By Dr. Scott Brooks
Partner and Vice President
You don’t have to look far to find an example of workplace burnout. Whether it’s a recent New York Times article about the administrative burden put on doctors and nurses, a story about millennials burning out faster than previous generations, or just the employee at the cubicle next to you planning to work all weekend, burnout is real. In fact, burnout is so prevalent in today’s workplaces that the World Health Organization significantly expanded its definition of the term, characterizing it as workplace stress that results in the following three symptoms:
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.
Most surveys may not mention burnout by name, but certainly it lurks there. Try this: read the bullets above again but this time, put it in the context of engagement. You’ll find that engagement can be considered as the opposite of these statements, and as a result, companies can actually understand and target whether employees are at risk for burnout when measuring engagement. Next time you review your survey results, rather than thinking of those unfavorable scores as “disengaged” employees, consider that they may simply be burnt out. Labeling employees as disengaged sometimes comes with a “blame the victim” mentality, and makes the organization feel less responsible. Yet reframing it as potential burnout can prompt additional ways to improve the workplace climate.
Of course, employees can be engaged and yet at risk for burnout. Today’s “always on” culture, where employees feel obligated to respond to email at all hours or while on vacation – or even not take vacation at all – can result in an employee who may be engaged but is becoming exhausted. Ultimately, this leads to less engagement. Surveys can help measure this, and identify departments, job types, tenure groups, or other groups who are more at risk. If you feel like your employees are at a greater risk of burnout, you can create targeted pulse surveys to track – and, importantly, prevent – potential burnout over time. Too many organizations implement wellness programs without fully understanding the source of burnout. Yoga classes at the office may sound nice, but if an employee doesn’t feel able to take vacation ever, no amount of warrior poses will make a difference. Surveys can help target areas to focus on for action planning so that you can see tangible improvements.
Ultimately, increasing engagement – and managing burnout – starts with a commitment that this matters enough to measure it, identify potentially problematic areas, and take steps to remedy them.
Concerned about burnout? We can help. Email Dr. Brooks directly.
Dr. Scott Brooks is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, as well as the co-author of Creating the Vital Organization: Balancing Short-Term Profits with Long-Term Success. With over twenty-five years of experience in the industry, he consults with organizations and individuals to drive strategic change based on surveys, HR metrics, and research that illuminates the connections between leadership, operations, customer loyalty, and business results.