When it comes to wellness in the workplace, responsibility seems to be shifting across the board from the employee to the employer. Similar to workplace stress—which we recently blogged about here—employee burnout is yet another issue that is increasingly being viewed as an issue that employers should be working to identify and combat.
As Harvard Business Review reports, this change in perception is fairly recent, following new ICD (International Classification of Diseases) codes being issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). On May 28, 2019, the WHO added the following diagnosis to its ICD-11 update:
QD85: Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
To be clear, burnout is not a new term, even in the context of medical diagnoses. It was included in the ICD-10 list of diagnosis codes, but its previous definition was anything but specific. Burnout was categorized as a “problem related to life management difficulty” and its definition simply read: Z73.0: Burn-out is a physical and emotional exhaustion state.
The term’s refined definition confirms that the term “burnout” exclusively refers to an occupational syndrome and should not be used in other contexts. This is significant: not only does it articulate and validate the experience of many despondent employees, but it legitimizes the burnout problem at the workplace level.
Still, some may dismiss “burnout” as a vague term with a multitude of possible definitions. Others argue that this new classification of burnout as an individual condition unfairly frames it as an employee problem, rather than a company-level issue. In fact, upon closely examining the top five reasons behind employee burnout, it’s clear that the root causes stem from company-wide issues, not individual problems. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, the most common reasons for burnout, in this order, are 1) unfair treatment at work; 2) unmanageable workload; 3) lack of role clarity; 4) lack of communication and support from managers; and 5) unreasonable time pressure.
Further, since burnout is associated with decreased employee engagement, motivation, and productivity, along with increased employee absenteeism and turnover, employers are paying attention, especially in light of the phenomenon’s new medical definition. And they should be. Not only are the risks of burnout great, but the most effective way to mitigate it really comes down to one simple, low-budget tactic: better communication.
In other words, if you, as an employer, are seeking to combat employee burnout, you should start by treating employees with respect and asking questions to better understand their needs. For instance, was two weeks enough time to finish that project, or would you have achieved a better result in three weeks? If you had a $1,000 budget to spend on your department, what would be your first priority?
By engaging in this process with employees and delivering on—or, at the very least, thoughtfully responding to—their feedback, you will convey to them that their opinions matter, that you care about their needs, and that their work is a vital component of the company’s mission. In turn, you may find your burned-out employees getting fired up about their jobs again.
You can read Harvard Business Review’s article about burnout here.