Burnout Is All about the Workplace Not the Employee

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

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] and the World Health Organization officially recognising "workplace burnout" as a medical condition, 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 Organization, 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 unmanageable job demands, lack of clarity, lack of support, and emotional and physical exhaustion, it's clear that organizational culture is the biggest influence on the development of burnout at work.

‍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 recognize burnout as a disease has led to employers seeing employees as the problem.

‍In an interview with Harvard Business Review [6], Maslach likens work 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 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 signs of burnout creep in.

‍Take, for example, an employee who is generally satisfied with their job. However, one day, the company announced 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. The company also 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. At the same time, 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 job stress and burnout. ‍

Define Burnout

In terms of medical diagnosis, job burnout or workplace burnout is a rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon caused by the constant feeling of being "swamped." In most cases, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress or chronic job stress, as well as emotional and financial toll.

In most cases, burnout is not medically diagnosed. However, burned-out employees lead to negative consequences for the company, such as lower productivity and thousands in healthcare costs. While many believe it is not the responsibility of the company to employ programs that prevent workplace burnout, employee stress can be a big factor in the business failing in the long run.

Major reasons for burnout include:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Lack of control on work schedule
  • Lack of Clarity
  • Lack of Communication from their manager
  • Lack of manager support
  • Lack of opportunities for personal growth
  • Unreasonable time pressure


There are three types of burnout, each with its own causes:

Overload Burnout

This happens when a worker works harder and harder in their pursuit of success. However, many who do this are willing to risk their own lives and forgo self care to feel success in their job.

Under-challenged Burnout

This type of burnout happens when an employee feels they are underappreciated or challenged enough. In many cases, this happens because the company fails to provide them with learning opportunities or professional growth. People who feel burned out by the lack of growth may later decide to look for different and more challenging work at a different company.

Neglect Burnout

Employees actively seeking approval at work may feel incompetent when things do not go right. People in the medical community commonly associate this with imposter syndrome.

Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures

Whatever the cause, employee burnout can have negative effects on mental and physical health. While some experts think excessive stress and conditions, such as depression, lead to employee burnout, there are also other factors that influence who experience job burnout.

Signs an Employee Is Experiencing Job Burnout:

  • Exhaustion
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Cynicism


Possible Causes of Employee Burnout

Job Burnout can result from several factors, including:

Lack of work-life balance. If work takes too much of a worker's time that they do not have the energy to socialise with their friends or meet demands in their home life and personal life, they may begin experiencing burnout.

Unclear expectations. As a team member, an employee needs to know what others expect from them. If they are unclear about the degree of authority they have, it may have a significant impact on how comfortable they feel at work.

Personal Issues. Factors such as a person's health conditions or stressors at home, when left unchecked, may affect an employee's ability to handle the pressure in the workplace.

Lack of social support. Employees who feel isolated at work may feel more stressed.

Heavy workload. While having too much to do and not enough hands to complete the task is usual in many companies, it is also the perfect recipe for burnout and disaster.

Long working hours. When an employee works long hours, they lose time to separate themselves from work and reconnect to their personal life. This may lead to unhealthy sleep habits and emotional exhaustion, which could contribute to burnout.


Prevent Employee Burnout with These Strategies

There are many band-aid solutions to managing stress in the work environment. However, band-aid solutions like more yoga, better breathing techniques, and undergoing resilience training do not work in optimising mental health in the long run.

Burnout is preventable. However, companies must employ a timely burnout strategy to ensure employee well-being.

Here are some of the best prevention strategies companies can employ to reduce burnout:

The Well-Being Strategy

When an organisation makes employee well-being a priority of its work culture and provides them unlimited access to terrific tools that help them lead healthier lives, they are more likely to experience burnout less and take fewer sick day leaves.

If an employee shows signs of burnout or mental exhaustion, the company can also refer the worker to a mental health professional. This is especially effective if the company insurance includes an Employee Assistance Program.

Train Managers To Prevent Burnout

Managers are responsible for giving positive employee experiences and preventing burnout. However, they can only do this when they have the resources needed.

Managers have the duty of setting clear expectations and ensuring that employees feel they are being treated fairly. They also have the duty of resolving any work-related stress that arise. With the right resources, managers can influence how their employees feel about their job and prevent burnout before it even starts.

Fixing the Work Environment to Prevent 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 encourage 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 assesses 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.

You might be interested in the following resources:
Calculate onboarding ROI using our Onboarding Cost Calculator
Learn about our Employee Engagement Platform
Trial our Employee Onboarding App
Our Recommended Exit Interview Questions for an Effective Offboarding Experience


[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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