Three types of burnout HR should look out for


Do your people seem exhausted, stressed and more than a little cynical about their work? Sounds like burnout. Keep an eye out for these three different types.

With mass layoffs and cost-of-living pressures mounting, it’s no wonder employers are concerned about employees’ wellbeing, engagement and discretionary efforts waning this year. Rates of burnout continue to rise in workplaces across the world, according to the 2023 State of Workplace Burnout

The survey of people across 40 countries found that over 38 per cent of participants were experiencing all three of the dimensions of burnout defined by the World Health Organisation: exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy. 

That’s up from 34.7 per cent of participants in 2021 and 29.6 per cent in 2020.  Organisational psychologist and co-author of the report Dr John Chan says that while awareness of burnout has increased in recent years, the onus is often put on the individual employee, which isn’t constructive.  

“The implication can be that if you’re feeling burnt out, maybe you’re not doing enough yoga, or enough time management, or you haven’t downloaded the latest and greatest app out there to help you get away from burnout,” says Chan. 

But, he says, organisations and structural factors should be the thing to change. 

“If we see a fish dying in the river, we don’t think about how we can make the fish stronger. We ask how we can clean up the pollution and fix its environment,” he says.

“It’s not just about how to make people stronger – it’s about how we can change their environment.”  

Executive coach Melody Wilding has seen rates of burnout increase in her clients throughout the pandemic and agrees that organisations and leaders have a big role to play in prevention. 

“People can make it seem like if you just have a self-care routine in the morning, you’ll cure your burnout. I wish it was that easy – unfortunately, it’s not,” she says.  

“Organisations certainly have a huge responsibility to make work more sustainable and to provide people with the right resources to value wellness.” But why are we feeling so burnt out? While the resulting symptoms are quite consistently the same, psychological research suggests there may be several distinct root causes of burnout.  

Here are three common types of burnout to look out for – and how to prevent them.

1. Overload burnout

Task overload tends to be the most commonly recognised cause of burnout, says Wilding. 

“This is someone who is so overbooked, completely overscheduled, over-committed; they are putting in overtime, they’re working on weekends, they have trouble detaching from work

“In this case, you burn out because your system – your nervous system and your mind – can’t handle everything you’re trying to throw at it.”

How to address it

1.Turn leaders into examples

Leaders should examine their own behaviour to see what tone they are setting from the top down, says Wilding. 

“As leaders, people look to you for the norms, so if you are never taking a break, if people can just book time with you all over your calendar and your lunch break, then you’re setting the expectations for what other people should do,” she says.  

Leaders should model behaviours such as taking time off, spending time with family, or blocking out time on their calendar for deep-thinking work.  

“All of that really matters and gives other people permission to do the same,” says Wilding.

2. Advocate for more resources and fair pay 

Examining people’s workloads and not letting things get out of hand is also critical.   

“Too many managers try to have people do two to three jobs – and it’s just not possible,” says Wilding.

“Listen to your people if they say they’re strapped for time or resources. And then advocate for them at the leadership level.” 

As Chan and his co-researchers point out, financial stressors can also have a big impact on someone’s wellbeing and compound burnout, so compensating workers fairly – particularly in junior roles – is essential.  

This year’s State of Workplace Burnout survey found young workers (18-24) were the group most impacted by burnout – and Chan says macro-factors might be at play.  

“For three years wages have been stagnant and now inflation is going up quickly. Those who are older probably have more financial reserves they can use as a buffer,” he says.  “Those who are younger don’t have that padding.” 

A response in action

One of Wilding’s clients led a small team that was being asked to do more than they could reasonably handle.  

“For her, solving this was an exercise in her own assertiveness. She had to go to her leadership team and make a case for why they needed more resources, the potential consequences and the cost of inaction,” she says.  

“She didn’t get approved a new full-time employee – but they did say, ‘Well, we’ll give you this amount of contract workers to be able to get this work through.’”

“If we see a fish dying in the river, we don’t think about how we can make the fish stronger. We ask how we can clean up the pollution and fix its environment.” – Dr John Chan, Organisational Psychologist

2. Underchallenged burnout 

The flipside of having too much to do – having too little on your plate – can lead to under-stimulation and make someone feel like they’re wasting their potential. 

