Saying we’re all burnt out stops us helping those who really are
A burnout boom?
Burnout. It was one of the most used terms in business during 2021. It’s become a top three workplace buzzword during the COVID crisis. And, if you believe the statistics, burnout is growing exponentially amongst employees and senior executives alike. Here are just a few of the staggering “stats” doing the rounds at present:
- Analysis of over 600,000 UK employee reviews by Glassdoor found that mentions of “burnout” more than doubled in just 6 months – increasing by 128 per cent between May and October 2021.1
- More than three-quarters (79%) of UK workers say they have experienced burnout, with 35% reporting high or extreme levels (according to human capital management technology business Ceridian’s annual 2022 Pulse of talent report surveying 1,156 UK members of staff in organisations with at least 100 employees).2
- A Deloitte survey of 1,000 full-time, U.S. employed corporate professionals found that 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout in their current job.3
But, as we know, statistics can be misleading.
Are people really as burned out as they claim?
Some simple questions will give us a bit of a sanity check here:
- Has burnout really more than doubled in 6 months?
- Have 4 in 5 employees really experienced the full effects of genuine burnout?
- Are only one in six Millennials not burned out?
Our own research at ENGAGE suggest the term “burnout” is becoming over-used. This is dangerous. Not only does it distract us from other wellbeing issues that may be at play, but it also means we don’t pay enough attention to the wellbeing of employees when they are genuinely burned out.
Based on our private client data with millions of employees across multiple sectors and geographies, here’s what we have learned about the true picture of burnout during the pandemic.
- Burnout is not just a COVID phenomenon
We need to remember that workplace burnout didn’t just begin when the COVID pandemic started. Some employees and executives were genuinely burned-out pre-pandemic, and some will be once it’s faded. The impact of COVID has, no doubt, exacerbated stress, exhaustion and burnout for some (think reduced boundaries between work and home life, increased working hours, Zoom fatigue etc.). However, we must remember that the fundamental root causes of workplace burnout remain – poor work planning, over-focusing work tasks on a small number of employees, poor management…the list goes on.
- Simply asking people if they feel burned out doesn’t work
Too many poorly designed surveys are making us think that burnout is fizzing out of control in the workplace. If you ask people if they “feel stressed” and if they are “burned out”, there is a human tendency to say “yes”. In an era when “busy-ness” is often seen as a badge of honour, saying how stressed or how burned out you are, has become the same. As we argue below, we need a slightly more layered approach to really understand the actual levels of burnout and its causes.
- Some individuals are more prone to burnout than others
Recent research by Hogan using personality assessment data has shown that some employees are more prone to burnout than others. Certain personality aspects can make people more susceptible to becoming stressed and, ultimately, burned out. For example, those who lack composure under pressure, who prefer to follow rather than lead, who are overly process-focused or are resistant to change all have a higher chance of suffering from real burnout.4
Our own research has led to us developing the ENGAGE Burnout Risk Indicator (BRI) which can help predict the risk of burnout amongst individual executives and senior teams in particular. This suggests companies could be more proactive about looking for the early warning assigns of burnout.
- Prevention is better than cure
Too many companies are focused on treating the symptoms of burnout, such as providing yoga classes and free fruit or giving the whole company a day or week’s mental health leave during the pandemic (e.g., Bumble, Nike, Channel 4). But this is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Organisations need to be getting ahead of the curve and recognising that prevention is better than cure. All of our research suggests that workplace burnout is caused by fundamental factors such as poor management, unclear goals and objectives, patchy communication, lack of humanity amongst leaders and simple, poor workload planning. Good research amongst your people ought to be able to spot these warning signs and help you stop people becoming burned out in the first place.
So, how can we get better at understanding the real extent of burnout and how best to tackle it?
The most critical factor is to have a much more layered approach to measuring burnout:
The genuine definition of burnout (from the WHO) suggests there are three elements to the genuine syndrome:
- Exhaustion (excessive work hours and inability to cope with work demands)
- Cynicism (e.g., not getting recognition for work done well)
- Job efficacy (do I feel empowered and get a sense of accomplishment from my work?)
Good research into burnout will examine each of these burnout elements and look at what’s driving them in the workplace. To get a proper understanding of the level of burnout and its root causes, this more layered approach is absolutely critical (not just a simple “Do you feel burned out?” question). Our own research using this WHO-based approach has found much lower levels of actual burnout than from self-reported approaches. With one professional services client recently, for example, the total proportion of burned-out employees was, in fact, 0%! However, we did find around one in five employees were showing signs of exhaustion – requiring the firm to look at workplace demands and excessive hours.
The reality is that we are all probably not as burned out as we think, or say, we are.
Better, layered measurement is the only way to get a true and detailed picture of where burnout issues really lie. Only then can we identify which groups of employees are genuinely burned out and, critically, put measures in place to tackle the problem at its root.
Want to know more about how ENGAGE’s wellbeing and burnout measurement tools could help you spend your time on prevention rather than cure? Feel free to download our Wellbeing Index or Burnout Risk Indicator PDF factsheets to see how they work.
Better still, get in touch to talk to one of the team about how ENGAGE’s approach to better workplace health could be of help to your organisation.
4 “On Fire or Fizzling Out: Who Is at Risk for Burnout?” posted August 3, 2021. https://www.hoganassessments.com/blog/employee-burnout-in-the-workplace-covid-19-pandemic/