Burnout: The Global Crisis of Wellness at Work

The human race really has done a number on itself. Granted, we are finally waking up to the fact that we need to do more to protect and preserve our environment, but this realization has come at a significant price. We have all but destroyed our planet with our ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘convenience’. For some reason, we seem to create crisis and catastrophe and only take action when we are literally down to the wire.  With the inclusion of ‘burnout’ as an official occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is finally an ICD-11 code to ‘legitimize’ the biggest workplace wellness crisis of the last 40 years.  Perhaps business leaders will finally sit up and take notice. Better yet, perhaps we will see more organizations acting on this issue and doing more to create and encourage ‘balance’ in our world of always-on.

As you are reading this, Gallup estimates that 2 out of 3 employees in your organisation are suffering from some degree of burnout. If that number isn’t enough to make you choke on your morning coffee, consider the astronomical cost to your workplace when you factor in the resultant absenteeism, lower productivity, low morale and lack of engagement and high employee turnover. If the human costs such as hypertension, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues and even death occurring in people younger than 45 isn’t going to inspire action, I am pretty certain that the very real financial cost to businesses might just do the trick.

Back in 2013,  Circadia estimated that unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each salaried employee and at least $2,650 each year for salaried employees.  When it comes to the cost of replacing a highly skilled worker, Workable estimates that not only does it take an average of 94 days to have a new hire in place, it will cost close to $15,000 to replace one senior person in your organisation.

Wellness at work is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It is becoming an absolute imperative if we are to turn the tide and actually start undoing some of the damage we have caused on a global scale.


What is Burnout?

American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger first coined the phrase back in the 1970’s, when he published his findings referring to the stress and exhaustion experienced by professionals in ‘helping professions’ (doctors, nurses etc). It didn’t take long for us to realise of course that burnout doesn’t discriminate and that it is experienced across all professions and in all countries, globally.

In short, burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion that develops over time and is linked specifically to work.


What Causes Burnout

As the research is evolving, we are learning about more and more causes and contributing factors, ranging from aspects such as a lack of role clarity or feeling completely overworked and overextended in environments where there are unreasonable deadlines or increased workloads which may have been the effect of job cuts or slow digital transformation, to factors such as workplace bullying or unfair treatment (including favouritism, bias, unfair compensation or workplace policies).  We are putting more and more pressure on employees with our always-on culture of 24/7 connection to emails, calls and social media. People are spending more time at work and on work-related activities, than ever before and we are actively contributing to making our people physically ill and mentally and emotionally exhausted.


Recognising the Warning Signs

There are numerous free resources available to measure stress and identify the warning signs of burnout.  I strongly recommend doing one of the numerous free assessments and starting to create an environment at work where we can talk openly about workplace stress and job-related challenges, without fear of reprisal or losing our jobs.

Employees who suffer from burnout start feeling less confident in their own abilities at work, which leads to lower morale and lower employee engagement across the board. These same employees are also 63% more likely to take a sick day and more than 2.5 times as likely to leave their current employer in search of greener pastures.

Burnout will manifest differently in different people, depending in part, on the stage of burnout they are experiencing.  Researchers refer to as many as 12 stages of burnout. I personally find this graphic, courtesy of the folks over at Vitango, very handy in simplifying and explaining the discernible stages of burnout:


Doing better

I am a major proponent of wellness initiatives at work and personally, I am not entirely on board yet with this new trend of referring to ‘work-life-integration’. Instead of forcing people into this always-on mentality, I am inclined to agree with some of the more progressive European governments who are legislating a mandatory radio silence on work-related emails and calls between 7 pm and 7 am.

Let’s stop clock-watching and being focused on time in the office or time at work and shift our focus instead, to the actual quality of work being produced by an individual employee.  And let’s stop treating our employees as children or inmates and just give them more freedom to live their lives and be more human. I honestly cannot say it better than Ian Sohn did in his recent viral post. Allow people more freedom to craft their own roles at work and allow more flexibility in automating repetitive and mundane tasks that are more likely to be contributing to feelings of boredom and powerlessness.

Niko-Niko mood tracking is an extremely useful tool to use at work and can be implemented without any technology if there are budget constraints. Add this to regular check-ins between employees and their line managers, and you will see a discernible shift in moods, motivation, productivity and engagement at work.


There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this global epidemic. But we have to start destigmatizing these issues and we have to stop wearing ‘busy’ as some twisted badge of honour. The race to fix work, is on and the global winners will be the leaders and the organisations who truly put people, first.


Deborah Hartung - http://www.deborahhartung.com

Deborah Hartung is a Consultant, Coach, Author and Speaker.

She has spent almost 20 years advising corporates on matters relating to employee relations, corporate culture and leadership development. Deborah is passionate about people and technology, the human experience in the workplace and the opportunities for the advancement of humanity in the digital age. 

Especially popular with young or first-time leaders, entrepreneurs and women in leadership, Deborah encourages all those she meets to align with their purpose and to be brave enough to be authentic in all their interactions.  She writes about life, love, leadership, workplace culture, the future of work and the importance of making the world a kinder, more tolerant place.

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