There's an epidemic plaguing many companies these days: Worker burnout.
A worker who used to take the lead on projects becomes uncommunicative in meetings. Talented people start shirking their responsibilities and watch their careers stall. Others struggle to get out of bed in the morning, feeling as though they couldn't possibly do one more thing.
According to human-resources and psychology experts, burnout is a fact of life in many companies and they aren't ready to handle it. This is a result of cultures of work that are "always on," combined with feelings of job insecurity, plus orders to "do more with less," even when business is booming. Workers are being driven to their breaking point, and the problem seems to be getting worse, resulting in turnover and excessive health costs.
Workplace Options provides employee-assistance programs. 70% of their calls are about stress and anxiety. In 2014, 50% of callers complained about those feelings. This years total calls from those seeking counseling reached 42,500, up 18% from the average in 2016.
Gallup conducted a large-scale survey in 2012 about burnout in the U.S. They found that more than 40% of workers were so stressed out at work that they felt burned out. A more recent survey in 2015 of German workers found that nearly a quarter felt burned out.
During the financial crisis, many companies froze hiring and simply asked existing workers to do more. According to Alan King, the President and COO of Workplace Options, ten years later that lack of stability appears to have become the norm.
According to Alden Cass, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan who treats patients with high-stress jobs, workers aren't "assertive about their boundaries because they fear for their jobs. Burnout begins when a worker feels overwhelmed for a sustained period of time, then apathetic and ultimately numb."
Historically, those feelings were more likely to appear in professions like a medical resident and litigator, high-pressure jobs typically requiring 24-hour commitments to work. No longer.
Jeanne Meister, a consultant who advises Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. on workplace issues says, “Everyone's job is now an extreme job."
Mr. King believes that executives who conveniently shrugged off burnout complaints five years ago are beginning to acknowledge the toll that stress takes on their businesses, partly because they are suffering from it, as well.
Health care costs related to stress from work are estimated to be from $125 billion to $190 billion annually, this according to a 2016 paper from researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University's Graduate school of business.
In addition, long hours and heavy work are resulting in greater turnover. Last November, yet another survey on the subject was conducted by software company Kronos Inc. and Future Workplace LLC. According to this, nearly half of HR professionals said burnout was responsible for more than 50% of employee exits.
Another advisor to companies on burnout is Kim Davis, an executive insurance broker and consultant at NFP Corp. She said, "Folks are thinking, ‘Well if I could just go somewhere else: maybe this feeling, this burnout feeling, is going to go away.'"
At another company, a rising demand for their product forced workers to log mandatory 12-hour shifts for as much as a week at a time. Some employees slept in their cars rather than go home between shifts. This resulted in a worker strike where the company agreed to hire more people.
Now, productivity is up, normal shifts have returned, and morale is improving.
Interestingly, younger workers may be especially prone to burnout. Many are unwilling to take vacation time and cultivate an identity as "work martyrs." This, from a 2016 survey of 5,641 American workers by Project: Time off, an arm of the U. S. Travel Association.
As a result of the non-stop, full speed ahead mode at many companies, many workers crave a break from long hours and buzzing smartphones. Alisha Ramos, a software designer in Washington, DC who started "Girls Night In," a newsletter encouraging young professional women to stay home and relax.
As the old saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
According to this 2016 survey, employees have few boundaries between work and life:
- 64% worked overtime or on weekends.
- 43% felt their jobs worsened their stress.
- 30% worked while on vacation.
- 20% felt a great deal of stress at work in the last year.
- 19% worked 50 or more hours per week at their main jobs.
A different survey studied worker connectivity to the office:
- 65% felt their company expects them to monitor email after work hours.
- 55% had a hard time detaching from work.
- 20% reported high levels of emotional exhaustion.
Sources: July, 2016 survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 1601 interviews conducted in January and February of 2016 (first survey); 2016 paper from, Liuba Y. Belkin of Lehigh University, William Becker of Virginia Tech, and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, survey 297 working adults.