What Is Occupational Burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added occupational burnout to its international classification of diseases and vowed to research mental wellness at work in greater detail. Since psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first used the term in the 1970s, our ideas about burnout and its effect on the economy are still evolving. But it’s clear burnout correlates with higher attrition rates, increased medical costs, societal harm, and lower productivity. Researchers in the U.S., for example, estimate 8% of national healthcare costs can be attributed to occupational stress. In 2019, Forbes reported burnout costs Americans between $125 billion and $190 billion every year. The World Economic Forum published research on the percentage of working adults with burnout, and then compared results between different countries, which ranged from 30%-57%.

There’s debate about the prevalence of occupational burnout and its cost, but signs of the phenomenon are easy to identify:

  •  Feeling like you’re running on autopilot
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Emotional and mental fatigue
  •  Lost motivation or sense of purpose
  • Self-doubt and anxiety
  • Distraction
  • Apathy and cynicism
  • No sense of urgency to complete assignments

Outwardly, burnout can manifest as late or missing work, subpar performance, a negative outlook, disorganization, and/or decision paralysis. Some experts say it’s one of the most significant factors in lost revenue today. But organizations can take steps to create a healthier, happier work environment.


What Can Business Leaders Do to Protect Employees From Burnout?

Develop an upstream strategy. 

Just as you would study your target audience before a presentation, you need to understand your employees’ needs and gauge the ambient tone at the office. Ask employees for their feedback, conduct anonymous polls, or use a group study to find ways to make improvements. You can also collect data from company devices to draw conclusions about how employees manage their time and if they’re working outside normal hours. These details can help with decisions about policy changes, workload adjustments, public perception, and company culture. It might also help you identify at-risk or marginalized groups who need additional support. For example, some studies show parents have a higher risk for burnout compared to other demographics. If that seems to be the case at your business, try creating an employee resource group (ERG) for family caretakers.

Build a support network.

Communication helps forge meaningful social connections at work, and, over time, this camaraderie builds emotional resilience and brand loyalty. Create opportunities for colleagues to socialize with one another, for example during group classes, happy hours, lunches, and more.   

Stamp out “busy culture.”

“Busy culture” happens when businesses incentivize unhealthy work habits. If employees are pressured to work overtime, compete with each other, or otherwise rush through work, this creates unproductive frenzy and stress.

To counterbalance busy culture and avoid burnout, give employees more autonomy over their work and schedule. Try to discourage micromanagement and be flexible about short-term goals. Employees should feel comfortable about setting boundaries on their work responsibilities and enjoying a life outside of work. You can also add time margins for weekly assignments to ensure everything gets finished on time, even if tasks take longer than expected.

Encourage employees to take time off.

People need time off to decompress outside of work. If you notice people aren’t using their vacation time, release a company-wide statement about it. Sometimes employees feel guilty about taking vacation, especially during periods that are busy, so they might need additional encouragement. You can also further incentivize your team by offering unlimited sick time, which employees might otherwise try to ration. 

Limit administrative work.

To stave off burnout, the surgical department at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) experimented with new policies that helped doctors cut down on administrative work, which is estimated to take about twice as much time as face-to-face patient interactions. Mark Linzer, MD, director of general internal medicine at the center, told The Wall Street Journal his department decided to provide scribes to help doctors maintain their electronic records. As a result, Linzer claims, the self-reported burnout rate dropped by about 50%.

Offer assistance programs and benefits.

Help support your employees’ mental health by offering assistance programs, including, for example, counseling, gym memberships, and meditation programs. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to fight off feelings of anxiety and depression, two common outcomes with chronic burnout. 

You can also provide creative outlets for your employees: the mental versatility can be a useful diversion from their day-to-day routine. Behavioral researchers describe a phenomenon called “tunneling”—the ability to only concentrate on one task—and its correlation to burnout. According to a study reported in the Scientific American, people also lose about 13 IQ points when they’re in this state, making them more prone to productivity drops and errors. 

If you’re interested in learning more about burnout, download our latest eBook to better understand how stress might be affecting your employees, your company, and potentially be the leading cause of burnout. And most importantly, what you can do to help as an HR executive or leader.