Employee Burnout: Tackling One of the Biggest HR Issues

Posted October 8, 2018 | By csponline

Man sitting at desk working on computer with a low battery symbol.

Ninety-five percent of HR leaders say employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention, according to a survey from workforce management company Kronos. Nearly half of HR leaders added that employee burnout is responsible for up to half of annual workforce turnover.

“Employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions,” said Charlie DeWitt, vice president of business development at Kronos. “While many organizations take steps to manage employee fatigue, there are far fewer efforts to proactively manage burnout. Not only can employee burnout sap productivity and fuel absenteeism, but as this survey shows, it will undermine engagement and cause an organization’s top performers to leave the business altogether. This creates a never-ending cycle of disruption.”

There may not be a simple solution to one of the most pervasive and destructive HR issues, but many factors fueling employee burnout are in HR’s control.

What is Employee Burnout?

Employee burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, according to World Psychiatry. The response has three key dimensions: overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

It’s important to stress that employee burnout is not tantamount to a single factor, such as working too many hours or a high-demand working environment. There are complex causes that contribute to burnout and its costly outcomes.


There are several organizational risk factors for employee burnout, but six domains have been identified by researchers:

  • Work Overload: Having too much work weakens the ability to meet job demands and leaves little opportunity to rest and recover.
  • Control: Not having an influence on decisions that affect work is a clear factor for burnout.
  • Reward: A lack of recognition or reward (financial, institutional, or social) devalues both the work and workers.
  • Community: Conflict or a lack of support and trust in relationships degrades employee loyalty.
  • Fairness: Fairness refers to decisions at work being perceived as fair and equitable. Workers tend to gauge their value in the community on the quality of procedures and their own treatment during the decision-making progress. Not being respected can lead to cynicism, anger, and hostility.
  • Values: Values are ideals and motivations that originally attracted people to the job. They motivate workers beyond money or advancement. A conflict between individual and organizational values forces a trade-off between work employees want to do and work they have to do.

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Employee burnout can impact workers and organizations in three primary areas:

  • Negative Individual Reactions: Burnout is linked to job dissatisfaction, low organizational commitment, absenteeism, intention to leave the job, and turnover. Burnout makes it more likely for workers to leave the company, and those who stay tend to have impaired quality of work and lower productivity.
  • Negative Impact on Colleagues: Workers experiencing burnout negatively impact colleagues by causing greater personal conflict and disrupting job tasks. Burnout can perpetuate itself through social interactions at work.
  • Negative Impact on Health: Burnout contributes to burnout and burnout contributes to poor health. Of the three dimensions for employee burnout, exhaustion is the most predictive variable of stress-related health outcomes. Exhaustion is linked to symptoms like headaches, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle tension, hypertension, cold/flu episodes, and sleep disturbances.

How it Became One of HR’s Biggest Issues

Employee burnout is a multidimensional response to several risk factors. However, the complicated nature of employee burnout is not the reason it has become one of HR’s biggest issues — or, according to Kronos, “the biggest threat to building an engaged workforce.”

The Kronos study found that HR leaders and organizations are not focused on enhancing retention. Ninety-seven percent of HR leaders were planning to increase their investment in recruiting technology within the next four years, but budget was often cited as a deterrent to programs that would help retain current workers. Approximately one in six said that funding is the biggest obstacle in improving employee retention and engagement.

HR leaders are investing in new talent instead of existing employees. Given the link between employee burnout and turnover, as well as the “contagious” nature of employee burnout, organizations may be setting themselves up for failure. Turnover in organizations is costly. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that direct replacement costs can reach 50 to 60 percent of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs ranging from 90 to 200 percent of annual salary.

Improving Employee Retention

HR leaders can make changes and implement programs that are directed at the major causes of employee burnout. Here are some ways to enhance retention, according to HR firm Robert Half.

  • Mentorship Programs: More experienced employees can mentor new employees to provide them with the guidance and resources they need. By using peers instead of work supervisors, newcomers can receive help in a less intimidating environment.
  • Employee Compensation: Unfair compensation (41 percent of respondents) was the leading cause of employee burnout in the Kronos study. Organizations can distinguish themselves and attack burnout by offering attractive compensation packages.
  • Recognition and Rewards Systems: Organizations can demonstrate appreciation through a heartfelt email message, a gift card or an extra day off. A small budget shouldn’t discourage departments and managers from recognizing hard work.
  • Work-life Balance: Flexible scheduling allows employees to arrive at work later than normal for personal reasons or following a late night of work. Another way to enhance work-life balance and help burnout is with telecommuting. One study in Harvard Business Review found that remote workers were happier, less likely to quit, and more productive than their in-office peers.
  • Training and Development: Professional development programs can help employees improve their skills, which benefits employees and organizations alike. It’s a strong way to hire from within the company.

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