The idea of employee burnout been in circulation since the 1970s and continues to be relevant in contemporary discussions of job stress and the employee experience of work. The original burnout metaphor refers to the smothering of a fire or the extinguishing of a candle by depriving it of the resources (oxygen) it needs to burn brightly. By extension, the work experience of employees who are burning out feels more like smoldering (just “getting by”/barely keeping the flame alive) than burning (making an intense and meaningful contribution).
So exactly what is “smothering” those employees who are feeling burned out? The thousands of books, chapters, journal articles and dissertation that have been published on the subject suggest that the number one contributor to burnout is the persistent imbalance of demands over resources. Employees feel smothered when the resources they are given – personnel, equipment, information, supplies, space, information, time, training – are insufficient to meet the demands of the job.
Job burnout is a natural byproduct of the relentless drive of business to try to do more (demands) with less (resources). Unfortunately, individual employees often bear the psychological brunt of this perpetual process of improving productivity and driving down costs.
From a company point of view it makes perfect sense to constantly push to get the most out of every resource, including employees. However, from an employee point of view, constantly being asked to do more with less can be a formula for psychological distress, frustration, anxiety, anger, hopelessness and diminished productivity, i.e. burnout. The dilemma is compounded by the “Catch-22” nature of the problem. Employees feel compelled to keep doing more to compensate for the demand/resource imbalance, and as a result they often end up sacrificing opportunities to rest, recuperate and renew themselves.
The downward spiral in employee health and productivity that accompanies burnout is certainly not in any organizations’ interest. It can lead to not only lost productivity but also to diminished morale, increased turnover and even reputation issues for the company.
To effectively reduce burnout, organizations need a system to routinely detect and correct the excessive imbalances that can develop between work demands and work resources. Leaders needs to be prepared to listen to employees about these matters, even when they may be “inconvenient truths.” Too often when employees try to communicate with their leadership about these issues they are perceived as “weak” or “uncommitted” and this discourages the type of open dialogue required to prevent the burnout of key employees.
Employee engagement, which is characterized by energy, involvement and efficacy, is the polar opposite of employee burnout. There is increasing recognition that organizational success depends on having engaged employees who are continuously learning, proactive, great team players and communicators, and committed to the highest levels of performance. Organizations that want to increase employee engagement should pay close attention to what their employees are telling them about the balance between work load demand and resources.