“As humans, we need to find the right level of stress. We can’t be stressed too much, which is overload burnout, but we can’t be stressed too little,” says Wilding.  

“When you’re bored, when you don’t have enough stimulation in your job, you begin to check out. That can lead to cynicism, which can lead to mental depletion. If people don’t have opportunities for growth and learning, they can feel this type of burnout.”

How to address it

1. Build growth and learning opportunities  

Wilding suggests creating avenues for people to take on stretch projects, regularly checking in about where they want to go, and paying attention to people’s strengths. 

“Are there mentorship opportunities? Can they have access to certain classes or a professional development stipend that allows them to attend a program or a conference, for example?”

2. Create opportunities for connection  

“Under-challenge burnout can also happen as a result of not having connection with people, so try to create opportunities for meaningful – not forced – connection,” says Wilding.  

Interestingly, Chan’s team found a difference in burnout levels between those working in hybrid environments and those working solely from home. 

“Those who were working from home between two to three days showed the highest levels of wellbeing, and the lowest levels were those who were working from home over 80 per cent of the time,” he says. 

A response in action

Another of Wilding’s clients takes a quarterly team health survey to check the emotional pulse of her team.  

“She asks questions about how engaged people feel. Do they feel their work is reflective of their talents? Do they feel connected with their team members?”  

Tracking these trends over time, the client was able to see that when the company went through an acquisition, satisfaction ratings dropped.  

“She could see that the team was feeling disconnected from one another, that they didn’t feel like they had an opportunity for brainstorming, for example, and she could open up that opportunity.”

“Listen to your people if they say they’re strapped for time or resources. And then advocate for them at the leadership level.” – Melody Wilding, Executive Coach

3. Neglect burnout 

The third cause of burnout – neglect – is an important one for leaders to take heed of now, says Wilding, as many organisations are facing uncertain circumstances in the near-term.  

“This one is where people feel worn out because they feel helpless; they feel like they can’t affect change, or they don’t have agency and autonomy of what’s going on around them. 

“It’s really easy for people to feel like, ‘Well, I’m just at the whim of everything happening around me, I feel very helpless,’ and they may fall into this type of burnout as a result.”

How to address it 

1. Give people tools to navigate uncertainty  

“Especially now, it’s important that leaders and HR are giving people the tools to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity,” says Wilding.  

“Part of this is around framing the situation and acknowledging that things are tough right now. If people feel dismissed and invalidated, that’s just going to further make them feel incompetent or invisible.” 

She adds that it’s helpful to be “clear about what the priorities are today because that clarity allows people to know where they can plug in best”.  

2. Share your own experiences 

“If you, as a manager or leader, have gone through burnout, that’s really valuable for your people to hear.”   

By sharing what worked for you and normalising the experience, you can help banish any sense of shame around burnout. 

A response in action

Another of Wilding’s clients pulled her team together after there were stirrings about possible layoffs in the organisation.  

“She got her team together and said, ‘Hey, this is the state of what’s going on right now. This is what I know. My commitment is to give you the information I can when I have it. But for right now, I want to create a space for all of you to talk about what’s going on and how you’re feeling with the change. And I want us to have an eye towards constructive problem-solving – how can we support you?’” 

Giving people the space to talk through concerns meant she could gain clarity on the communication she needed from her superiors, as well as help people feel heard amid stressful circumstances. 

Next steps

As businesses prepare to weather the potential storms of 2023, it’s critical that HR professionals are able to help managers and leaders think more holistically about the different ways people can experience burnout. 

Workflow management is just one piece of the solution. Businesses also need strong, empathetic people management and well-designed motivation strategies in order to create a mentally robust workforce. 

Even as competing business priorities start to creep in, HR leaders should think twice before putting engagement strategies on the back burner.

This article first appeared in the April 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


Ensure your teams get the mental health support they need with this short course from AHRI.


Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ken Grant
Ken Grant
10 months ago

As a comment. Along with these three types of burnout, what are the antecedents to burnout? Some research of salespeople’s burnout has identified, intrinsic motivation, role ambiquity and role conflict as important factors of burnout.

Tim Dein
Tim Dein
2 months ago

Another issue creating burnout and frustration can be requirements to implement mediocre practices as main job and perceived inability to change the practices, eg in adult education, delivering content and marking assessments you know are flawed but no authority to change them

More on HRM

Three types of burnout HR should look out for


Do your people seem exhausted, stressed and more than a little cynical about their work? Sounds like burnout. Keep an eye out for these three different types.

