With remote and hybrid workplaces becoming the norm, keeping track of employee wellbeing can be challenging. Being out of sight, out of mind can lead to less employee visibility. With fewer touchpoints to check in and a lack of face-to-face, non-verbal communication, it is more difficult to read how people are feeling. But without systems in place to track and support employee wellbeing, companies may experience higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs.
Given that work-life boundaries have become increasingly blurred in the post-pandemic workplace, there is a higher risk that your employees will experience burnout. In fact, our data revealed that the pandemic has aggravated burnout for both on-site and remote employees. And according to a Deloitte survey, 77% of global employees have experienced burnout in their current job.
So, how can you regularly check on your employees’ mental health, and assess early signs of burnout? Let’s look at strategies and metrics for identifying and evaluating burnout across a global organisation.
What Is Burnout?
The scientific definition of burnout is “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
And yet, burnout remains misunderstood by the wider public. Many people use “burnout” as a catch-all term for feeling exhausted and stressed, meanwhile some see it as a sign of career ambition, rather than a harmful health condition. In fact, Quartz writes that in popular media, burnout remains a term largely associated with middle- and upper-class people.
But in recent years, burnout has become increasingly acknowledged as a global wellbeing crisis. This prompted The World Health Organization (WHO) to add burnout as an occupational phenomenon in their international classification of diseases in 2019. Research published by Frontiers in Psychology suggests that burnout often goes hand in hand with both depression and anxiety — and it might even be conflated with those conditions.
Individually, burnout can manifest in your employees via psychological characteristics like anxiety and depression, irritability, and low-self confidence. It can also present as physical effects including headaches, frequent colds, difficulty communicating, and low energy levels.
What Causes Burnout?
While there can be varied and different causes based on systemic organisational issues, burnout is more likely to emerge in companies where employees:
- Balance heavy workloads with tight deadlines
- Work long hours and overtime without adequate compensation
- Are discouraged from (or punished for) taking holidays and time off
- Face unclear expectations and a lack of healthy boundaries from management
What Are the Effects of Burnout?
True burnout can’t be fixed with a vacation, yoga session, or a wellness retreat. If left untreated, it can have serious repercussions on the personal life of your employees, as well as spread almost contagiously throughout your organisation.
For businesses, burnout leads to lower productivity and employee engagement. When employees work at half capacity, the overall quality of the work suffers — and it’s ultimately a threat to your bottom line.
Burnout also puts you at risk of losing top performers on your team, leaving you with skill gaps that are costly and time-consuming to fill. This could lead to a drain of qualified people from skilled professions. Your people leaders might be particularly vulnerable to burnout: A 2023 burnout survey from Lattice shows that middle managers report higher levels of burnout than other respondents.
“Studies show that wellbeing is one of the most important factors for employees today when choosing the organisations they work for — and they are right,” said Eva Klären, People Engagement & Culture Program Manager at Criteo. “Employee wellbeing remains a key priority. Not only is it the right thing to do to put your people first, but it also becomes a competitive advantage in the talent market.”
What Metrics Can Help Track Employee Burnout?
Employee wellbeing isn’t a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. Your organisation’s success depends on helping employees to avoid burnout by creating a healthy company culture and work environment.
Knowing how your people are coping with burnout depends on having the right measurements in place. Here are some effective metrics to assess burnout in your organisation:
1. Employee Engagement
From an organisational standpoint, workplace burnout is directly tied to employee engagement. Highly engaged teams are more likely to have higher levels of job satisfaction, retention and productivity. This makes them less likely to feel stressed at work.
That’s why employee engagement surveys are an effective way for companies to measure burnout. However, it can be hard to standardise engagement surveys across an entire company — with employees in different time zones, offices with different engagement levels, and people with different levels of comfort being candid. If employee survey participation is high, it’s usually a good indicator that employees are feeling engaged and motivated. Meanwhile, a lack of responses can indicate that employees are unengaged and beginning to feel burned out.
2. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI)
Just as there is a scientific definition of burnout, there are standards by which to measure the condition. The most widely used is Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), developed in 1981 by Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Traditionally, the MBI evaluates burnout based on the three criteria, by which burnout is characterised:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy at work
The MBI assesses individuals in all three parameters, on a scale from more positive to more negative. A burnout profile requires a negative score in all three. The problem is that solely relying on this scientific assessment can be misleading. Burnout is not black and white — according to a newer study by Maslach, it’s a spectrum, and most of us are on it.
3. Internal Feedback Data
Given the rise in workplace burnout, the MBI, and other tests like it, are invaluable tools. However, using these measurements to diagnose or rule out burnout without a clinical basis is incorrect. They are more of a research measure, designed for employees to measure their environment.
The MBI should be used with other data to identify a pattern, and the scores should be used as warning signals. The goal is not to measure how many workers are burned out; instead it’s about identifying workplace issues based on what individuals are responding to.
That’s why organisations need to gather as much information as possible to identify burnout within their workforce, and find out the root causes — be it issues raised in other tests, 1:1s, performance data, or casual conversations. Organisations can collect data from other tools and interactions with their workforce, including:
- Employee satisfaction. Rate stress levels, workloads, and happiness to assess how your people are feeling.
- Employee turnover. Assess the changes in employee turnover to estimate the impact of your wellbeing initiatives.
- Changes in absenteeism and healthcare costs. Track both to assess impact of a new wellbeing initiative overtime.
- Utilisation and program adoption. Observe the number of people who accessed and participated in your wellness program over a certain period to see how a program is being adopted.
- Time to service. Measure how long takes from the moment an employee requests help within your wellbeing program to when they receive the services they need.
- Demographics. Understand demographic groups’ different needs and if certain groups face barriers in getting the help they need.
When the MBI is used correctly, and in strategic combination with other relevant information, the findings can help HR leaders design effective ways to build engagement. Engagement data, MBI and other forms of data can help HR and organisations get a clear picture of their workforce’s wellbeing and give them a direction of travel based on that.
So, if your organisation is seeing scores on the negative end of the spectrum, act quickly. Use that information to implement strategies.
3 Strategies for HR Leaders to Assess Employee Burnout
As a HR team, it’s your goal to help employees by establishing healthier workplaces in which employees will thrive, without burning out.
Your approach should be holistic and tailored to employees, as “there are no standalone or one-size-fits-all solutions,” Klären said. “Our wellbeing needs are as unique as we are, and finding ways as an organisation to support our employees through their different and changing needs will be key.”
1. Run engagement surveys.
Running a survey is the ideal first step in detecting burnout in your company because it gives insight into the employee experience. Surveys are an effective and scalable way to measure employee engagement.
Your survey should assess:
- Which employees are burned out, or at risk of burning out. Which employees seem less engaged, or are more likely to express negative sentiment? How does their performance correlate with their engagement?
- Any emerging hotspots or patterns. Are certain projects linked to higher burnout? Is burnout a problem only in certain areas of your business, specific teams, or global locations?
- Correlation with other workforce data. Is there a correlation between employee tenure and burnout? Can you identify any links between burnt out segments and compensation?
By uncovering a common thread, you can pinpoint potential stressors and causes of burnout — from unrealistic deadlines to a culture that rewards burnout — and create appropriate, preventive initiatives that reduce stress.
You should be running regular pulse surveys to track sentiment at the team or company level, so that ongoing initiatives can be course-corrected sooner rather than later. This can help initiate positive changes that will improve retention, job satisfaction, and day-to-day morale.
“We regularly survey our employees to check in on their happiness, engagement, wellbeing, and sense of inclusion and belonging,” Klären said. “Using a ‘whole person’ approach, we look at different things that someone needs to feel included in and supported by an organisation. This includes their physical, mental, emotional, and financial wellbeing — but also, their interests and important life events, such as family-forming and parenthood.”
