How HR Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout


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By Diane Faulkner, ACC, SPHR

An engaged workforce. It’s what every employer wants and attempts to create. And while glimpses of engagement may sprout here or there not only at your company but also at many others, a real threat remains to a truly engaged workforce within any company — and that’s employee burnout.

According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is a stress that causes physical and emotional exhaustion and occurs when people don’t feel valued at work. And Kronos Incorporated reports that 95 percent of HR leaders admit that burnout is sabotaging workforce retention and is a major challenge on the horizon.

What Causes Burnout

According to Kronos Incorporated, too much work and too little pay are the biggest factors of burnout. Other factors of burnout fall under HR’s control. These include poor management, employees failing to connect their role to the corporate strategy and a negative office culture. The causes are varied, but Martha Bird, anthropologist at ADP Innovation Labs, says that often it’s the cumulative effects of several factors that result in creating a tipping point — the perfect storm — for burnout.

How Burnout Can Affect the Group

Bird believes employee burnout needs to be approached as an ecosystem or infrastructural challenge and less as an individual symptom. “We need to think about restoring connections,” Bird says. After all, isn’t it true that anything that negatively affects the individual affects the group?

“It’s a ripple effect,” says Bird. “We are all connected in some way or another.”

How Engagement Sinkholes Form

One person suffering from burnout can potentially knock team workload off balance and disrupt group productivity. Outside the organization, burnout can cause relationships with family and friends to suffer. Inside the organization, pockets of burnout — aka engagement sinkholes — are created where low energy and apathy disrupt the flow of work, causing detours and closed-off opportunities. Engagement sinkholes often start when employees feel the following at work:

  • Lack of acknowledgment
  • Lack of belonging and connection
  • Feelings of not being respected
  • Feeling unchallenged
  • Misalignment of work with interests
  • Limited sense of purpose in a greater plan
  • Inability to be authentic
  • Lack of autonomy

Take an Honest Assessment of Your Culture

To address these issues, Bird recommends that HR leaders look at the emotional side of their organizational culture. For example, does your organization’s energy feel open, apathetic or angry? Look at the rationale behind the culture of your organization and figure out what you are or what can change. Then, hire people who fit the emotional thumbprint of the organization, which can help retention and boost engagement. Other ways to increase engagement and address burnout are to:

  • Ensure you’re paying employees fairly, according to the market
  • Help managers keep a lid on workload
  • Don’t overdo after-hours work expectations
  • Encourage usage of vacation hours
  • Keep managers trained on techniques that support good management practices
  • Help managers see clear connections between roles and corporate strategy
  • Work with the C-suite and managers to identify and replace outdated technologies

HR can educate their C-suite and management teams on how to keep employee burnout at bay. Healthy organizations don’t just happen. There must be a concerted effort to create them — and it starts at the top.

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