Employee burnout: Around the corner? Already here?

May 21, 2012: 9:58 AM ET

As employees work harder and longer, some are facing a breaking point, even though many companies aren't paying attention.

By Gary M. Stern

FORTUNE -- Here's a word that managers don't use much anymore: burnout. The term was in vogue about 15 years ago when companies began to downsize and employee workload intensified. That was just before the advent of the BlackBerry, what eventually came to be known as the ultimate work leash.

So, then, why has talking about burnout become passé? In a struggling economy, most employees are happy to have jobs and don't want to complain or appear as if they lack enthusiasm. Everyone is expected to give 100% and be available 24/7.

A study released in April of 500 IT administrators from various firms by Opinion Matters revealed that 72% of respondents were stressed, 67% considered switching careers, 85% said their job intruded on their personal life, and 42% lost sleep over work. Can burnout be far behind?

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But it's not just IT administrators who may be stretched thin. Despite the nagging unemployment rates, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March 2012 that 1.8% of full-time employees (around 2.1 million workers) quit their jobs in the private sector covering construction, manufacturing, trade, professional and business services, leisure and hospitality. The rate has made a slow, steady climb since June 2009, a potential sign of encroaching burnout, among many other things.

Jonathan Alpert, a New York psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, says he treats corporate workers, media and finance specialists, and nearly everyone is "facing more pressure.  With people laid off, people are taking on more responsibilities, working harder, having less support and that amounts to burnout."

"The business climate has become so fiery and competitive that leaders are focused on competition and getting the most out of their people. Everyone's working to their max," explains John Izzo, author of Values-Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business.

Izzo says that many executives and their staffers are consumed by changing demands and spend much of their day addressing last-minute emergencies. As competitive demands escalate, many companies aren't sure exactly what to do to relieve stress, so many don't even raise the topic.

A quick jaunt from burnout to apathy

The employee that suffers from burnout becomes part of the "working wounded," Izzo says. They show up to work but have lost their motivation and are just trying to get through the day unscathed. That apathy reduces productivity, nullifies innovation, and creates inertia in the workplace.

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Izzo relates how a CEO of a healthcare company was selecting a new executive vice president with his board. The CEO belittled one candidate by saying, "She takes her two-week vacation no matter what's on her agenda." Izzo, who was sitting in that particular meeting, says he waited for someone to speak up and disagree with the CEO's judgment, but no one did. Vacations help an executive recharge and make them more productive; she shouldn't have been maligned for taking time off, Izzo argues.

Alpert says that a couple of clients have even interrupted their therapy sessions to read Blackberry messages, indicating how much pressure they are under. Some clients "burn the candle on both ends. They work until 10 p.m. and are back at work at 7 a.m.," he says.

"No one wants to complain for fear of losing their job," Alpert says, so most employees just keep going, day after day, week after week. But he notes that the long-term effects of working in such a relentless environment can be devastating.  "Stress can wreak havoc on your body, contribute to high blood pressure and cardiac disease," he says.

Some people are so tied to work that they can barely let go. An owner of a New York social media consulting firm proudly says that he unplugs Friday night to Saturday night, neglecting to mention that the other 148 hours of a week he's plugged in and ready to answer client calls. Taking 24 hours off doesn't yield much down time.

Disconnected, disillusioned, and not very productive

A major symptom of burnout, says Ronald Downey, a psychology professor at Kansas State University, is "feeling disconnected. Staff feels disconnected from the workplace, their job, colleagues, and ultimately themselves." Another sign of burnout: when staffers begin to take additional sick days. The more alienated an employee feels, the more constant connection to the job becomes onerous and suffocating.

Steve Heckert, vice president of human resources at GFI Software, based in Clearwater, Fla., which financed the survey of IT administrators, says the escalated stress levels suggested to him that his firm should focus on making sure staff understands what's expected of them. Managers must make clear exactly what they want and expect from employees. He also says if the demands of the job are intensifying and causing stress, employees need to speak up so managers can shift some of the burden. If the manager is learning about an employee's burnout at the exit interview, something's gone wrong.

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Izzo recommends that companies interested in addressing burnout ask staffers what changes they'd like to see to reduce burnout, which often lead to a host of problem-solving techniques. Companies ought to consider eliminating unnecessary tasks, such as issuing a report that was done last year but perhaps is no longer needed, or limiting lengthy meetings to no more than 15 minutes. And they can also emphasize wellness programs that give staff a sense of purpose and help reduce stress. Downey says that supervisors need to be trained on how to detect employee burnout and how to decrease or balance workloads to address it.

All of this advice might sound like common sense, but most companies don't want to broach the subject of burnout.  If they did, they'd have to "change their expectations, hire more employees, reduce demands, and most won't do that," Downey says. But they do this at their own peril.

"Ultimately the biggest price companies' pay for burnout is a loss of talented people. As the economy improves, they will leave the enterprise," Izzo says.  If a manager hears an employee saying, "I don't have a life on this job," burnout is around the corner, he says.

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