Burnout Is All About The Workplace Not The Employee

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Burnout Is All About The Workplace Not The Employee

Even though burnout is considered a modern mental health issue, this phenomenon has been documented since the 1970s. While its diagnosis is still a point of debate, it’s hard to deny that its classification as an occupational phenomenon and not a health condition [1] has led to many employers treating it as a personal issue, and not a sign that the workplace needs to change.

However, with workplace stress costing the US economy an estimated $500 billion each year [2], it’s clear that employers need to begin treating burnout as a problem that only they can fix.


How Burnout is Influenced by Company Culture

According to the World Health Organisation, over 264 million people suffer from depression and anxiety worldwide [3]. While their studies have found that unemployment is an understandable risk factor for poor mental health, negative working environments can lead to employees developing mental health problems, or pre-existing problems becoming more severe.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that the top five reasons people suffer burnout in the workplace are caused by the workplace [4], and not by the individual themselves as many employers still wrongfully believe. With unfair treatment at work being the top cause of burnout, followed closely by an unmanageable workload, lack of clarity, lack of support, and unreasonable time pressure, it’s clear that company culture is the biggest influence on the development of burnout.

Christina Maslach, a social psychologist, professor of Psychology at the University of California, and creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) test [5], has expressed concern that the WHO’s attempt to categorise burnout as a disease has led to employers seeing employees as the problem.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review [6], Maslach likens burnout to mining canaries. When the canaries enter the mines, they’re healthy and singing, but when they emerge, they’re no longer singing, with soot covering their feathers and coating their lungs. We don’t ask why the canaries made themselves sick, because we understand that they’re sick because of the environment they were in.

Understanding Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction

Another reason why burnout is a workplace issue is that, as theorised by Herzberg [7] in his motivation-hygiene theory, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are often misunderstood. Instead of satisfaction and dissatisfaction existing on either side of a line, with one increasing as the other diminishes, Herzberg states that both of these factors need to be considered independently of the other.

Two of the things to consider with this are, as the theory states, motivation and hygiene. Motivation factors are things like how challenging the work is, whether employees are recognised, involvement in decision making, and an overall sense of importance. However, hygiene concerns more concrete factors like salary, benefits, working conditions, management, and company policy.

Good hygiene, such as when an employee has a good relationship with their supervisor, isn’t always noticed. Bad hygiene, which is where these pre-supposed features are removed or missing - such as if the company stops providing hot drinks in the break room, or removes employee benefits - are widely felt. This is where burnout creeps in.

Take, for example, an employee who is generally satisfied with their job. However, one day, the company announces that they will have to roll back benefits for some employees, including the discounted public transport scheme that helps everyone in this employee’s office get to work every day.

Instead, the company announces that it is spending thousands of dollars to create a new media department headed by a long-time employee who’s well known for their toxic attitude. The employee, and their co-workers, are left feeling cynical that leadership understands what they need because their transportation benefits were cut, while a toxic manager is being rewarded with a promotion.

While they may still be satisfied with other hygiene factors of their job, like their salaries and workplace friendships, the dissatisfaction they feel over this new project has the potential to outweigh that satisfaction and begin influencing burnout.

Fixing the Workplace to Reduce Burnout

The biggest thing you can do to start addressing burnout in the workplace is to start asking your employees what they want to see in the workplace. It’s entirely likely that the answers you receive won’t necessarily translate into actionable items but, most importantly, you’ll get a sense of what isn’t working and why employees are unhappy.

The great thing about addressing burnout in this way is that it’s cheap and comes with a significantly lower risk compared to other wellness initiatives. While they are important and are a key part of improving employee engagement, they’re only one avenue through which burnout can be addressed.

With that in mind, you can start by asking employees to give their input on a relatively minor question - but, most importantly, you need to be prepared to take action on the answers you receive. By not acknowledging the responses, or failing to act, you can do more harm than good. Once you’ve piloted this scheme, you can begin to roll it out to a wider range of employees to understand how they feel about the workplace.

You should also be prepared to be questioned about company policies and how leadership has acted (or not acted) in the past. Again, it’s also important to be honest and to take action on the feedback you receive because, otherwise, employees can be left feeling dissatisfied that they are held to a different standard than their leadership.

In conclusion, as a workplace leader, you need to understand that employee burnout isn’t an individual problem caused by a lack of resiliency, pre-existing mental health issues, or anything else outside of the workplace. Rather, you need to take responsibility for poor organisational hygiene, toxic members of the workforce, and other poor elements of employee experience that can have a negative impact on employee mental health.

Qualee’s platform assessing the employee experience and provides actionable insights that can help detect burnout and mental health issues in the workplace. Create a positive and healthy company culture with Qualee and sign up for our FREE Starter Plan today.


[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244017697154
[2] https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive
[3] https://www.who.int/teams/mental-health-and-substance-use/mental-health-in-the-workplace
[4] https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout-part-main-causes.aspx
[5] https://www.statisticssolutions.com/maslach-burnout-inventory-mbi/
[6] https://hbr.org/2019/12/burnout-is-about-your-workplace-not-your-people
[7] https://www.managers.org.uk/~/media/Campus Resources/Frederick Herzberg - The hygiene motivation theory.ashx

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