How to respond to work burnout

Last updated on 
November 10, 2020

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2020’s mass remote work experiment has pushed employee wellbeing to the top of every company’s agenda. It’s well documented that remote workers are more likely to experience feelings of isolation and loneliness, work longer hours and take on unrealistic workloads. A lack of distinct boundaries between personal and professional time can quickly erode work/life balance and cause stress – and that’s before you factor in the anxiety and anguish of living through a global pandemic. No wonder almost 70% of remote workers are experiencing burnout at work. But what’s the best way to deal with it when it strikes? How can employees and their employers respond to work burnout?

What should employees do when they burn out?

To examine the best ways to recover from burnout, we first need to become familiar with what the symptoms are. Common signs of burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion, elevated stress levels, feeling ineffective, producing lower quality work, and feelings of cynicism, irritability, hostility or detatachement. While it’s tempting to think that people experiencing these symptoms should just take some time off and book a long vacation, that doesn’t solve the issue. As soon as the employee returns to work, the problems will return, because the causes of burnout weren’t addressed – only avoided for a brief period.

There are lots of things employees can do to reduce the symptoms of burnout. We can remove unnecessary stressors from our lives. We can speak out about unrealistic workloads. We can add more structure to our day. We can set firm boundaries between our personal and professional lives. We can improve our sleeping habits. But, according to Stela Salminen, who’s co-authored several studies into burnout at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, there’s one overarching concept that makes the biggest difference to recovering from burnout: the concept of agency.

Apparently, it’s the realization that we are in control of our lives that makes the biggest difference to burnout recovery. From analyzing the experiences of people who attended a rehabilitation course, Salminen found that there was one thing all those who successfully recovered had in common: a revelation that they are the ones in charge of their own wellbeing. Recognizing that we’re the ones in control helps us believe that we have the ability to change our environment – and then take the steps needed to address the issues that caused the burnout in the first place. But if true, this is still only one part of the burnout recovery puzzle – because it places all the responsibility on the shoulders of the employee, not the employer.

Recognizing burnout as a cultural problem

Recently, a new perspective on burnout has emerged – one that suggests that it’s extremely unhelpful to keep putting employees at the center of the problem. While in the past burnout was seen as an individual issue, one that was exacerbated by someone’s personality or ability to deal with stress, the new outlook maintains that burnout is actually a workplace problem. “Burnout is not and should not be treated as a problem of the individual,” Salminen argues: “it is, per se, an occupational disorder.

Burnout can be caused by all manner of things, and according to a recent Gallup survey, these include unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, lack of clarity about role, lack of support and communication from management, and demanding time pressures. These issues are all related to work culture, and not an employee’s personality. So this means that no matter how many agency-related revelations an employee might have, they’re still only addressing the problem on a micro level. To tackle the issue on a macro level – and to better protect their employees – organizations must address their own role in creating burnout, and then take steps to rectify the issue. But what are the best ways of doing this?

What can employers do to address burnout in their organization?

One of the simplest ways to help solve the problem is to actually talk about burnout. Many employees feel this isn’t done enough, and in a 2020 study by FlexJobs and Mental Health America  only 21% of participants said they were able to have productive conversations with HR about solutions to burnout – a further 56% said that HR didn’t encourage conversations about burnout. Employers must take steps to create an open dialogue about burnout with their employees. This shouldn’t just be part of a meeting agenda or something to tick off the to-do list; rather, it should become a matter of culture. Ask employees what they need – regularly. See what they’re struggling with. Provide resources and offer help, whether that’s with managing a workload or dealing with stress.

When it comes to helping employees recover from burnout, employers need to be proactive. It isn’t enough to wait for employees to come to you when there’s a problem. You need to provide support at the right time – which is before it becomes a problem. To do this, you need to have visibility over your employees. You need to be able to see who’s got an unreasonable workload, who’s at capacity, who’s doing too much overtime, who hasn’t taken any time off. When you’re working remotely it can often be harder to maintain visibility – but with the right tech you can help ensure all employees have healthy working patterns.

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Burnout can be crippling, but recognizing the warning signs and taking action early on can help to minimize its effects – and hopefully even block it. As we all try to adjust to the precarious conditions of the pandemic, it’s clear that the employers who take proactive steps to invest in their employees’ wellbeing stand the best chances of success – both as employers and people.

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