Share findings with participants — at an ‘all hands meeting’, for example — to promote a culture of trust and transparency internally. The goal of employee engagement surveys is to make meaningful changes, so it’s crucial that managers at all levels clearly communicate why it’s important for employees to share how they’re feeling, and how this can contribute positively to their wellbeing.
2. Train managers to recognise early signs of burnout.
Emotional exhaustion can be easily missed if management is not focused on the full employee experience, including mental health and work-life balance.
Manager-employee relationships are crucial to employee wellbeing. They are the most consistent point of contact with their teams, making them well poised to spot burnout early. If engagement surveys reveal low employee satisfaction levels, then managers can help identify the problem using these four methods:
- Regular 1:1s between managers and direct reports: A Lattice survey found that 84% of organisations relied primarily on one-on-ones during the Covid-19 crisis, which suggests that individual check-ins are an effective way to create psychological safety during uncertain times. Managers can ask questions about the root causes of burnout such as, “Is there anything about our team culture you wish you could change?”, and “Do you feel that you have enough bandwidth to work on personal development?”. HR leaders can help managers by setting the framework and frequency.
- Pulse surveys: In addition to regular engagement surveys, pulse surveys focused on the topic of wellbeing can add nuance to rapidly changing employee attitudes. Many employees find it easier to ask for help and be vulnerable in more anonymous settings, rather than in company meetings.
- Engagement huddles: Managers and employees can both play an active role in brainstorming solutions for problems revealed through survey results. A core benefit of team-level meetings is that they can lead to faster resolution and focus on solutions that make sense for each team.
- Weekly updates: Employees can reflect on their experiences, while managers are able to identify problems before they snowball into major challenges.
Once management becomes aware of indicators that contribute to workplace burnout, they can suggest the right interventions at the team and company levels.
“We invest in training to raise awareness, and provide tools for everyone to support their own wellbeing,” Klären said. “We offer a fully flexible working policy. We also provide counselling and access to the Headspace mindfulness app. As a step further, we are going to certify Mental Health First Aiders who can help promote wellbeing in the workplace. They’ll act as the first point of contact for colleagues if they experience distress or a mental health issue.”
3. Create and maintain a healthy company culture.
Company culture can impact how effective your team is at working together in a positive or negative way. Good culture makes people feel safe and supported, leading to higher engagement and efficiency. Meanwhile toxic culture fuels inefficiency and turnover rate.
Observe internal communication and systems. Ask yourself:
- Is management encouraging employees to overwork? Are emails being sent or received outside of office hours? Share the importance of work-life balance and taking paid time off while enforcing company-wide norms for remote work.
- Are you leading with purpose? Your HR team should craft a company mission that establishes a purpose-driven work culture and keeps employees engaged.
- Are you setting clear goals and providing constant feedback? Lack of clarity can cause attrition and stress, leading to a drop in engagement and negatively impacting employee retention. “We see an interesting correlation between setting clear priorities and wellbeing,” said Klären. “Our survey data shows that employees who work on teams with clearly established priorities, feel better supported to cope with work-related stress and to prioritise their own wellbeing.”
The burnout crisis is an opportunity for companies to create an internal shift that prioritises employee wellbeing and mental health. While this doesn’t happen overnight, the efforts are worth it.
“Actively shaping a culture where everyone can feel included, and creating an environment where it is okay to come forward and speak up plays a crucial role in preventing burnout,” Klären said. “It also lays the foundation for other wellbeing initiatives to be successful.”
As a HR leader, you can equip your organisation with scalable, effective tools and strategies that regularly measure employee burnout. Communication is key. Listen to your team members and frequently ask them how, not what, they’re doing.
As your company adapts to employees’ changing needs, regular engagement surveys are an effective way to gather the insights you need — and target issues as they arise. Leveraging a survey tool like Lattice Engagement can help to assess the wellbeing of employees in a standardised way. Over time, this cultivates a healthier company culture that minimises the risk of burnout.
For more info on this topic, download our ebook How to Prevent and Treat Workplace Burnout.