With Burnout on the Rise, What Can Companies Do About It?

Workforce data highlights the need to understand burnout, measure its dimensions, and identify actions for managers and employees to mitigate its effects.

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  • In Microsoft’s most recent Work Trend Index — a global survey of workers across multiple industries and companies — 48% of employees reported feeling burned out at work. This is a startling statistic that shows how an old problem is taking on new meaning in a more uncertain world.

    As we redefine the workplace for the next generation, HR and people managers have an opportunity to help address the human energy crisis and proactively turn the tide against burnout. Demographic data from the Work Trend Index shows that burnout is prevalent among people of all ages but is 11 percentage points worse for Gen Z and millennials (53%) — those in the early phase of their career or rising leaders — than for baby boomers (42%). Fixing burnout starts with listening intently to employees to identify the warning signs — and then working proactively to address issues before they arise.

    In this article, we point to the importance of measuring true burnout and its three dimensions, explore some of the impacts of burnout we’ve found in our internal research, and identify what leaders, managers, and employees can do to mitigate these negative effects of burnout.

    Understanding Burnout and Its Drivers

    Many people associate burnout with exhaustion, but researchers say it’s much more than that. Christina Maslach, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkley, has been studying the science behind burnout for decades, and her work contributed to the World Health Organization declaring burnout a “workplace phenomenon” in 2019.

    Maslach defines burnout as a psychological response resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that shows up through three primary symptoms: feelings of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a perceived lack of accomplishment. Most people are familiar with workplace stressors like escalating demands or a lack of recognition. When these stressors start to add up and weigh on employees and are coupled with a response of feeling cynical about their jobs and less confident in their own abilities, the problem compounds and people start to experience true burnout.

    Addressing burnout begins with understanding the signals across the organization and then focusing on actions you can take.

    Identify Key Warning Signs

    Although the Work Trend Index asked employees whether they felt burned out, it did not specifically address exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of accomplishment. Measuring all of the dimensions of burnout is important to provide more accurate statistics and determine more precise mitigating actions, which may vary depending on the burnout profile employees are experiencing.

    At Microsoft, our semiannual internal engagement survey focuses on the core concept of thriving and how we can help people feel energized and empowered to do meaningful work. To gauge burnout, this internal research gets more specific about Maslach’s three dimensions of burnout — exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of a lack of accomplishment. Our findings indicate that there are correlations between these burnout symptoms and key employee outcomes like turnover or feeling unproductive.

    For example, people experiencing all three dimensions of burnout are four times more likely to leave the company compared with employees experiencing none. And while self-reported productivity tends to be lower in employees experiencing any single dimension of burnout (around 13 points on our 100-point scale), in our most recent survey it was an average of 22 points lower for employees experiencing all three burnout dimensions.

    People experiencing all three dimensions of burnout are four times more likely to leave the company compared to an employee experiencing none.

    Importantly, a significantly smaller group of employees experience all three dimensions of burnout. This means it’s not too late to help people, and digging into the specific stressors showing up in the data provides a pathway to take action.

    Address Burnout Using Three Main Drivers

    Most companies address burnout with efforts like encouraging vacations, hosting company gatherings, or making mindfulness apps available to employees. These are all valid options, and they do help people recharge, but they don’t necessarily address the underlying source of people’s exhaustion or detachment. Once people return from a vacation, for instance, the conditions that caused their detachment often simply resume.

    This is where understanding the sentiments in context can also provide a path for action. If feeling unappreciated is a symptom, think about how to help people feel recognized for their accomplishments. If the problem is lack of control over a flood of projects, consider how to give employees more agency and empowerment to prioritize their work.

    In our research, factors related to people’s careers — such as feeling that their career goals can be met and that their job makes good use of their skills and abilities — show up as top drivers related to increased feelings of accomplishment and reduced feelings of cynicism. Having time for learning and support for flexible work are top ways to remediate exhaustion. We’ve also found patterns as employees climb the org chart. For example, people experience more exhaustion as they move into management and the executive ranks, but they also may experience less cynicism because they can see more clearly how their work relates to the company strategy.

    Having time for learning and support for flexible work are top drivers to remediate exhaustion.

    Looking at the dimensions of burnout can help put the employee experience in context, which in turn can help you determine how to approach the following actions.

    Focus on priorities that help people thrive.

    From what we’ve learned over many years developing employee listening systems at Microsoft, we believe it’s important to focus on the idea of thriving: being supported to prioritize your most impactful work; seeing evidence of positive culture change; feeling safe to speak up; and engaging deeply with work you care about and being able to visualize progress.

    These are principles that every organization can work toward — and certain principles rise above the rest.

    Make career growth a top concern.

    Supporting a person through their career journey is of the utmost importance and the No. 1 driver of thriving in our research. This includes paying attention to people’s career aspirations and providing opportunities to build their skills. According to the Work Trend Index, 76% of employees would stay at their company longer if they could benefit more from learning and development support.

    Build a culture that promotes psychological safety.

    There is also a growing body of research that shows it’s critical to create space at work where people feel safe to be themselves and are empowered to speak up. In fact, we see that when employees are experiencing true burnout, they score “I feel safe to speak up” 37 points lower than employees experiencing no burnout dimensions.

    Recognize that managers can have an outsize impact on employee burnout.

    Managers can help people prioritize meaningful work, which is another important factor related to burnout. Employees experiencing burnout rate the prioritization support they receive from managers 33 points lower than employees experiencing none of the burnout dimensions.

    Supporting flexible work can also give people a sense of control over their schedule and help reduce feelings of exhaustion. One key here is to collectively establish team norms and expectations around work schedules so that people can be as flexible as they want without feeling stressed about their personal work style.

    Continually listen and establish an ongoing dialogue.

    As we aspire for employees to thrive, the most important element is the organization’s commitment to continually listening, acting on feedback, and measuring progress. The more that people feel that they have an open dialogue with their employer, the more productive conversations can become, which leads to clearer actions. When employees see that concerns are addressed, it also creates an incentive to share more.

    It is important for everyone in an organization to develop a shared understanding of what burnout truly means, how to recognize the warning signs, and what actions they can take to mitigate burnout at all levels. The ultimate goal is for employees and managers to work together to create a positive environment where employees have energy and empowerment to do meaningful work.


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