With mass layoffs and cost-of-living pressures mounting, it’s no wonder employers are concerned about employees’ wellbeing, engagement and discretionary efforts waning this year. Rates of burnout continue to rise in workplaces across the world, according to the 2023 State of Workplace Burnout

The survey of people across 40 countries found that over 38 per cent of participants were experiencing all three of the dimensions of burnout defined by the World Health Organisation: exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy. 

That’s up from 34.7 per cent of participants in 2021 and 29.6 per cent in 2020.  Organisational psychologist and co-author of the report Dr John Chan says that while awareness of burnout has increased in recent years, the onus is often put on the individual employee, which isn’t constructive.  

“The implication can be that if you’re feeling burnt out, maybe you’re not doing enough yoga, or enough time management, or you haven’t downloaded the latest and greatest app out there to help you get away from burnout,” says Chan. 

But, he says, organisations and structural factors should be the thing to change. 

“If we see a fish dying in the river, we don’t think about how we can make the fish stronger. We ask how we can clean up the pollution and fix its environment,” he says.

“It’s not just about how to make people stronger – it’s about how we can change their environment.”  

Executive coach Melody Wilding has seen rates of burnout increase in her clients throughout the pandemic and agrees that organisations and leaders have a big role to play in prevention. 

“People can make it seem like if you just have a self-care routine in the morning, you’ll cure your burnout. I wish it was that easy – unfortunately, it’s not,” she says.  

“Organisations certainly have a huge responsibility to make work more sustainable and to provide people with the right resources to value wellness.” But why are we feeling so burnt out? While the resulting symptoms are quite consistently the same, psychological research suggests there may be several distinct root causes of burnout.  

Here are three common types of burnout to look out for – and how to prevent them.

1. Overload burnout

Task overload tends to be the most commonly recognised cause of burnout, says Wilding. 

“This is someone who is so overbooked, completely overscheduled, over-committed; they are putting in overtime, they’re working on weekends, they have trouble detaching from work

“In this case, you burn out because your system – your nervous system and your mind – can’t handle everything you’re trying to throw at it.”

How to address it

1.Turn leaders into examples

Leaders should examine their own behaviour to see what tone they are setting from the top down, says Wilding. 

“As leaders, people look to you for the norms, so if you are never taking a break, if people can just book time with you all over your calendar and your lunch break, then you’re setting the expectations for what other people should do,” she says.  

Leaders should model behaviours such as taking time off, spending time with family, or blocking out time on their calendar for deep-thinking work.  

“All of that really matters and gives other people permission to do the same,” says Wilding.

2. Advocate for more resources and fair pay 

Examining people’s workloads and not letting things get out of hand is also critical.   

“Too many managers try to have people do two to three jobs – and it’s just not possible,” says Wilding.

“Listen to your people if they say they’re strapped for time or resources. And then advocate for them at the leadership level.” 

As Chan and his co-researchers point out, financial stressors can also have a big impact on someone’s wellbeing and compound burnout, so compensating workers fairly – particularly in junior roles – is essential.  

This year’s State of Workplace Burnout survey found young workers (18-24) were the group most impacted by burnout – and Chan says macro-factors might be at play.  

“For three years wages have been stagnant and now inflation is going up quickly. Those who are older probably have more financial reserves they can use as a buffer,” he says.  “Those who are younger don’t have that padding.” 

A response in action

One of Wilding’s clients led a small team that was being asked to do more than they could reasonably handle.  

“For her, solving this was an exercise in her own assertiveness. She had to go to her leadership team and make a case for why they needed more resources, the potential consequences and the cost of inaction,” she says.  

“She didn’t get approved a new full-time employee – but they did say, ‘Well, we’ll give you this amount of contract workers to be able to get this work through.’”

“If we see a fish dying in the river, we don’t think about how we can make the fish stronger. We ask how we can clean up the pollution and fix its environment.” – Dr John Chan, Organisational Psychologist

2. Underchallenged burnout 

The flipside of having too much to do – having too little on your plate – can lead to under-stimulation and make someone feel like they’re wasting their potential. 

