How To Prevent Employee Burnout: 3 Ways

stressed man with head in hands

Table of Contents

Over half of UK workers have experienced ‘burnout’ in their jobs*. Scary, huh? Well in my first blog, I’m going to share my own ‘millennial’ burnout story, the (people) science behind burnout, and three ways organisations can drive employee engagement while preventing employee burnout. 

To set the scene, I was at Uni, finishing my Master’s degree.

I was really engaged with my course and was striving to excel, doing everything I can to make sure I get that ‘distinction’. 

I was also working long irregular shifts at a ‘not so’ part-time job, attending lectures, volunteering, and spending ungodly hours at the library trying to crack out a thesis, alongside multiple assignments. 

I had drive, a fire in my belly, and was putting every task on my to-do list higher than basic tasks for myself, such as eat three meals a day, sleep between six to eight hours a night, exercise – last but not least, do not drink your body weight in coffee. 

I was so focused on excelling and creating an image of success that I didn’t look at the person I was becoming. My drive and dedication led to Vertigo, Mumps and finally clinically diagnosed Hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure – woohoo!). 

The whole situation opened my eyes to how passion and drive can have an insane impact on your body and mind.  At the grand old age of 22, before I’d even entered the world of work, I had a taste of burnout and did not want to experience that again. 

Now, 2 years on, with no mumps in sight, I really want to open the lid on the expectation of what success looks like within the society that we live in. 

I also want to share how organisations can create working environments that foster HEALTHY employee engagement to drive productivity and promote employee wellbeing.

But, first things first…

What is burnout?

 Yes, what even is burnout? We need to be careful when throwing the word around because burnout isn’t just feeling overwhelmed at work. 

Burnout occurs when someone experiences prolonged periods of chronic stress which has a detriment to your whole self in so many different ways – from physical to cognitive. This can be on a spectrum of a few symptoms, to full-blown emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.

To put my People Scientist hat on (or lab coat): Burnout happens when the body experiences prolonged bursts of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’). This hormone is usually released within your body when you feel – as it says on the tin – ‘stressed’. But once that deadline, or house move, or big project, passes – your body returns to normal. 

Now, when you suffer from chronic stress, your body doesn’t return to its ‘normal’ state, so you have heightened levels of cortisol. This can result in higher blood pressure and blood sugar levels, decrease in digestive function, fatigue, and a hell of a lot more. 

Next question…

Is it a myth that millennials are more prone to burnout?

I’m a millennial and can confirm that the widely reported ‘millennial burnout’ is real – kind of.

We have grown up in this weird evolution of technology, where the internet, particularly social media, has given us constant reminders of other people’s successes; from close friends to Instagram influencers. We compare ourselves to unrealistic role models and, of course, live in FOMO (fear of missing out). 

And so for people with huge ambitions, what does this mean? 

Well, we stretch ourselves, we grind, we hustle, whatever you want to call it, because quite often – we want to portray success all over our socials. 

And for graduates in particular, there are so many people doing undergraduate degrees, the market is saturated by completely capable individuals who all want similar jobs. We need to compete harder, pad up our CV’s with countless extra-curriculars, another degree, experience within the field, and pure charisma to make it stand out from the sea of 2:1s.

But is it really just millenials who feel this level of stress when they strive for success in an ever more demanding world?

Quite simply, no. 

Burnout frequency graphic

Employees everywhere are dealing with similar issues in the workplace. Including increasing workloads, pressures, and an all-round VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment.

And, with technological advances, employees are feeling the ‘always on’ culture, needing to do emails outside of work, finishing off a ‘few bits’ to get ahead of the next day’s workload. 

Fact is, it doesn’t just affect millennials, it affects ALL employees within an organisation that promotes this culture, especially – as we’ll discover – those who are most engaged.

Why do engaged employees burnout?

This whole experience made me question – where is the fine line between someone who is extremely engaged, with the drive to excel in what they are doing – and someone who is taking on too much and tipping over the edge into the burnout ‘danger zone’?

