Culture & Society

What Is Work Burnout, And How Can We Avoid It?

According to a Texas A&M University professor, burnout can harm employees' physical and mental well-being as well as organizational productivity, causing financial loss.
By Heather Gillin, Texas A&M University College of Education & Human Development July 16, 2019

A young businesswoman lies with her head down on a desk in an office.
Burnout can be harmful for both employees and organizations, according to a Texas A&M University professor.

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For human resource development professor Jia Wang, work burnout is bad for business.

Burnout is a serious concern with major consequences for both employees and employers, she said, and part of the challenge is that organizations today are pressed with “doing more with less.”

“In the process of chasing results, organizations expect more and more from their employees, and forget that employees can only do so much for so long,” Wang said.

Burnout is a multi-dimensional process, Wang said. It consists of three components — emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and diminished personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion, or compassion fatigue, is characterized by lack of energy and a feeling that one’s emotional resources are depleted. It can result in employees dreading the prospect of returning to work for another day.

“Emotional exhaustion may coexist with feelings of frustration and tension when employees realize that they cannot continue to give themselves or be as responsible as they have been in the past,” Wang said.

Depersonalization, or dehumanization, is another component of burnout that can occur when employees feel they are treated as objects rather than human beings.

“Visible symptoms include the use of derogatory language, strict compartmentalization of professional lives, intellectualization of the situation and withdrawal through longer breaks or extended conversations with co-workers,” Wang said.

The final component of burnout is diminished personal accomplishment, which is characterized by the tendency to evaluate oneself negatively.

Wang noted that these three components can lead to employees distancing themselves psychologically and experiencing a sense of inadequacy in terms of their ability to relate to people and perform their jobs.

Burnout should therefore be avoided by all means, she said, because it poses a threat to employees’ physical and emotional well-being, as well as to employers’ productivity, which can create financial loss.

Wang proposed four evidence-based strategies for employees and organizations to reduce burnout — building social support, setting realistic expectations, providing career opportunities and promoting healthy work behaviors.

She also said regular vacations are critical for helping employees avoid burnout. However, to make vacations truly effective, Wang reminds organizations to not expect employees to answer work emails during their time off.

According to Wang, while it is helpful that employees practice healthier work-life balance, it is equally important that supervisors model this behavior to effect change.

“It is not enough for organizational leaders to formulate or promote health-related policies and programs (e.g., wellness programs and flexible work schedules), they must also model healthy work behaviors,” Wang said. “Supervisors need to stop sending work emails to subordinates during the weekends, stop working long hours and take time each day for self-care (for example, meditating, exercising, taking a power nap and listening to music).”

Wang said if leaders demonstrate these healthy habits, then subordinates will likely follow suit.

“We don’t lack policies in the workplace; the problem is we don’t practice what we advocate,” she said.

This article by Heather Gillin originally appeared on the College of Education & Human Development website.

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