Burnout Is Now an Official Diagnosis — and Your Company Cannot Afford to Ignore It

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified burnout as an official “occupational phenomenon.” While that doesn’t mean burnout is a medical condition, it does mean WHO sees burnout as a specific syndrome above and beyond simply feeling tired after work.

According to WHO, burnout is characterized by exhaustion, feelings of mental distance and/or cynicism toward one’s job, and reduced efficiency at work. While these symptoms are certainly bad news for the employees suffering them, they are also harmful to the companies that employ burned out workers. Burnout damages employee engagement, and disengaged employees cost employers 34 percent of their annual salary in terms of lost productivity and profitability.

In other words, an employees’ performance is severely hindered by burnout, especially when the syndrome goes unnoticed. The longer time an employee spends feeling burnt out, the further their productivity will fall.

WHO’s formal recognition of burnout as an occupational phenomenon might drastically change how managers and HR pros approach the syndrome. Burnout is a workplace hazard, which means company leaders will have to take active steps to protect employee well-being from this threat. Indeed, some people leaders are already meeting the needs of overworked employees by simply caring more. Of course, the most effective leaders are turning that urge to care into concrete actions that make a difference.

The State of Burnout Today

Before we get to the strategies the best leaders use to combat burnout, let’s take a minute to really understand the scope of the problem.

According to Gallup, 23 percent of employees report feeling burnout at work “very often” or “always,” while an additional 44 percent report feeling it “sometimes.” Part of the reason why burnout is so common is that company leaders are not always great at supporting employee wellness and work/life balance. According to a Bridge by Instructure report, only a third of employees say their supervisors encourage them to use their PTO, while only 11 percent say they are encouraged to take mental health days.

Another factor in the prevalence of burnout is that many employees feel they must bring their work with them outside of office hours in order to get ahead in their careers. In the same Bridge report, 78 percent of employees said they had to work longer hours to get a promotion.

It’s not enough to understand burnout and identify it in your employees. Organizations must help those affected regain their well-being, while also taking steps to prevent burnout in the first place. Here are some common actions employers are using to abolish burnout in their offices:

1. Don’t Just Offer PTO — Encourage Employees to Use It

At many organizations, the rules and regulations surrounding PTO are often incredibly convoluted and hidden in the fine print of the employee handbook. The confusing details of PTO, combined with the socially irresponsible stigma against using PTO, deter many employees from getting the rest they need. In one survey, 42 percent of American workers said they didn’t take a single vacation day in all of 2014! This likely has to do with the fear of being judged by managers or colleagues.

Many organizations don’t encourage employees to use PTO because they’d prefer to have their employees working and producing results. However, seeking to minimize PTO use actually prevents employees from reaching full productivity. According to an EY report, for every 10 hours of PTO an employee takes, their year-end performance ratings increase by 8 percent on average.

The lesson here is clear: Employers should encourage employees to use PTO when necessary. Not only does PTO help employees recharge their brains and bodies and ward off burnout, but it also allows them to perform at even higher levels overall.

2. Open Avenues for Transparent Communication

Chronic work-related stress is often tied to a lack of transparency. When employees and their managers cannot easily communicate with one another, employees’ needs are likely to go unmet. Managers cannot identify and address burnout, and employee engagement and performance problems only grow worse in the absence of intervention.

Two-way communication is crucial to identifying burnout and stopping its progress among your workers. Implement digital communication tools that allow everyone from the highest-level leaders to the newest entry-level hires to offer feedback, speak up, and effect change.

Consistent, bidirectional communication allows employees to bring issues to management’s attention before those problems turn into something bigger — like burnout. Plus, studies show that 82 percent of employees like getting feedback, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative. Companies that collect feedback regularly have 15 percent lower turnover rates, which implies higher levels of employee satisfaction and lower levels of burnout.

3. Help Employees Establish Boundaries

Work/life balance is a hot topic at the moment, and there is good reason for this. Employees crave satisfaction in both their careers and their home lives, but their jobs have a nasty habit of following them out of the office. One study found 60 percent of employees work while on vacation — partially because their coworkers and managers are still contacting them while they’re away.

If employees are working during vacation, it defeats the whole purpose of PTO. Employees don’t get the time they need to rest and relax, which means they won’t recuperate fully, which means burnout will still creep up on them.

True work/life balance requires the drawing of boundaries — boundaries that will only be effective if your organization actually respects them. Implement a clear policy that frees employees of requests from supervisors and colleagues outside of office hours.

Now that workplace burnout is a formal diagnosis, employees will have higher expectations for their employers when it comes to their well-being. HR pros and company leaders will have to make wellness a key priority at every stage of the employee life cycle, from onboarding all the way to the end of their tenure.

Of course, this is about more than just what your employees want — it’s also about good business practice. A workforce free of burnout is a more present, more productive, and more profitable workforce. What company wouldn’t want that?

Dana Matalon Goren is CCO at Hibob.

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