What Can HR Do to Help Prevent Burnout?

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Have you ever felt just... done? Overwhelmed, utterly exhausted and detached or unmotivated at work? If that feeling persists for longer than a day or two, you may well be suffering from burnout as a result of chronic stress (often tied to your job).

In fact, the World Health Organization recently categorized burnout as an official health condition — and it’s not one to be taken lightly. In a systematic review of studies, burnout was found to be a significant predictor of numerous health problems including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, fatigue, respiratory issues, insomnia and depressive symptoms, among others. And companies with burned-out employees don’t fare well, either. According to a Gallup study, employees suffering from burnout are 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room. That’s in addition to the expected nose dive in productivity and engagement.

But there are many things businesses can do to help reduce burnout. (They cannot, of course, always prevent it. Family stress, financial problems or illness can all contribute to burnout, even if your job is fantastic.)

The Mayo Clinic identified these six causes of workplace burnout, and proper management and good HR can improve all of them:

Lack of control (over workload, schedule, assignments, etc...)

Unclear job expectations

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics

Extremes of activity

Lack of social support

Work-life imbalance

Let’s take a look and see what we can do to make it likely in your office.

Employees need control over their responsibilities. My kids have to do the dishes after dinner every night, and the goal is clean dishes. I don’t dictate whether they clear off the plates or the cups first. I don’t even care how things are arranged in the dishwasher as long as they get clean. There are some places where I, as the manager/mom, step in. Yes, you must scrape the dishes. That’s non-negotiable and will be corrected.

Employees often have managers who focus on the order of plates versus cups, and it makes them feel out of control. If you couple this with a dysfunctional workplace, it can be a disaster. Can you imagine being the child with a mom who yells at you if you clear the cups first, but a dad who flips his lid if you start with the plates? Managers need to be crystal clear about what’s expected of their direct reports (including their priorities) and avoid micromanaging; trust employees to get their work done without unnecessarily picking apart the process.

Both dull jobs and chaotic ones can lead to burnout. If certain work is more monotonous, allow employees to listen to music or podcasts to help break it up, if possible. Other jobs are just hectic by nature—for instance, a trauma surgeon will never have a perfectly scheduled day. But you can work with your employees to come up with suggestions for making things better in both cases. Listen when they tell you that it’s too stressful and examine ways to reallocate—or possibly eliminate—tasks to help ease the burden.

Make sure your employees have a good work-life balance and the chance to build a social support system outside of work. If they’re putting in 12-hour days, they can’t possibly have a life outside of the office. All the perks that the big tech companies have—free meals, onsite gyms, onsite haircuts and everything else under the sun—sound amazing. But they trap employees to a degree. If those individuals aren’t encouraged to walk out the door, they can’t develop the strong support system needed to keep them grounded and happy.

Burnout isn’t entirely preventable, but well-managed offices will see less of it, and making a concerted effort can provide a massive difference to your employees.

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