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July 1, 2021

Why Burnout Is Kryptonite for Employee Productivity (+ What Small Businesses Can Do about It)

Illustration of a man with a candle as a head that is placed on his desk in front of a computer

Employee burnout is real — and with 94% of workers saying they’re stressed out at work, the situation has reached a tipping point. And that’s doubly true if you’re a growing small-to-midsize business in an industry that’s been hit hard by the pandemic.

But despite burnout rates doubling post-Covid, roughly 70% of professionals say  employers still aren’t doing enough to prevent or alleviate it.

Clearly, things need to change.

With the ball firmly in the employers’ court, it’s up to business and HR leaders to take the initiative and drive real change to show employees they care. Problem is, for small and growing businesses working hard to recover from the pandemic’s impact, it’s not always easy to offer as much support as you might like.

But without a plan for fighting employee burnout, business suffers too.

From lost productivity to reduced retention, employee burnout can have a very real impact on your bottom line. So, if you want to scale your business and hold on to your best employees, any burnout within your team needs to be addressed today.

In this guide, we’ll get into the science behind employee burnout, explain how to prevent and alleviate it in your small business, plus dive into a real world case study on how one business leader went above and beyond to support their employees.

Employee burnout vs employee productivity: What we’ll cover

  • What is employee burnout?
  • The science behind employee burnout
  • Why small businesses are at greater risk of burnout
  • 6 simple steps to preventing employee burnout
  • How Arianna Huffington makes burnout an everyday discussion
  • Reduce employee burnout for a healthy SMB

What is employee burnout?

Employee burnout definition: Put simply, employee burnout is another term for chronic stress. Although it’s not a medical condition, too much work and not enough downtime can have a huge emotional, social and physical impact. And unhealthy employees = an unhealthy business.

Although short-term stress can actually be beneficial, if it goes unchecked the results can be catastrophic. Here’s the official definition of employee burnout according to the World Health Organization:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion. 
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job. 
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.”

So, what does that mean for employers? 

In a nutshell, unchecked burnout can lead to: reduced employee productivity, a crappy company culture, and poor retention — and this is especially true for hourly and seasonal employees.

“People are forgetting that restaurant workers have actually experienced decades of abuse and trauma. The pandemic is just the final straw,” says Austin-based restaurant worker Crystal Maher in an article for the Washington Post.

Work experiences like those described by Maher could be partly to blame for the record high of 42% of small business owners who recently reported job openings they could not fill, with the majority citing few or no qualified applicants as the primary reason those jobs remained open.

For SMBs in historically high-burnout industries like manufacturing, construction, hospitality, child care and more, the combination of work stress and a global pandemic has delivered a near fatal blow to their recruitment and retention prospects. In order to rebuild, growing businesses will first need a deeper understanding of how burnout works, so they can help employees steer clear of it.

The science behind employee burnout

Before we go on, are you ready for a bitesize science lesson? Here’s the long and short of how burnout works.

When people become burnt out, there’s an actual physical effect on how their bodies function. Research shows burnout affects brain function, thinning the frontal cortex and causing premature brain aging and reduced cognitive function. Not only that, studies have also shown a link between burnout and coronary heart disease — meaning too much work can actually kill you. Yikes!

Luckily, there are ways to prevent and even alleviate burnout so your employees are as healthy — and productive — as possible (more on this in a minute).

First, let’s take a look at how burnout can affect your employees and your business:

  • Burnout is non-discriminatory: Literally anyone can develop chronic stress — it doesn’t matter what your role, experience, or workload is — or if your coworker doing the same role doesn’t seem to suffer. Burnout can come for anyone.
  • The burnout taboo affects company culture: Despite recent strides, the topic of mental health is unfortunately still taboo in many workplaces. Often employees don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or they’re worried they could lose opportunities (or even their job) — but keeping quiet can have a serious impact on company culture.
  • Millennials are more affected by burnout: A Deloitte survey found that 84% of millennials have experienced burnout at their current job, compared with 77% of all respondents. And with millennials accounting for over a third of the US workforce, it’s likely they’re a large proportion of your employee base and talent pool.
  • Burnout affects retention: The same survey found that nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared with 42% of all respondents. That’s a whole lot of extra costs and turnover you could do without.

Why small businesses are at greater risk of burnout

Covid’s impact has been critical for both SMBs and the hourly employees who work for them — and with SMBs making up around 48% of the US economy and providing employment to around 60 million workers, that means a huge impact on the wider economy too. 

For essential workers, the increased rates of mental health issues caused by working in-person and on the frontline throughout the pandemic, include some very real (and devastating) outcomes, such as: increased anxiety, depression, stress, suicidal thoughts, insomnia and of course, burnout.

For other employees, the uncertainty around job retention has caused a significant rise in mental health issues. For employers, that means they need to be more focused than ever on supporting anxious employees while managing significant financial losses and the very real risk of closure.

Not an easy task.

So, how can small businesses work around these unprecedented challenges and come out stronger than ever? Let’s find out.

6 simple steps to preventing employee burnout

Now that you know a bit about how burnout works and who can be affected by it, here are six of the best ways to fight employee burnout and boost productivity in your small to midsize business:

Know the burnout signs and signals

Not all employees will be willing to talk about their situation if they feel burnt out, so it’s important for employers and managers to know what to look for, no matter how big or small your company is.

Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of employee burnout signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Employees struggle to concentrate
  • They get easily upset or angered
  • Absenteeism is increasing
  • Employees suggest feeling alienated at work
  • They behave as though they’re not part of the team
  • They become increasingly cynical

Streamline internal communications

With 80% of US workers saying their stress is mainly down to poor company communication, it’s time businesses take the extra step to improve their internal comms to the max.

That means implementing a strategic communications plan so employees can learn everything they need to know at the right time.

Your plan should cover all the basics of how, what, when and who:

  • How you connect with employees (which channels you use)
  • What you need to tell them (and what you don’t)
  • When to share your news
  • Who needs to know

Step up your leadership

Businesses are only as strong as their weakest link — and if your leaders aren’t as effective as they could be, the whole team suffers.

In fact, a whopping 35% of workers say their boss causes them significant stress. Not exactly what you need if you’re already suffering from work overload.

Let’s dive into a quick step-by-step to improve your leadership and reduce employee burnout:

  • Hire the right leaders: Build a killer hiring process and ask the right questions at interviews to make sure you get the best leaders from day one.
  • Train and upskill your people: Great leaders don’t grow on trees. Your managers, supervisors and senior employees will need a ton of training and development opps to help point them in the right direction.
  • Provide support to senior employees: Burnout can strike at any level, so make sure your leaders have as much wellbeing support as the rest of your employees. Give them space from heavy workloads, conduct regular 1-1s, and make sure they’re a part of your wider internal support network so they can benefit from the rest of the team.

Give remote employees extra support

If you also have remote employees, keep in mind that they are more likely not to talk to anyone at work about their stress, and because you don’t see them in the office or “on the floor”, it’s harder for employers to spot those important burnout signals.

Here are a few surefire ways to stop remote employees slipping through the net:

  • Conduct regular video 1-1s.
  • Increase your number of communications.
  • Ask remote employees for feedback on how much support they get.
  • Ensure they have all the equipment, tools and training they need to do the job.

Build an internal support network

With almost 47% of workers saying venting to coworkers is extremely effective at alleviating stress, social connections are clearly super important.

Here’s how to help build an internal support network and boost company culture at your SMB:

  • Create a buddy system from day one: Knowing someone has your back from the moment you start a new role is vital to settling in and feeling supported. Buddy systems are a great way to get coworkers connecting and supporting each other in a natural and fun way. (Plus, it’s a small step that goes a long way in creating a more inclusive workplace.)
  • Conduct regular employee 1-1s: Performance reviews are already a big part of your company culture (and if they’re not, they should be) — but what about more social check-ins? Giving employees the space to talk about how they’re doing on a personal level can have a direct impact on how they perform later.
  • Encourage employees to attend work social events: Everyone loves a knees-up, but if you’re feeling burnt out you probably just want to head home and hide. Encourage employees to get together for easy-to-attend social events, like virtual lunchtime powwows or ‘water cooler catch ups’. 

Talk about mental health

Mental health is still a sticky topic for many people — which is why it’s up to employers to make talking about it feel normal.

Because at the end of the day, if the folks at the top of the org chart feel comfortable speaking up about their own experiences with burnout, others will do the same.

Here’s how to start a productive conversation around mental health at work:

  • Send an email to your managers and supervisors inviting anyone who’s experienced burnout to speak up.
  • Make sure there’s zero pressure for them to do so.
  • If anyone raises a hand, invite them to a private meeting to discuss how comfortable they’d be sharing their story. Would they rather stay anonymous? If not, would they be happy to discuss their story in-person? Or at a private meeting? Or would they rather have their story written down and shared via an internal newsletter or resource?
  • If they signal that they’re open to it, discuss the possibility of them becoming a wellbeing advocate and offering the opportunity for other burnt-out employees to approach them for guidance and support.

How Arianna Huffington makes burnout an everyday discussion

Before we send you off to put these insights to use, here’s a quick case study of how you can empower your organization to tackle burnout head-on, simply by sharing your own story.

In a great example of business leaders walking the walk, influential media powerhouse Arianna Huffington often speaks about her own experiences with burnout. Not long after launching the Huffington Post media empire, she became so exhausted from overwork that she collapsed.

“I hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone, got four stitches on my right eye,” she said during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “I was very lucky I didn’t lose my eye.”

Arianna went on to become a spokesperson for employee wellbeing and made it her mission to raise global awareness of the devastating impact burnout can have.

But that wasn’t enough.

She knew she needed to do more, so she launched Thrive Global — an action-based organization that aims to help companies make firm steps towards improving employees’ mental resilience, health and productivity.

Now that’s what we call one giant leap in the right direction.💯

Reduce employee burnout for a healthy SMB

No matter which way you cut it, employee burnout can have a major negative impact on your employees, your revenue, and your ability to bounce back — so, tackling it should be your #1 priority.

From strengthening your leadership to knowing the signs to look out for, there are tons of tangible ways to help prevent and alleviate employee burnout. Remember, the impact of reducing burnout is also huge.

As a people-first employer, the ball’s in your court. So grab the right tools, know what to look for, and make those changes today. Your employees (and business!) will thank you for it.