Employee Burnout, Causes, and Cures in the Modern Work Environment By Professor Siu Oi-ling, Lam Woo Chair Professor of Applied Psychology and Director of Master of Science of Work and Organizational Psychology Programme at Lingnan University

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Publish Date: 2022-07-29

Key takeaways:


  • Burnout is a rapidly growing issue for organisations and their employers across all industries, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • As part of their awareness and response culture, companies can mitigate employee burnout by developing an action plan which includes stress management programmes.

Employee burnout, an extreme form of work stress, the feeling of physical and mental exhaustion, is far from being a new phenomenon. However, accelerated by the pandemic, reports of surging rates of employee burnout is on the increase, creating a challenge that every organisation across industries cannot afford to overlook. In the world of work characterised by uncertainty and constant change, while the factors that contribute to burnout tend to differ from one person to the next, major contributing factors include increased workload, shifting work patterns, working longer hours, dependence on technology, a decline in interpersonal interaction, adapting to work-from-home (WFH) models, and a blurring of the boundaries between work and personal life.

First termed “burnout” in the 1970s by a psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger, in 2019, the World Health Organization labelled employee burnout an "occupational phenomenon", noting that its cause is chronic workplace stress. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression were attributed as a leading cause of diminished wellbeing, absenteeism, reduced productivity, and increased healthcare costs, all of which are factors that can impact an organisation's efficiency and lead to attrition.

In Hong Kong, widely renowned for employees working considerably more hours per week than the global average, studies indicate that burnout levels are at the highest in Asia.  Studies also reveal that stress and burnout are reported at all levels of the organisational hierarchy. This can create problems for companies through lost hours of work from stressed-out employees taking frequent leave of absence on medical grounds, as well as poor decision making and an impaired ability to exercise proper judgment.

In addition to work overload, long working hours, and meeting deadlines, research on occupational stress, conducted by Prof. Siu since 1996, has revealed the major causes of stress in Hong Kong and Mainland China can include conflict with clients and customers and among colleagues; organisational constraints such as inadequate equipment or technology and the work-home interface, which includes work-to-family and family-to-work relationships. The pandemic has aggravated these stress causing factors, particularly the work-home interface and an increased feeling of job insecurity. Significantly, based on "Occupational Stress and Its Economic Cost in Hong Kong" research reported by Prof. Siu and coworkers in 2020, the annual economic costs attributed to these stress inducing factors is estimated to be between HK$4.81 billion to HK$7.09 billion.

Recognising the causes and signs of burnout

In academic terms, according to Professor Christina Maslach and organisational psychologist Michael Leiter, who have been at the forefront of burnout research for more than three decades, burnout is a psychological syndrome reflecting the accumulated difficult interaction between a person and his or her work. According to Maslach and Leiter, who have published numerous papers and books on the topic, burnout includes three aspects: emotional exhaustion, the stress dimension of bunout; cynicism or depersonalisation, the interpersonal correlation dimension of burnout; and ineffectiveness, the self-evaluation dimension of burnout. Classic symptoms include difficulty making decisions, a loss of motivation, a higher-than-normal level of irritability, tiredness, and difficulty concentrating. However, it should be noted that burnout can also be associated with other behaviour changes.

Of particular importance for the HR function, it is essential to be equipped with knowledge about causes of burnout. There are three types of causes: work-related, lifestyle related, and personality traits related.
Work-related causes of burnout include:
  • Feeling like you have little or no control over your work
  • Working too much, without enough time for relaxing and socializing
  • Being expected to do too many things for too many people
  • Taking on too many responsibilities, without enough help from others
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Lack of close, supportive relationships
Last but not the least, personality traits can contribute to burnout:
  • Perfectionistic tendencies; nothing is ever good enough
  • Pessimistic view of yourself and the world
  • The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others
  • Type A personality (negative side- competitive, time urgent, hostile/aggressive; positive side- high-achieving)
How can organisations and their HR function mitigate burnout
The best way to address employee burnout in any work environment is to prevent the likelihood of it occurring in the first place. A good place to start is to identify the potential causes of stress and burnout. An employee pulse survey can provide a useful way to obtain insights which can be used to shape a strategic framework to reduce burnout-causing factors. Ask employees what resource gaps they see and what would help to ease the stress they are facing. Data can also be analysed to identify reasons for employee stress-related absenteeism.
With no silver bullet way to avoid all the causes of burnout, initiatives can be based around a system of family-friendly employment policies and practices (FEPPs), which could include flexible or compressed working hours; part-time working; enhanced maternity leave and benefits; unpaid level options; childcare schemes and allowances; and leave for major festivals. For some organisations, while this would require a culture change, Lingnan University research found in 2007 that when FEPPs have been implemented in western countries the initiatives corresponded with a decrease in absence due to sickness; improved retention rates; a decrease in costs; higher productivity; as well as enhanced company image and stronger staff moral and commitment.
Incorporating wellbeing-focused activities such as yoga, meditation, relaxation, mindfulness, or workout classes can also create a positive impact on employees’ mental and physical health. This could include on-line and in-person group stress management workshops designed to tackle different stress causing factors at work and at home. Championed by the C-suite, the HR function could help to establish company-wide rules around times when employees are expected to be online and available to respond to requests and attend meetings.
Conveniently accessible channels of communication that allow employees to feel comfortable and safe to seek help from their managers and the HR function if they are feeling stressed, are vital.  Managers and HR practitioners should also be aware of the steps to take if a member of staff reports or demonstrates any symptoms of stress or burnout. Poorly trained managers and a lack of awareness around communication skills, recognition, and task assignment can quickly exacerbate employee stress, which could result in the cases of burnout escalating.
While burnout is a serious issue, alleviating workplace stress and the causes of burnout rather than being a source of it, is within the grasp of every organisation.