Burnout is a significant public health problem. Just this year, the World Health Organization upgraded its assessment of the threat posed by burnout. The condition, says the WHO, is a “syndrome” involving a range of symptoms related to chronic stress.
The WHO statement explicitly ties burnout to the workplace. According to one recent survey of Human Resources leaders, burnout is blamed for up to half of employee turnover. The Harvard Business School estimates that stress-related burnout may impose a healthcare cost of $125 to $190 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
However, in most of these studies and surveys, burnout is presented in just one guise: the overworked employee stretched thin by too many responsibilities, too little time, and too few resources. In fact, according to some researchers, burnout has several faces. Business leaders who want to cope with this growing problem effectively should be aware of the varieties of burnout, and of how different symptoms require different solutions.
When we hear the word burnout, we usually think of the overwhelmed employee with too much on their plate. Although burnout is sometimes seen as connected to the problem of low engagement, these employees are, in fact, often highly engaged. As one study states, they are engaged but exhausted.
Business leaders can counter this kind of burnout by giving employees clear and realistic goals, the support and resources they need to meet those goals, and appreciation for a job well done. Gallup and others have found that a surprising number of employees feel their supervisors fail to provide sufficient guidance and support in one or all of these areas.
The under-challenged employee, by contrast, is rarely engaged. They may feel a lack of energy, but it springs from apathy rather than exhaustion. These employees are indifferent. You are just as likely to lose such an employee—not because they are stressed, but because they feel the job does not allow them to develop professionally.
The solution here is to have a clear understanding of your employees’ strengths, and then assign them meaningful work that gives them a chance to utilize those strengths. In my executive coaching practice, I have found that the right match between strengths and challenges is one of the keys to flourishing at work. In this case, business leaders need to think like coaches themselves: actively working to create opportunities for their employees to experience personal and professional growth.
This final type of burnout is the most mysterious of the three—even though the research found it may apply to over 20% of employees. These employees care but do not feel effective or competent at their jobs. They are likely to feel imposter syndrome and to respond with a mix of passivity and resignation. When things do not go well, they feel helpless and tempted to give up and stop trying.
Such employees require a mix of support, autonomy, and acknowledgment. Interestingly, that is not so different from what is called for in the other two kinds of burnout. We need work that offers a purposeful and realistic challenge, as well as an opportunity to grow professionally. We need support and guidance, but also the freedom to make decisions independently.
In all three cases, workplace culture is a large part of the solution
A healthy workplace culture is the ultimate antidote to burnout in all of its forms. Christina Maslach, who has been studying burnout since the 1970s, points to six key components of workplace culture:
Ignoring these six areas is a recipe for burnout, high turnover, and low employee satisfaction. On the other hand, business leaders who are mindful of these components of workplace culture have an opportunity to create an environment that allows employees to thrive and flourish.
In the end, a healthy organizational culture built around meaningful and rewarding work is the best safeguard against burnout.