A really easy model to use when understanding employee engagement and burnout is the ‘Jobs Demand-Resource’ (JD-R) Model (Bakker & Demerouti). 

This model is split into ‘job resources’, ‘personal resources’, ‘job demands’ and ‘positive and negative outcomes’.

Imagine, if you will, an old-timey balancing scale. 

Burnout Blog Scales Graphic
Adapted from the ‘Jobs Demand-Resource’ (JD-R) Model (Bakker & Demerouti)

As soon as the scale tips, with ‘job demands’ being heavier, this starts the stress process off and can lead to burn-out, which in turn can lead to absenteeism, turnover intention and psychological strain (Schaufeli).

If this scale is constantly just bombarded with heavy job demands, it takes a carefully curated selection of personal and job resources that can help push it to a balanced state and create positive outcomes on a personal and organisational level.

Job Demands Job Resources Personal Resources
Work overload Autonomy Resilience
Work pressure Opportunities for professional development Optimism
Time conflict Performance feedback Self-esteem
Role conflict Supervisory Coaching Self-efficacy
Role Ambiguity Trust in management
Cognitive demands

Three ways to drive employee engagement and prevent burnout

So, based on this model, how can organisations create a working environment where everyone feels engaged, with the passion and drive to succeed, without reaching burnout?

  1. Encourage senior leaders to promote work/life balance and employee wellbeing

It all starts at the top. Having leaders promoting work-life balance in even the simplest of ways, such as introducing a flexible working policy, can have a huge impact on employee wellbeing and advocacy. A study by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 89% of HR Professionals reported an increase in employee retention when they introduced flexible work arrangements.

Burnout risk graphic

Leaders of people-focussed organisations are now also promoting conversations around mental health. Mind reported that 60% of employees said they feel more motivated and more likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer took action to support mental wellbeing. Recommending your organisation as a good place to work (eNPS) is a key engagement survey metric, as it identifies advocates for the business. 

  1. Ensure managers are taking a considered approach to workload allocation and provide clarity on individual job demands

Increased workload without the right support can heighten cortisol levels, which can lead to burnout if the stress isn’t short-lived. Line managers should make sure there are enough people to complete tasks, and those tasks are delegated equally within the team. (Watch-out: There tends to be higher levels of stress during the holiday season – as workloads pile up for those still grinding away) 

Line managers can also take a lead role in improving role clarity for employees, ensuring that every member of their team clearly understands their duties and  responsibilities. Ambiguity and lack of clear goals significantly hinders employee engagement, as well as productivity.

  1. Empower employees by providing the right personal and job resources

By supporting employees with resources that are tailored to their role, your people will be able to curate their own resource toolkit, giving them the ability to balance that old timey scale and become autonomous at work.

Leaders, managers, and HR teams can kickstart this by: 

    • Making sure employees are given regular feedback on their performance and are recognised for their achievements.
    • Creating opportunities for growth through learning and development. 
    • Educating on the importance of employee wellbeing company-wide, with internal comms initiatives such as ‘lunch and learn’ sessions.
    • Giving employees a confidential platform to voice concerns and ideas around their job demands and resources, plus all other aspects of employee experience – from leadership and managers to values and culture. Salesforce reported that employees who felt that their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered at work and perform their best.

Balancing Job Demands-Resource

Since starting as a People Scientist at Hive, I work in faith that organisations are doing all they can to take care of their employees.  

By activating employee voice, our customers are really trying to understand how they can better support their people, and using employee insights data to create the right working conditions.

If you want to learn more about the power of employee voice in promoting employee engagement and wellbeing, my friendly co-workers in the sales team would be more than happy to give you a Hive platform and People Science intro

Until then, I hope my experience and my tips have inspired you to take a look around your workplace for signs of employee burnout and put measures in place to balance those ol’ Jobs Demands-Resource scales.

Free EBook

10 Wellbeing Survey Questions to Support a Healthy Workforce

With Survey Writing Hints and Tips
10 Wellbeing Survey Questions to Create a Healthy Workforce Cover