Opinion: burnout in the workplace is bad news for employees and employers so it is critical that both understand the signs and causes and take steps to prevent it.

Do you wake up in the morning exhausted after a night of interrupted sleep, tossing and turning and worrying about work? If your answer is yes and you feel you don’t get enough physical, emotional or mental recovery time before you head back to work, you could be heading for burnout - or may already be there.

What is employee burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that occurs as a response to prolonged strain in the workplace and leads to the employee disengaging from work. Burned-out employees have low energy, they are constantly lethargic and fatigued and find it difficult to recover their energy. They experience negative emotions such as feelings of sadness, dejection and a reduced belief in their professional competence and ability to their job. This spills over to their well-being at home and their performance at work. Burned-out employees experience sleep impairments, reduced memory and concentration.

There are also negative consequences for the employer. To protect themselves from physical, emotional and cognitive stressors at work, burned-out employees distance themselves and disengage from their job and they are more likely to make mistakes. This inevitably leads to poor performance and absenteeism, with business, ethical and legal consequences for employers. 

"An abusive manager who engages in active or passive aggression towards an employee can reduce that employee’s positive emotions"

The cost of burnout

Many organisation researchers and employers promote the value of employee engagement, where the employee works with energy, is dedicated, and fully contributes their skills and abilities at work. If you are burned-out, you cannot be engaged. Work engagement has important performance implications for organisations that are linked to client satisfaction (Salanova, Agut, & Peiro, 2005) and financial returns (Xanthopoulou et al., 2009).

Employees who are burned-out disengage from their work physically, emotionally and cognitively, and this can result in short or longterm absenteeism with obvious negative costs for the business. However, some employees who are burned-out continue to come to work while experiencing chronic emotional and physical exhaustion. This negatively impacts their ability to think clearly, to concentrate and impairs their interactions with colleagues and clients. 

Two main lead to burnout – the job itself and the employee’s personal characteristics

There are also serious ethical and legal obligations for employers to provide employees with a safe place to work. In Sweden, Finland, and The Netherlands, burnout is a recognised medical disorder that qualifies for disability and health care claims (Grossi, Perski, Osika & Savic, 2015). In Ireland, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts 2005 and 2010 require employers to prevent any improper conduct or behaviour likely to put the safety, health and welfare of employees at risk with similar legislation in the UK and Europe.

From an employee well-being, business, ethical and legal perspective, it is critical that employers and employees understand the signs and causes of burnout in the workplace and take steps to prevent it.

What causes burnout? 

Two main factors collide that lead to burnout – the job itself and the employee’s personal characteristics. Unrealistic work demands coupled with a lack of resources such as time, people, information, finance, equipment and manager support to enable you to deliver the task, will cause mental, emotional and physical strain. Managers have an obligation to provide employees with a safe place to work and this includes the volume of work and supporting resources that they allocate.

"In relation to stress and emotions in the workplace, leadership style is critical"

However, sometimes the demands of the task far outweigh the resources provided by the manager. This is a critical source of stress and frustration for many employees and can lead to mental and physical exhaustion as employees drive themselves to deliver unrealistic targets.

Another key issue in organisations is the over commitment of resources i.e. people. In an attempt to share knowledge, expertise and good practice, many organisations and managers commit their team members to a number of simultaneous projects. This has great employee development and organisational benefits in terms of knowledge development and transfer, but only if the employee is not already over-stretched.

Horrible bosses – the way you make me feel

A negative leadership style also influences employee burnout with the manager influencing employee positive and negative emotions at work. An abusive manager who engages in active or passive aggression towards an employee can reduce that employee’s positive emotions and feelings of pride, determination and enthusiasm, while increasing their negative emotions such as feeling upset, irritable, nervous or afraid.

In fact, all of our interpersonal interactions in the workplace with colleagues and clients trigger both positive and negative emotional reactions. The extent to which the employee can buffer against these negative interactions and emotional reactions depends on the frequency and severity of the interactions, but also on the resilience of the individual themselves. Individuals who have high self-esteem and are proactive at taking control over their life events can buffer the negative effects of difficult interpersonal relationships and interactions at work. 

How can organisations and employees deal with burnout?

From RTÉ Radio One's Ryan Tubridy Show, an interview with Maria Sweeney about how she beat occupational burnout

Many employers provide Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) to provide confidential counselling and guidance for employees who are experiencing difficulties at work. These are welcome supports, but a reactive solution. Prevention is always better than cure and managers need to be made aware of their obligations under the legislation to provide their employees with a safe place of work. This relates directly to the volume of work they assign, along with the levels of supports provided for employees to realistically deliver on these tasks.

A proactive approach would include good planning and project management skills for managers to avoid unrealistic targets and deadlines for employees. Managers should also have the ability to make realistic risk assessments of the potential physical and mental demands on their employees if they say yes to a project which leads to an over commitment of resources.

In relation to interpersonal stressors and emotions in the workplace, leadership style is critical. A key characteristic of a positive leadership style is the ability to show individual consideration for employees. Managers must demonstrate emotional intelligence, understanding the impact of their behaviour on employee emotions at work. 

Six steps for burnout recovery

From RTÉ Radio One's Marian Finucane Show, a discussion on burnout with psychotherapist Anne Marie Tool, journalist Stephanie Costello and Stephen Bell from Bell Lane Coffee in Mullingar

One researcher sums this up nicely with six steps employees can take to recover from burnout. Admit there is a problem and that you are experiencing physical, emotional and mental strain. Distance yourself from the problem by taking leave from work. Concentrate on restoring your health. Question your values and what is driving you and build new values. Explore different work possibilities. Finally, make a break or a change if that’s what it takes. Once again however, prevention is better than cure. Remember the best advice for work-life balance and keeping work in perspective probably comes from Doris Day

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