Burned Out Worker

Attention all HR practitioners!  You are in the ideal position to create fundamental, transformational change in your organization!  You can be the catalyst for bringing the human back into human resources!

The question is:  will you?

Organizational leaders far too often treat human resources as the bastard child (or at least the distant cousin) in operations and strategy.  But the modern information age demands that organizations spend more time and resources building their employees in order to create the nonduplicatable competitive advantage that exists only in its workforce.

In speaking with numerous HR colleagues, certain themes continuously emerge.

  • How do we build employee engagement?
  • What can we do to find the best candidates to fill open positions?
  • What are the best ways to reduce turnover and retain our top performers?
  • Why don’t employees take advantage of the training and development opportunities that we provide?
  • How can we better manage organizational change?

It’s a lot for HR to be responsible for – and they are the issues that directly affect organizational performance and the bottom line.

But, for some unfathomable reason, organizational leaders tend to disregard the vital role that HR plays in the new economy.  HR is far too often viewed as the administrative gatekeeper of the status quo and the “make nice” people pleasers who file paperwork and make “problem employees” go away.

This is NOT the role that HR was meant to play!

I firmly believe that HR lies at the critical juncture to serve as liaison between organizational goals and the people whose actions will ultimately lead to their attainment…or forfeiture.

So, where does “burnout” fit in with this role – and should HR focus attention on the level of burnout in their organizations?

I believe (and research suggests) that burnout may the fundamental workplace phenomenon influencing whether or not the company will achieve its goals.

Burnout’s Impact on the Organization

Way back in 2011, I spotted the connection between burnout and PTSD and speculated in my 2014 TEDx Talk that eventually burnout could be considered a de facto disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In other words, this would mean that employers would be legally required to provide reasonable accommodations to help burned out workers do their jobs despite being burned out.

I was on to something – and it is another reason the HR leaders in organizations need to take a serious look at workplace burnout:

In May 2019, the World Health Organization identified burnout as a workplace phenomenon that occurs when “chronic workplace stress…has not been successfully managed.”

Think about it this way:  if it is the workplace itself – the conditions of employment, policies, and practices – that is the source of the burnout phenomenon, then it becomes the employer’s responsibility to mitigate these factors in order to avoid burning out its workforce.

While not a medical diagnosis per se (at least not according to the W.H.O.’s recent International Classification of Disease), this reclassification of burnout from a work-life issue to a workplace-related phenomenon is cause for HR professionals to take notice – because HR is that liaison between the employee and the organization.

The following are four ways in which burnout impacts the organization – all of which are generally under the auspices of the HR function:

  1. Lateness, absenteeism, and presenteeism lower PRODUCTIVITY. There is a strong element of exhaustion in the burnout experience.  Workers are, therefore, more likely to be late for work or take unscheduled “sanity days” to try to recuperate from their fatigue.  But there is another aspect that continues to plague organizations:  presenteeism (a phenomenon in which employees might be physically at work, but their minds, hearts, and creativity are somewhere else).  This leads to mediocre performance at best or a failure to meet expected standards at worst.
  2. Poor morale and team conflict decrease PERFORMANCE. It’s no surprise that burnout affects an employee’s ability to proactively work with others and serve clients.  Interpersonal communication is highly compromised because people who are burned out tend to be angry, irritable, combative, and even paranoid in their relationships with others.  When burnout affects a large percentage of the workforce, the corporate culture is diminished as trust and a sense of organizational belonging are compromised.
  3. Recruiting and retention challenges threaten the “employer of choice” BRAND. People talk to each other – and their experiences at work tend to be an important topic of conversation with coworkers, colleagues, and peers.  If your workplace practices create a high stress environment, then frustrated and angry employees will tell other people – often a lot of other people.  In this age of social media and websites such as Glassdoor to help prospective employees better understand what it’s really like to work at your company, workplace burnout can directly impact the effect of your recruiting and retention strategies.  Instead of being known as an “employer of choice,” you’re risk being known as an “employer to avoid.”
  4. Change resistance limits competitive INNOVATION. Due to the frustration, anger, and apathy that precede a full burnout, employees tend to hold back their ideas and opinions to improve the workplace or the products and services provided to customers.  By holding back their opinions and insights, they also tend to be more resistant to changes to their work environment.  Despite the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into work processes, it still takes that unique human spark to take data and turn it into usable information and insights that will move the company forward.  Burned out workers are in survival mode and will take the path of least resistance until they can eventually move on to another employer.  But until then, they will do the bare minimum and resist.

Workplace Burnout Is Becoming Ubiquitous

Burnout is the dirty little secret in many companies.  Burned out workers engage in active denial well along their downward spiral and are often shunned by coworkers if they admit that they are feeling “stressed out.”

If an employee is experiencing a workplace issue, they are generally told to contact HR.  How responsive are you to their concerns?  Are you able to “read between the lines?”  Do you even consider if burnout might be at the heart of their problems?

When a worker succumbs to the negative űber stress of burnout, their entire well-being is compromised.  Not only is work-life balance affected, but also their ability to effectively solve problems, make decisions, and interact with various organizational stakeholders.  In other words, a burned out worker will simply be psychologically and physically unable to do what is necessary in order to achieve organizational goals.

Yet burnout continues to exist – and increasingly on an unprecedented scale:

  • A 2018 Gallup study found that 23% of workers experience workplace burnout very often or always – “only” 44% admitted to feeling burned out sometimes. That’s 67% (two-thirds!) of your workers who will at some point be burned out.
  • A recent Deloitte survey found that 77% of workers have experienced burnout in their current job – with more than half admitting to more than one occurrence. Based on my proprietary B-DOC Model, this may indicate a high rate of residual burnout – the boomerang effect arising during the 2-year recovery period.
  • $125-190 billion of healthcare spending is attributable to job burnout. Consider how these escalating healthcare costs could be contained by making changes to the workplace that reduce chronic stress for workers.
  • A common miscaption is that passion for the job will avoid burnout – it doesn’t. Since high achievers and perfectionists may be more susceptible to job burnout, rewarding long work hours and deprivation of a personal life only encourages a burnout-producing culture.

Burnout is in epidemic proportions in workplaces around the world.  Workers are increasingly asked to do more with less and to do it quicker.  This is a recipe for losing your star performers to burnout – workers that can be difficult (if not impossible) to replace.

As an HR professional, I urge you to consider the role that burnout might be playing in not only an individual workers’ performance but also to the performance and results experienced by the organization as a whole.

In other words, taking the lead in reducing workplace burnout might be the pivot point that allows HR to become a strategic business partner focused on creating win-win outcomes for both the employee and the employer.

© 2019 G. A. Puleo.  Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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