The Lamen

Workplace burnout is on the rise, but it isn’t inevitable

A bar graph for the breast cancer rates among women of different ethnicities.

Workplace burnout has been under the spotlight ever since the pandemic, and people report it to be more serious that ever.

Illustration: The Lamen

Published on Oct 6, 2023

Workplace burnout is real and it has been on the rise, with about 42 percent of the global workforce experiencing it — an all-time high since May 2021, according to a Future Forum report.

  • The survey involved 10,234 full-time desk workers across the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the UK.
  • Respondents who reported feeling burnt out at work were 3.4 times more likely to look for a new job in the upcoming year. Additionally, women and younger workers were significantly more likely to feel burnt out.

Explainer: In an acknowledgment, the World Health Organization states that burnout is not a medical condition, but a syndrome resulting from poorly managed chronic workplace stress.

Burnout syndrome is characterized by feelings of energy depletion, increased negativism or cynicism, or reduced efficiency at work.

  • According to Professor Christina Maslach — a pioneer in defining and measuring workplace burnout — it is not a medical diagnosis and should not be treated as such.
  • She adds that workplace burnout isn’t a fleeting experience, and one that is typically managed not by the individual, but by their team or organization as a whole.

Even if the emotional exhaustion and cynicism incline you toward quitting your job or taking a break, most people have other variables to consider. Financial and relationship status are the common determinants. It’s the ambiguity of this concept that makes management complicated, even for experts.

Workplace burnout is a consequence of your workplace environment.

We live in the age of “quiet quitting.” The vast majority have subconsciously linked their career to their identity — even in a job not of their liking. While experts describe this as a marker of the degree of education and social standing, such association comes at the expense of a worker’s health.

  • Psychologists describe this as “enmeshment,” where a person cannot draw a line between their work life and their “sense of self.”
  • Unlike the common opinion, however, workplace burnout is not merely a consequence of personal failure, but a systemic failure often caused by fostering a toxic work environment.

The five factors found to be highly correlated with burnout according to a survey of 7,500 full-time employees from Gallup were:

  • unfair treatment at work
  • unmanaged workload
  • lack of role clarity
  • lack of communication and support from the manager
  • unreasonable time pressure

Are organization leaders the ones to be blamed, then? While improper management is at play, managers and leaders are given the position for one key reason: creating a productive workforce that works with greater efficiency.

The accumulating data is clear about one thing: workplace wellness is often in the hands of the employer, and managing the employees lies in the hands of a competent leader.

The Impact.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 83 percent of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress — the most prominent causes being workload (39 percent of workers), interpersonal issues (31 percent), juggling work and personal life (19 percent), and job security (6 percent).

  • Work-related stress costs an estimated $190 billion in annual healthcare in the U.S.
  • Job stress in the U.S. caused additional losses of more than $300 billion due to absenteeism, diminished productivity, and accidents.

Beyond the economic impact, job burnout is also been linked with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, respiratory problems, as well as severe injuries and mortality before reaching age 45.

Microinjecting the eggs of Aedes mosquito to control the spread of dengue.

The symptoms of burnout are wide-ranging, and can often be misunderstood for a fleeting disease.

Photo: World Mosquito Program

Experts suggest that this is caused due to poor health behaviors, including increased alcohol consumption, sleep disorders, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity.

Burnout exceeds the parameters of a simple inconvenience — affecting both the organization and the individual at various levels in both their career and personal life. But the thing is, burnout is not inevitable, and even reversible in most situations.

Burnout is not inevitable: Here’s what you can do about it.

Relentless working may push you into a state of burnout. Contrary to popular belief, however, most evidence suggests that beating burnout begins at the managerial level.

Harvard Business Review highlights how a leader should question the factors leading to a toxic or debilitating work environment — asking questions like “What is making my staff so unhealthy” and “Why does our work environment lack the conditions for them to flourish?”

Hard data highlights the following guidelines for organizations to prevent and combat burnout:

  • Providing stress management interventions, such as mindfulness meditation or cognitive-behavioral training.
  • Allowing employees to be active crafters of their work by autonomy and flexibility to negotiate job content and providing opportunities for development.
  • Cultivate and encourage social support by fostering high-quality relationships with employees, creating an environment of trust.
  • Engage employees in decision-making by providing transparent communication outlets.
  • Implement high-quality performance management with strengths-based feedback and connecting performance of financial and non-financial rewards.

Burnout is preventable, manageable, and reversible, but requires better data and smarter well-being strategies by organizations.