It’s common in any work environment to hear people toss around “burnout” as a buzzword when they are feeling over-stressed and under-appreciated. According to Gallup, 23% of employees report feeling burnout at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling it sometimes. But what does burnout really mean? The World Health Organization (WHO) has weighed in on the problem by taking the significant step of adding burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. Here’s how they are defining it: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased the mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” Though the WHO is the first significant health organization to legitimize burnout with this inclusion, it may not be the last. Though the American Psychiatric Association has yet to add burnout to the DSM-5 (it’s official manual), it is starting to assess the topic seriously through its working group on well-being and burnout, even offering its members a way to evaluate their own burnout. It’s clearly something that’s on their radar.
The costs of burnout, and what employers can do about it.
Though burnout is not a new concept – the term was coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger—the heft that comes with the new classification should shine a new spotlight on a problem that many employers have yet to combat in a real way. The reality is that burnout costs employers millions, or even billions, every year:
- Burnout costs between $125 billion and $190 billion every year in healthcare costs. Researchers estimate that workplace stress accounts for 8% of national spending on healthcare.
- Burnout often leads to disengaged employees, who cost their employers 34% of their annual salary as a result.
- Burnout is responsible for a significant amount of employee turnover, between 20% and 50% or more depending on the organization.
Employers who are able to get ahead of the burnout curve will gain a distinct advantage over their competitors. Not only will employees be healthier and happier, but they will produce more, deliver better service to customers and clients, have significantly more loyalty to the organization, reduced absenteeism and contribute more to the bottom line than their burnt out colleagues.
Your first step towards tackling the issue is to measure where you are starting from. If you’ve never assessed your team’s burnout before, there’s no need to make this fancy or complicated. A simple survey tool with the right questions will give you a benchmark to work from, and The National Academy of Medicine offers access to different validated instruments to help you construct your assessment. Your assessment will answer the question of if you have a burnout problem. If you do, it merits an honest discussion of what is causing it and what to do about it. Reigning in the burnout problem in your organization is not about talking about employee culture from a lofty position – lip service without action does not fix employee burnout. What will is identifying the things that matter most to your employees and following through with steps that will make them better. What’s more, your employees will tell you exactly what those things are if you ask them in a way that they feel safe from repercussions.
There is no magic formula or tool for fixing employee burnout, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. There’s only hard work and commitment to making things a little bit better, every day. If there’s one thing the WHO’s new classification of the phenomena tells us, it is that this is something employers must start taking seriously and addressing pragmatically. And if your organization still chooses inaction, you better cross your fingers that your competitors do the same because if they find the solution for the burnout problem, the benefits they reap from it will make them difficult to compete with.
Credit: Karlyn Borysenko for Forbes, 29 May 2019.