Ten ways you're burning out your employees

There are 10 common workplace stressors that cause employee burnout. Here's how to quickly check for them in your organisation

In May 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an 'occupational phenomenon'. The source of burnout is 'chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed'.

In other words: burnout occurs 'specifically… in the occupational context'. Victims are cognitively compromised from mental and physical exhaustion; frustration and cynicism regarding job demands increase presenteeism and absenteeism; frustration and fear arise when attempts to perform optimally are compromised – despite working longer hours; and something is occurring in organisational policies, procedures, processes, or management that creates a culture of chronic stress.

So what are companies doing wrong that creates this fertile ground for chronic employee stress?

Based on my Burnout During Organisational Change model (B-DOC), 10 common workplace stressors burn out employees. Having even one or two repetitive negative stressors can then create a burnout culture. These 10 stressors are:

1. Poor leadership. Effective leaders focus on the innate humanity of their workers; they lead through their followers’ hearts to release their creativity and innovation for competitive advantage.

Quick check: What do your succession planning and promotion strategies suggest about desirable leadership behaviours in your workplace? Do your leaders consider the emotional and physical costs accompanying their demands on subordinates? Leaders are role models for the acceptable behaviours of the entire workforce.

2. Lack of organisational caring. Workers are human beings with an innate need to be respected and cared for; including assistance to deal with chronic workplace stress.

Quick check: What connotative meanings do your actions signal (are you walking the talk)? Is respectful treatment of others included in performance reviews? Employees are more creative and engaged if your actions prove your respect for them as individual contributors not replaceable commodities.

3. Negative co-workers. Whether negative gossip through the office grapevine or overt bullying, a culture of mistrust and negativity undermines employee wellbeing.

Quick check: Is bullying mistaken for autocratic management? Are there physical altercations between co-workers and how did you handle them? Are resources available to support employees who are being bullied? Bullying destroys trust and undermines teamwork.

4. Politics or sabotage. More than 50% of my research participants burned out when faced with political intrigue and sabotage – especially through deceit or inequitable treatment of employees.

Quick check: Do you permit an employee (or manager) to take credit for work that they didn’t do? Are you guilty of playing favourites? How recently have you reviewed policies for equity and fairness? Equitable treatment can boost employee efficiency, effectiveness, and engagement.

5. Lack of resources. Whether it’s in the form of slashed budgets, employee attrition or outdated technology, workers become angry and stressed when they believe that company policies and leadership prevent them from doing their best work.

Quick check: Do you consistently ask employees what they need to perform optimally? What factors determine budget cuts? Are potential trickle-down effects considered? It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide an environment that is conducive to employee success.

6. Over-emphasis on ROI. Positive return on investment builds sustainability, but slashing resources to increase perceived financial growth can burn out workers.

Quick check: Do you use a balanced scorecard to monitor quantitative and qualitative metrics? Are decreased resources considered when evaluating employee performance? How workers do their jobs is just as important as what they achieve.

7. Work overload. Although anecdotally viewed as the primary reason for burnout, my research participants denied that their workloads were initially impossible – they only recognised the staggering volume of duties and responsibilities after they burned out.

Quick check: Do you follow a process to estimate the total number of hours needed to complete a project then add 'wiggle room'? Consistently offer additional resources to help employees throughout the process and watch for scope creep.

8. Poor communication. Two-thirds of my research participants negatively responded to 'surprise' communications, which exacerbated their stress.

Quick check: Do you talk with employees or at them? Do you listen as well as talk, in order to discover what information is important to them and then willingly provide it? Don’t assume understanding, always seek feedback.

9. Unethical or illegal requests by managers. In addition to moral and ethical conundrums, employees fear civil or criminal repercussions if they acquiesce to such requests.

Quick check: Does the end justify the means in your culture? Do employees face repercussions if their actions are overtly (or even borderline) unethical? Even though not necessarily illegal, unethical behaviour sabotages engagement and retention.

10. No clear organisational vision or direction. Without direction employees are uncertain about their role and the specific actions needed to thrive in their work environment.

Quick check: Are your company goals clear? How will you get there? Your strategic goals influence what to say yes or no to so be specific!

Geri Puleo is president and CEO of Change Management Solutions