in place, supporting employees in all aspects of their wellbeing and regularly monitoring their employee engagement levels for warning signs and opportunities to make positive changes.

For more information about Best Employers Eastern Region, including the free employee engagement survey and networking opportunities with other like-minded business leaders, visit www.best-employers.co.uk.

 Lynn Walters profile picture

Written by

Lynn Walters

Lynn is a founding Director of Pure and leads Pure Executive. She has over 25 years’ experience recruiting for executive appointments, and helps east of England-based businesses with senior management and board-level recruitment. Lynn also leads our Best Employers Eastern Region initiative and Women’s Leadership Programme, both of which help companies and people develop.

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