In the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization officially acknowledged employee burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. With due respect we say it’s about time! Burnout has been a serious workplace concern across the globe for at least the last four decades, making this official recognition long overdue. Finally, we have a specific definition of burnout in the context of workplace stress. The WHO identified three factors that characterize it:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative/cynical feelings related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
American workers are especially vulnerable to burnout. On average we work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than most other modern democracies. Scores of studies by doctors, HR experts, and the like have shown many times over that this is detrimental to our health in the long run, and not just our personal health. Burnout damages the health of entire organizations, negatively influencing everything from retention to productivity to culture.
It’s also a problem that transcends hierarchy and status. It’s something we all might have experienced at one point or another, whether you’re a CEO or a frontline worker, hence the phenomenon status. The WHO stopped short of classifying it as a bona fide medical condition, identifying it as a “factor influencing health status and contact with health services”. In other words, it may not directly cause a clinical illness, but it certainly creates an unhealthy environment and opens the barn doors to many conditions.
Make no mistake – the biggest culprits of employee burnout are hiding in plain sight. In a general sense, asking employees to do more with less and work harder for diminishing benefits set the stage for it. A CNBC report linked on-the-job stress to abnormal suicide rates among doctors. It’s difficult to say whether “burnout” per se was the direct cause, as there are always many extenuating circumstances, but it’s not a huge leap to infer how this kind of chronic stress can at the very least make a large contribution to poor mental health.
Thankfully “burnout” is no longer a vague buzzword. The WHO designation is important because it clarifies that it is really a public health issue, as opposed to just an HR issue. But what can HR do in the meantime? Developing healthy habits and policies that address the triggers of burnout before they occur are your best defense. Here are some key strategies:
- Healthy feedback loops – No matter how you are feeling, connect regularly and have a friendly check-in with a coworker. Mental and social isolation are easy to slip into and not everyone can make “work friends” easily. Open and friendly cultures can make the stressful days pass by with grace and calm.
- Fair pay and gender equity – You can’t have a sincere conversation about workplace stress without bringing up salary disparity. Salary, compensation, and benefits can be difficult to keep competitive, but the return on investment is clear in standout organizations like Costco and Zappos, who lead the world in employee satisfaction and culture thanks in no small part to their desirable base pay and benefits.
- Proactive break encouragement – Let’s be frank, us humans cannot work at 100% efficiency for 8 solid hours a day. We need food breaks, social stimulus, and precious downtime to compile and recharge. Everyone, not just managers, should keep this in mind. Sometimes it’s hard to remind ourselves when we need a break, let alone our teams.
- Please and thank you – Two simple terms that are criminally underused at work. General kindness and empathy should be a non-optional feature of every work culture, as well as sincere recognition of accomplishments and daily communication of gratitude. Psychological studies have indicated that it’s not only good manners, but one of the most effective ways of helping someone through stress.
Credit goes to the WHO for making this small but important step in making workplaces healthier and happier, further dispelling the stigma of mental health on the job. As our global work culture trends toward more awareness of holistic employee health and mindfulness, we can begin to address the real roots of employee burnout from a clinical perspective, and from a clinical perspective, prevention is always the preferred medicine.