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At this point, we've all heard about employee burnout and the incredible toll it can take on individuals' mental, physical and emotional health, not to mention their company's performance and bottom line. A staggering 76% of employees report experiencing burnout in their work at least sometimes, according to a 2020 report from Gallup Research.

In the best of times, many companies share a culture where being busy and exhausted is perceived as admirable. As a result, the risk for burnout is high. The recent pandemic has only heightened that risk, with the boundaries between work-life and home-life blurring, and increased pressure to add value (and avoid a layoff). Not to mention many are juggling home responsibilities like childcare with work. 

This is especially true for employees who love their work and for those who are concerned that creating true separation between their work and personal life will make them appear less driven. So how can we build company cultures that encourage productive, meaningful work—but don’t lead people to sacrifice their sanity in the process?

Burnout is more than just stress. 

The World Health Organization first officially recognized burnout in 2019, terming it "a form of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It is characterized by the following:

  • Feeling exhaustion or lack of energy

  • Feeling cynical, negative or distant from your job

  • Being less productive at work

And those are just the symptoms. The repercussions can be physical, psychological and occupational: Studies indicate that burnout is a significant predictor for everything from insomnia and depression to coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, not to mention increases in job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and other behaviors that are of consequence to employers.

It’s common among high achievers who love their careers.

According to recent studies, there are three major types of employees who experience burnout: those who feel overwhelmed, those who are under-stimulated and those who feel disengaged. Underchallenged and disengaged employees can respond well to opportunities for professional and personal development, but what about an ambitious person determined to make an impact?

By acknowledging burnout as the legitimate issue it is, the WHO helped launch the condition into the global spotlight. But while awareness is on the rise, the response still seems to fall short. Articles advising that employees simply need to "work less" and "take some time for themselves," can feel laughable in a culture where 1 a.m. emails and working through the weekend have become de rigueur. This is true for employees at every level, but can especially resonate with motivated achievers who want to prove themselves in high-pressure jobs. 

Understand what's causing the problem—and make changes.

Each company has its own issues to address, but there are three trends that contribute to burnout across the board. 

1) With emails chiming in our pockets, we're always working.

Employees checking email before getting out of bed is a problem—for more reasons than you might think. 

"Each time we receive a work alert when we are not at work, our brain performs something called a 'cognitive set shift,'" says Jennifer Douglas, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. "This means it takes energy and effort to go from listening to your partner's story about their day to thinking about a work task." 

This energy depletion happens even if we don’t respond to the email, Dougas says, because it begins as soon as we have to process new information about a different subject matter. It's the constant switching back and forth from work to personal and back again that decreases our sense of restoration, which can contribute to burnout. 

To help reduce the number of set-shifts for employees, companies can make the culture around technology more human—and that’s especially critical now that everyone is working from home during the pandemic. In fact, now is an opportunity to model and foster healthy behaviors, such as setting their Slack notifications to Do Not Disturb, taking breaks and staying “off” during predetermined hours.

2) Without clear goals, employees are either overwhelmed or disengaged.

Working without knowing what you’re working toward can, for high achievers, lead to a feeling of endless work without achievement or recognition. On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of connection with company goals or team objectives might be the reason some employees feel disengaged. Both can lead to burnout in employees.

"Set reasonable individual employee goals and corporate goals," says Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in employee burnout. "Goals that are excessively high and nearly unachievable can lead to exhaustion and frustration, but when goals are clear and doable, employees will feel challenged."

The next step: Celebrate individuals for achieving those goals—even if it's just a quick email saying "good job!" "Not only will this increase employee motivation, but it will help decrease the stress that leads to burnout," Manly says.

3) Listening and understanding go a long way. 

The more someone expects their work to be meaningful, the more easily they can experience burnout—especially when they feel their ability to achieve their goals is hampered by outside forces like bureaucratic red tape, unnecessary regulations and unresolved conflicts. 

"Employees can figure out most of their work-related issues and problem-solve on their own," says Annie Varvaryan, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who provides therapy to tech employees in Silicon Valley. "But when an employee is coming to management with an issue about meeting their deadlines, department issues or even systemic issues in their company, it’s important to help them feel listened to instead of turning every discussion into a problem-solving session." This may seem counterintuitive—why wouldn't people want solutions?—but research suggests simply hearing out a problem and responding nonjudgmentally can improve morale.

This kind of open-door policy centered around listening can help employees feel confident raising a variety of issues—including feelings of stress or other mental health concerns. This will help who are experiencing burnout—or are about to—come forward and seek support.

"Have referrals on hand for therapists who accept the company’s insurance," Manly says. "This may sound simple, but the impact can be profound."