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Are Leaders Responsible for Employee Burnout?

By: Annie Button


Are Leaders Responsible for Employee Burnout

Think you are setting the right example by working all hours and rewarding your employees when they do the same? Perhaps this isn’t you at all, but you can’t understand why your employees seem burnt out?

The Guardian reports that burnout has become a sinister and insidious epidemic. Last year CNBC reported that nearly 40 per cent of employees are so burned out they want to quit!

So, the burning question is, who exactly is to blame? Are leaders really responsible for employee burnout? In this article I’ll be looking at what burnout is, the main causes and the role leaders play in creating cultures where burnout is rife.

What is burnout?

In a nutshell, burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. People suffering from work burnout are exhausted, empty, are cynical about their job, and unable to cope with the demands of life.

The term, first coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, describes an employee’s reaction to excessive and prolonged stress.

Everybody has a different level of capacity to deal with stress and that can fluctuate over time. Sometimes we feel able to cope and other times we struggle. Ironically, burnout in the workplace usually happens to those who initially shine, love their job and go above and beyond because they care and are eager to prove their capability.

Anyone can become exhausted, even those who are engaged at work and good at their job. Burnout can affect anyone, from entrepreneurs and leaders to employees on the bottom rung.

What are the main causes of burnout?

Research by Gallup found that the five factors most closely correlated with burnout included unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, poor communication and a lack of support from managers, and unreasonable time pressure.

Burnout generally occurs when an employee is placed under stress over a long period of time. Burnout is also common in roles that are emotionally draining, such as care workers, teachers, prison officers, and emergency service workers.

Workplace Strategies for Mental Health say burnout is much more likely when employees:

  • Expect too much of themselves
  • Never feel that the work they are doing is good enough
  • Feel inadequate or incompetent
  • Feel unappreciated for their work efforts
  • Have unreasonable demands placed upon them
  • Are in roles that are not a good job fit

One career coach says that in many cases workplace burnout has in fact nothing to do with overworking! Writing for Entrepreneur.com, Sarah Vermunt, said,

“As a career change coach, I have many clients who are on stress leave from burnout, and many others who are getting dangerously close to that point. And in very few cases, it’s because of overworking. Don’t get me wrong, that’s certainly an issue for some, but the people I work with are burning out because they feel powerless and trapped, like they have no control over their work.”

Burnout is a complex issue that is growing in prevalence in todays’ modern workplaces.

What does burnout mean for business?

Employees who are burnt out are a drain to business. Burnout not only reduces productivity, it makes employees feel resentful and cynical, which has a negative impact on the motivation of both themselves and other employees. People who are burnt out inevitably take more time off sick.

If we take a look at the symptoms of burnout, it’s not hard to see how this psychological issue has a negative impact on business. General symptoms and sequalae include:

  • Demotivation and detachment
  • Low energy
  • Lower productivity
  • Lower resistance to illness
  • Pessimism
  • Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion
  • Higher absenteeism

There are several stages in the development of burnout, which means there are plenty of opportunities for business leaders to spot the signs and take action to prevent it. Ignoring the problem affects productivity, and has far-reaching implications for staff retention and customer satisfaction.

Burnout is bad for business.

Are business leaders responsible for employee burnout?

According to the Human Resource Executive, the number one cause of employee burnout is poor leadership and unclear direction. Citing a survey by Teamblind Inc, HR Executive report that almost a quarter (23 per cent) of the 9,000 employees surveyed felt that poor leadership ranked top as a cause for burnout in their workplaces, with workload ranked second at 19 per cent.

While the importance of business culture and employee well-being is increasingly recognized as being a key driver for success, there are still many leaders and managers rewarding workaholism and managing staff badly. A lack of career opportunities and not feeling appreciated are high on the list of reasons why employees burnout and quit.

A recent survey of 5,000+ employees by The Predictive Index found that 58 per cent of respondents felt their managers didn’t communicate clear expectations at work, 57 per cent said bosses had favorites and 55 per cent felt their manager showed no concern over their career and personal development, all of which contribute considerably to a disconnect by employees and are significant factors in the development of employee burnout.

Bad managers, bad leaders and bad cultures are precursors to the burnout of employees.

We also seem to be living in an age where society itself is burning out—The Guardian reports “austerity, rising poverty and the uncertainty caused by Brexit … alongside cuts to services” is pushing people to their limits.

If leaders are stressed, the people below them get stressed. Leaders must understand the role they can play in preventing employee burnout. Businesses can take more responsibility for the health and well-being of their staff. It’s good for employees and apparently it is good for business success. Happy Maven report on the connection between workplace well-being and company success, saying that companies with high levels of employee wellbeing outperformed the stock market by 2-3 per cent per year over a 25-year period.

Society is changing and is creaking with the burden. Poor management and our always-switched-on culture are taking their toll.

It is time for business leaders to stand up.

Published: October 14, 2019

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Annie Button

Annie Button

Annie Button is a Portsmouth based writer and recent English Literature graduate. Annie has written for various online and print publications and specializes in business and career development. Follow @anniebutton1994 on Twitter.

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