5 Causes of Burnout in Employees

The professional world has done a rapid U-turn when it comes to burnout. Just a couple decades ago, it was regarded as trivial, probably a sign of weakness – arguably nonexistent. As studies began showing the massive economic costs of employee burnout, burnout became accepted as a not only real but serious phenomenon. Very quickly, the thinking around burnout shifted in a huge way.

Today, burnout is seen as more of an institutional problem than an individual one – and is even recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a medical condition.

So what causes burnout in employees, and how do you prevent it? Let’s touch on what burnout is, some of the main factors that can lead to burned-out workers, and how to mitigate them.

What Does Burnout Look Like?

Burnout is a complex condition that’s often the result of several overlapping factors. Many experts think depression or anxiety can be an underlying factor, as well as individual personality traits and events in a worker’s personal life. It can strike high-earning executives or entry-level interns. Most importantly, burnout is often a product of the environment – in this case, the workplace. High intensity professions like caregivers, firefighters, and other first responders, or even commission-based professions (like salespeople or realtors) with few financial guarantees all experience burnout at extremely high rates.

However, while experts may not all agree on what causes burnout, they do agree on what it looks like. The primary symptoms of a burned-out employee are:

  • Lack of motivation. This is the most common sign – someone who’s burned simply lacks the capacity to get started or get excited about their work.
  • Lack of concentration. In close overlap with a lack of motivation, burnout can exacerbate existing attention problems or cause new ones.
  • Irritability. Burned-out workers are snappish, impatient with their coworkers and managers, and prone to outbursts.
  • Excessive fatalism or cynicism. Workers experiencing burnout may see their efforts as hopeless, doomed, or pointless – perhaps with good cause.
  • Low energy. Even if a burned-out worker is holding it together on the surface, their work will invariably suffer.
  • Substance abuse. A worker experiencing severe burnout will often “self medicate” with drugs or alcohol – a course of treatment that often makes things worse in the long run.
  • Sleep disruption. The anxiety that stems from burnout can cause sleep disturbances, which can affect everything from attention span, to emotional volatility, to motivation.
  • Various physical problems. In some cases, burnout can manifest as stomach problems, headaches, vague pains, or a generalized physical malaise.

Studies have shown that burnout is most often precipitated by the following causes.

1. Unfair or Inconsistent Treatment

Many employees cite unfair on-the-job treatment as a major contributor to burnout. For example, certain real estate agents making a higher commission rate than their peers could have a huge impact on morale at a brokerage. Nepotism, favoritism, uneven compensation, bias – these all serve to exhaust, frustrate, and anger employees.

When employees don’t think their workplace is fair, they have very little incentive to put forth any real effort or to expect that their efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.

2. Overwork

If an employee is given too much work, they could easily end up burned out and unmotivated. Part of this goes back to the principle of fairness: if an employee knows they’re doing the work of two (or more) employees, they’ll inevitably experience a feeling of exploitation.

Combine that lack of trust with the simple, brutal fact of how much effort is required to work through a huge workload, and you have a toxic recipe for burnout.

3. Overly Tight Deadlines

Not having adequate time to complete their work, and being forced to work overtime or work twice as fast, can be extremely stressful for employees. Worse yet, this deadline-related stress accumulates – and when they reach their limit, they burn out.

4. Poor Communication From Management

Employees must feel informed and supported by management, or the resultant ambiguity can lead to anxiety, stress, and frustration. If there isn’t healthy, regular communication from management regarding workplace goals and responsibilities, employees will understandably start to wonder if their managers have their back and if their performance is meeting some unspoken standard.

Open communication is an especially important issue today with managers, with the huge increase in the number of remote workers.

5. Ambiguous Roles

Employees who understand their roles and what’s expected of them are able to perform efficiently – and feel secure in that performance. On the other hand, employees who don’t have well-defined roles are left wondering what to do and if their work is satisfactory. This kind of ambiguity is very frustrating, and the resultant stress and anxiety is a fast track to burnout.

How To Prevent Burnout

Much of the thinking around burnout has concluded that it is a collective problem as much as an individual problem. It’s not that certain employees may be susceptible to burnout as much as certain workplaces may cause burnout in employees who work there.

When you look at the main causes of burnout, most of them are very much under the control of management. Treating employees consistently and fairly, giving out reasonable workloads and deadlines, keeping lines of communication open, and defining employee roles are all within the power of management. More importantly, in the context of the increasing rate of employee burnout, they’re among the most important responsibilities of any manager.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Trying to reduce employees’ stress could involve anything from overhauling your management style to adjusting the noise and light levels in the workspace. Like a lot of problems, employee burnout is deceptively tough to solve – but the benefits are potentially massive.

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Author: Kristen Herhold

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