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Employee burnout: how employers can help avoid it


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Is there a law that says employers must prevent employee burnout? No, not really, but occupational health and safety legislation across Canada provides that an employer must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect a worker. That could include ensuring that an employee does not suffer from full blown burnout. When employers assist in this regard, they are also ensuring that their workplaces remain healthy and productive, and have higher morale.

What does it mean to suffer employee burnout? Some define it as the point when employees have exhausted their physical or emotional strength after a long period of stress and frustration. It reveals itself through frustration or indifference toward work, irritability, anger, sarcasm, exhaustion, ulcers or sleep difficulties, and absenteeism. It can affect any employee in the right circumstances.

In addition, it can become apparent when employees begin to become lethargic, less productive, detached, ill with headaches or other stress-related illnesses, less sociable and self-destructive (alcohol and drug abuse, poor diet or lack of sleep).

But it is bound to affect a certain type of worker at some point—namely, the workaholic. Workaholics are at particular risk because they make work too large a part of their lives, and lack work-life balance. Other aspects of life help maintain a healthy balance to provide an overall sense of satisfaction and self-esteem.

Understandably, employee burnout appears to be increasing, given the current economy and the lack of financial resources to hire new employees or the desire to cut back and put more responsibility onto survivors of downsizing.

These factors can help determine whether an employee is experiencing burnout:

  • Size and manageability of workload
  • Amount of control or autonomy in the job
  • Whether there is a system of rewards and recognition
  • Whether the workplace community is supportive
  • Whether the employee perceived the organization as fair
  • Whether the organization’s values are in line with the individual’s values

Burnout is subjective. Some may feel exhausted at the end of a regular workday, while others may work for longer periods of time before feeling the stress. But burnout typically prevents a person from functioning properly because there is just nothing left in the tank.

What can employers do to prevent this from happening to their valued employees?

As explained here, here, here, and here, employers are recommended to:

  • Avoid micromanaging and give employees adequate control over how they perform their job
  • Be sensitive to the issues facing employees in their personal lives
  • Make sure employees can do their jobs and are not overloaded with too many assignments at once
  • Be sure to clearly communicate expectations and how the work goals fit into the main objectives of the organization
  • Lead by example by living healthy and having a proper work-life balance
  • Treat employees like human beings who are free to talk with each other, express concerns and raise issues without facing negative consequences
  • During especially stressful work periods or significant organizational changes within the company, try to be understanding, supportive and encouraging
  • Provide vacation time and encourage employees to take vacations regularly in order to recharge and return rested
  • Encourage employees to take time management courses in order to bolster their ability to work as efficiently as possible
  • Encourage work-life balance and try not to expect employees to work off hours when they should not be working
  • To make employees feel appreciated, recognize and reward employees for their hard work
  • Be attuned to the nature of burnout, recognize the signs and act sooner than later

Here is an amusing yet informative view on what to do in order to guarantee employee burnout.

What do you think? Has your organization ever successfully identified and assisted with a case of employee burnout?

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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