“As humans, we need to find the right level of stress. We can’t be stressed too much, which is overload burnout, but we can’t be stressed too little,” says Wilding.  

“When you’re bored, when you don’t have enough stimulation in your job, you begin to check out. That can lead to cynicism, which can lead to mental depletion. If people don’t have opportunities for growth and learning, they can feel this type of burnout.”

How to address it

1. Build growth and learning opportunities  

Wilding suggests creating avenues for people to take on stretch projects, regularly checking in about where they want to go, and paying attention to people’s strengths. 

“Are there mentorship opportunities? Can they have access to certain classes or a professional development stipend that allows them to attend a program or a conference, for example?”

2. Create opportunities for connection  

“Under-challenge burnout can also happen as a result of not having connection with people, so try to create opportunities for meaningful – not forced – connection,” says Wilding.  

Interestingly, Chan’s team found a difference in burnout levels between those working in hybrid environments and those working solely from home. 

“Those who were working from home between two to three days showed the highest levels of wellbeing, and the lowest levels were those who were working from home over 80 per cent of the time,” he says. 

A response in action

Another of Wilding’s clients takes a quarterly team health survey to check the emotional pulse of her team.  

“She asks questions about how engaged people feel. Do they feel their work is reflective of their talents? Do they feel connected with their team members?”  

Tracking these trends over time, the client was able to see that when the company went through an acquisition, satisfaction ratings dropped.  

“She could see that the team was feeling disconnected from one another, that they didn’t feel like they had an opportunity for brainstorming, for example, and she could open up that opportunity.”

“Listen to your people if they say they’re strapped for time or resources. And then advocate for them at the leadership level.” – Melody Wilding, Executive Coach

3. Neglect burnout 

The third cause of burnout – neglect – is an important one for leaders to take heed of now, says Wilding, as many organisations are facing uncertain circumstances in the near-term.  

“This one is where people feel worn out because they feel helpless; they feel like they can’t affect change, or they don’t have agency and autonomy of what’s going on around them. 

“It’s really easy for people to feel like, ‘Well, I’m just at the whim of everything happening around me, I feel very helpless,’ and they may fall into this type of burnout as a result.”

How to address it 

1. Give people tools to navigate uncertainty  

“Especially now, it’s important that leaders and HR are giving people the tools to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity,” says Wilding.  

“Part of this is around framing the situation and acknowledging that things are tough right now. If people feel dismissed and invalidated, that’s just going to further make them feel incompetent or invisible.” 

She adds that it’s helpful to be “clear about what the priorities are today because that clarity allows people to know where they can plug in best”.  

2. Share your own experiences 

“If you, as a manager or leader, have gone through burnout, that’s really valuable for your people to hear.”   

By sharing what worked for you and normalising the experience, you can help banish any sense of shame around burnout. 

A response in action

Another of Wilding’s clients pulled her team together after there were stirrings about possible layoffs in the organisation.  

“She got her team together and said, ‘Hey, this is the state of what’s going on right now. This is what I know. My commitment is to give you the information I can when I have it. But for right now, I want to create a space for all of you to talk about what’s going on and how you’re feeling with the change. And I want us to have an eye towards constructive problem-solving – how can we support you?’” 

Giving people the space to talk through concerns meant she could gain clarity on the communication she needed from her superiors, as well as help people feel heard amid stressful circumstances. 

Next steps

As businesses prepare to weather the potential storms of 2023, it’s critical that HR professionals are able to help managers and leaders think more holistically about the different ways people can experience burnout. 

Workflow management is just one piece of the solution. Businesses also need strong, empathetic people management and well-designed motivation strategies in order to create a mentally robust workforce. 

Even as competing business priorities start to creep in, HR leaders should think twice before putting engagement strategies on the back burner.

This article first appeared in the April 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


Ensure your teams get the mental health support they need with this short course from AHRI.


Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ken Grant
Ken Grant
10 months ago

As a comment. Along with these three types of burnout, what are the antecedents to burnout? Some research of salespeople’s burnout has identified, intrinsic motivation, role ambiquity and role conflict as important factors of burnout.

Tim Dein
Tim Dein
2 months ago

Another issue creating burnout and frustration can be requirements to implement mediocre practices as main job and perceived inability to change the practices, eg in adult education, delivering content and marking assessments you know are flawed but no authority to change them

More on HRM