Earlier this year, a Buzzfeed article entitled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” quickly went viral for its depiction of adults in their twenties and thirties feeling so exhausted by adult obligations and expectations that they struggle to complete even rudimentary tasks. The popularity of the piece prompted a variety of responses, ranging from empathy on the part of younger readers to criticisms from older audiences who feel that so-called burnout culture is simply an indictment of millennial workers as overly entitled and under ambitious.
Although it may not settle that particular intergenerational argument, the World Health Organization is taking the concept quite seriously, so much so that the UN agency has now classified employee burnout as an official medical condition. Furthermore, WHO researchers also believe it’s an affliction that employers have a duty to prevent.
Defining the condition
The WHO defines employee burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Mental exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings about the job and reduced productivity are listed as some of the most common symptoms.
For employers, the decrease in productivity is not the cause for alarm. According to a Gallup study, burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day, and twice as likely to seek out alternative employment.
As is the case with many medical conditions, employee burnout is easier to prevent than to cure, and employers can take a variety of proactive measures to monitor for the telltale signs and act to swiftly to stop it from taking hold.
Ways to prevent employee burnout
Burnout is typically seen as the result of simply being overworked, although that is not always the cause of the condition. Regardless of how strenuous their workloads actually are, employees who do not feel fulfillment or a sense of purpose from what they are doing are more at risk of burnout than an individual who has a lot of meaningful work and enjoys the challenge. Because of that nuance, simply reducing burned-out employees’ workload will not necessarily alleviate their symptoms – or at least not permanently.
Employers who really want to reduce burnout should get serious about implementing a wellness strategy that addresses mental health. Providing the support and reinforcement that employees need to maintain their energy at work may take more effort, but should ultimately produce better long-term results.
In practical terms, there are a variety of ways that employers can provide those resources.
For example, LinkedIn remains vigilant in the guard against burnout by integrating engagement monitoring software that continually takes the pulse of its workforce, and instituting wellness programs that make good mental health a part of the company culture. One of the company’s newest employee programs is designed to build mental resilience, and was developed based on meditation principles.
According to Forbes, LinkedIn’s head of mindfulness and compassion, Scott Shute, is also working on an internal study that examines what it means to be a compassionate individual, with the intention of creating a best practices guide to fostering a harmonious work environment.
Since the program began last fall, LinkedIn has hosted two 30-day meditation challenges and various “wisdom sessions” with keynote speakers specializing in wellness. Shute also hosts 10 minute meditation classes as part of the daily workday.
While these may seem like radical solutions to many employers, finding creative ways to both monitor employee engagement and enhance mental health are critical to the goal of avoiding burnout. Compounding the challenge is the fact that many people dealing with anxiety or stress are reluctant to share their feelings, especially if they are worried that doing so will cause management to view them as whiny or out of their depth.
Companies may not realize they have a serious problem with employee burnout until performance suddenly starts to drop off, or more and more workers start giving their two-week notices. And if it takes that long to make a diagnosis, it’s often too late for a cure.