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Employee Burnout Is Now Classified as a Syndrome. Here’s What Employers Can Do

Whether at work or at home, stress is a normal part of life. But when too much stress builds up, it can have serious consequences.

That’s according to a new statement from the World Health Organization (WHO), which in May formally recognized employee burnout as an occupational phenomenon in its “International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.”

Whether due to toxic workplace culture, overwhelming workloads or intense pressure to perform, feeling burned out at work — which WHO now calls a syndrome rather than a medical condition — is characterized by three telltale signs of chronic workplace stress:

  • Exhaustion in the workplace
  • Disengagement from the job
  • Lackluster work performance

More of your employees could be silently suffering than you might think: According to a Gallup survey of about 7,500 full-time workers, 23% said they consistently experienced employee burnout at work. People with purpose-driven jobs like teachers or doctors face the highest risk.

How Employers Can Help Reduce Burnout

With an estimated $1 trillion price tag attached to common mental disorders in the workplace — not to mention the health risks of employee burnout, such as chronic diseases and alcohol abuse — it’s always been in employers’ best interest to support their workers’ mental well-being. But WHO’s new recognition of burnout as a syndrome has shown there’s more work to do.

The onus shouldn’t be on workers to find mental health support on their own or tough it out. Employers have a responsibility to help their employees address burnout and change course. Use these five strategies to feel confident addressing employee burnout.

1. Spot Burnout Before It Gets Worse

Because the WHO classifies burnout as a syndrome but not a medical diagnosis, employees aren’t likely to come to you with doctor’s notes affirming their condition. That means it’s a good idea to coach managers to watch for the symptoms. They include:

  • Being particularly irritable or easily frustrated.
  • Lacking focus or seeming inattentive during meetings or events.
  • Delivering worse performance on the job.
  • Complaining about physical ailments, such as headaches or stomach problems.

If your employees notice these symptoms in themselves or others, it might be a sign someone needs a break, whether it’s as simple as a quick walk outside or as involved as an extended vacation to decompress.

2. Focus on the Workplace Culture

It’s been said that burnout is a job problem, not a worker problem. Workplace culture is a large piece of that puzzle: According to the Gallup poll, the top five causes of employee burnout, including unfair treatment and unreasonably high expectations, all linked back to the work environment.

To make sure your workplace isn’t part of the problem, focus on the employee’s experience. Are struggling employees supported in their development, or are they attacked for not doing better from the get-go? Are they expected to meet unrealistic goals? Do they feel uncomfortable coming to a manager with any concerns? Does your workplace culture value or reward working to the point of exhaustion, even unofficially? Any of those situations could breed stress and disengagement among your workforce, so work to address culture issues from the inside out.

3. Encourage Using Mental Health Telemedicine

Employees who feel overwhelmed at work might not have ample free time to shop around for therapists and visit one in person. That’s why telemedicine services — which conveniently connect workers directly with therapists over video chat — can help them get the care they need from anywhere and at any time.

4. Pay Workers Not to Work

Some companies don’t stop at encouraging their workers to disconnect from work — they actually pay them to do so. One marketing agency in Boston has even started giving workers up to $750 for not checking in while on vacation.

5. Offer a Recharge Room

Lauded as the next big trend in office design, recharge rooms give employees a simple space to unwind and recharge from the chaos of work. The concept differs from place to place: They range from nap rooms like Google’s sleep pods to mindfulness spaces like Nike’s yoga rooms. Recharge rooms are a unique work perk, and a relatively easy one to pull off: Just find an empty, quiet room and use music, decor and a fresh coat of paint to make it Zen.

Treat Burnout With the Seriousness It Deserves

Of course, job burnout has almost always been a buzzword in the world of workplace wellness. But by classifying it as a syndrome, WHO designated burnout as a direct result of a person’s workplace rather than a general state of tiredness that could be due to many different factors.

What that means for you as a small business owner is simple: Your workers may be stressed to the max, but they might never say so. That silence can make it hard, but not impossible, to identify issues. Strategize ways to calm the commotion of the workday, and positive changes will follow naturally.

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