Burnout is a rising problem in the modern world, as our lives become busier and more hectic, and people are more productive than ever before. In fact, between 1979 and 2019, worker productivity increased 59.7%. While some of that growth is enabled by technology, the fact of the matter is that most of us have a lot on our plates. An Indeed study conducted in 2021 revealed that 52% percent of the participants were experiencing burnout, with the number being higher for millennials, 53% of which were already experiencing burnout before the pandemic.
As business leaders, this is a problem we need to be aware of, because it has major ramifications for the people who work for us and therefore for our businesses as well. It’s also important to be able to recognize burnout in yourself and what measures to take.
But burnout is a challenging and complex problem. There is no simple solution, and it can be extremely difficult to recognize—even to the person experiencing it. Chances are we’ve all experienced burnout at some point in our lives. However, chronic burnout can lead to lack of job satisfaction and poor quality of life overall.
Symptoms of burnout may include fatigue and low energy, headaches, lowered immune function, loss of motivation, sense of failure, feelings of defeat or pointlessness, and an increase in cynicism and negativity. The symptoms may look similar to depression, which can further complicate matters for people who already struggle with their mental health. Burnout may lead to procrastination, poor work performance, skipping meals, tardiness, and even substance abuse.
Part of the problem with recognizing and treating burnout is the stigma surrounding it. Many people do not want to admit (or may not even know) when they are burned out, and managers and business leaders are often not trained to recognize it. The American culture places a high value on hard work, and nobody wants to be seen as a slacker or feel that they’re incapable. But the truth is that burnout stems from much more than just a heavy workload, and the complex nature of the beast makes it all the more difficult to recognize. Perhaps you’re feeling many of the symptoms listed above—you feel exhausted, frustrated, cynical, and burned out—but your workload is manageable, so you dismiss burnout as a possibility.
Here’s the thing: Burnout isn’t always caused by workload. It’s caused by a discrepancy in the amount of effort you’re putting into your work compared to the reward you receive in return. That reward isn’t necessarily monetary—it may be something else. But in order to avoid burnout, you need to feel that your actions are producing the results you desire.
With that in mind, there are six factors that contribute to burnout.
- Workload. This factor is the most obvious, and it’s likely one of the most frequent contributors. Not only does your workload need to be manageable and fair on a consistent basis, leaving plenty of room for rest, but it also must align with you as a person. You need to feel a sense of purpose in your work. Have you ever noticed how it’s easy to get caught up working on something you love and lose track of time? Maybe that’s a hobby, volunteer work, or even working on your business. You don’t get easily burned out on work that matches your inner drive. The opposite is true of work you hate doing—it will burn you out much quicker. While most employees probably don’t hate the work they’re doing, it’s also unlikely that they can’t get enough of it. And even when you do love a particular kind of work, it’s still very important to have a strong balance with rest and recreation.
- Control. We all need a sense of control in our lives. It’s important for us to feel autonomous and satisfied with our lives. But people have differing levels of need for control in differing areas of their lives. Control in the workplace becomes a source of burnout when you feel you don’t have the level of control you desire. And this can skew either way—having too much or too little control, though it’s likely more often the latter. This is why micromanaging can lead to employee burnout. But what makes this factor complex is that sometimes an employee’s desire for control may not match the appropriate level of control they should have in their position. Because of these complexities, it’s important to have honest conversations with employees who may be experiencing burnout to determine the causes of the problem and work together from there to find solutions.
- Reward. Every individual has something they’re looking for in terms of reward, something that drives them to accomplish. Maybe they need frequent praise from others, or they need to feel a sense of progress and moving toward something. Many people desire to feel that they’re doing good in the world and see the positive results of their work. But the thing every employee is looking for is to feel that they’re paid fairly for what they do. How each person determines what they feel is fair may differ—it may be a simple number, it may mean bonuses or raises, or (and this is very common) it may simply be making the same amount or more than their peers.
- Community. Isolation is a major factor that leads to burnout, which is why burnout increased significantly during the pandemic. This is why it’s extremely important to foster a great company culture, where employees feel welcome and have a sense of community. If you know anything about my business, you know I’m a big proponent of remote work. I believe there are ways to establish a wonderful culture and community even when your entire team is remote, but it takes conscious effort.
- Fairness. Just like the employee who wants to be paid the same as their peers, a sense of fairness and equality is essential to avoiding burnout. A lack of fairness can look like one employee doing the majority of the work for their slacking team, paying new hires more than long-time employees for the same job, or taking a major holiday off when your employees are required to work that day. The challenge here is that employees may sometimes perceive something to be unfair even when it is not. Again, it’s important to have honest conversations with employees about their desires and expectations and try to come to reasonable agreements about what is expected.
- Values. This factor has two aspects: People want to feel valued and challenged in the work that they do, and they want to feel their own values fulfilled. Challenges are necessary in order to stay engaged. Our brains want to make progress and learn and grow, and without new challenges, a job will grow boring and eventually lead to burnout. This is why it’s very important for employees to have a path to upward growth within their jobs—nobody wants a “dead-end” job. But in addition, it’s important to feel that your job aligns with your personal values and motivations. What makes you get up and go to work every day? If an employee’s motivations conflict with the motivations of the employer, it will lead to burnout in the long run.
Understanding these six factors can help you recognize burnout in your employees and even in yourself and begin to take steps to mitigate it. Because burnout is such a complex problem, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs and have open, nonjudgmental conversations with employees who are showing symptoms. Offer them help and express that you’re willing to work with them to find solutions. Providing professional counseling, training, and other resources is also an option, which may be especially beneficial to those who don’t realize they’re burned out or aren’t willing to talk about it. And whenever you begin to feel symptoms of burnout, step back and examine the situation through the six-factor lens. Where does change need to occur to improve the situation?
By addressing issues of burnout when they begin to arise, you can mitigate further problems down the road, such as high employee turnover, poor productivity, and low job satisfaction. Having an invigorated workforce who love their jobs is a major asset to your company—arguably the biggest asset you could have—so it’s worth investing in your employees’ mental health, both for your company’s sake and for their sake as human beings.