Extinguish the fire: Preventing employee burnout

Burnout is a global epidemic officiated as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization in 2019. It’s characterized as chronic feelings of exhaustion, increased cynicism or apathy for one’s job and reduced professional efficacy. 

Since then, organizational structures and workplace leaders are now accountable for employee burnout. There is an additional focus on advancements in workplace mental health and well-being research.

Workplace burnout soared in numbers this past year. GlobeNewsWire shared Ceridian’s 2022 Pulse of Talent Report that surveyed over 1,300 Canadian employees. It revealed 84 per cent had experienced burnout, with as much as 34 per cent reporting ‘high to extreme levels.’ Twenty-one per cent were actively seeking a new job.  Meanwhile, 39 per cent considered leaving if there was “the right opportunity.”

In the 1970s, social psychology research pioneers Freudenberger and Christina Maslach coined the now infamous term “burnout.” They did so to study the effects transactions in the workplace have on emotional regulation. They found burnout was more commonplace than based upon individual feelings. Further research by Maslach concluded that individual-based interventions were ineffective in reducing burnout without organizational reform.

Rather, Maslach suggested that companies should concentrate on situation-based areas of conflict to prevent burnout. Workplaces have recognised burnout in the past. Yet, the general assumption was that each person was responsible for using the available resources to take preventative action alone. Examples include referrals to support groups and workplace counselling services.

It’s true that this support could provide stronger coping skills within the individual employee. However, Maslach observed that, in the long run, these techniques continue to pressure individuals into an excessive standard. It obstructs the overall issue—the job conditions and the workplace itself.

Understanding the risks of situation-centred burnout

The main goal for addressing situation-centred burnout is enhancing the job experience, with a focus on “preventing a mismatch between the job and the person and the work and the worker.” Maslach and colleagues have found six critical areas of person-situation relationships. Organizations should keep these in mind when addressing burnout in job and workplace structures.


When an employee’s workload has high demands and limited resources, keeping up with a time limit is challenging. The most chronic source of burnout concerns this area, which can lead to significant losses in productivity, relationships and efficacy.

Lack of individual control

A vital part of an employee’s satisfaction is knowing they are capable of thinking and solving problems on their own. A mismatch may occur if the employee is constantly confined to strict monitoring. Or to perceptions of rigid policies that leave no room for self-growth or improvement.

Community support

A supportive community with healthy relationships increases the likelihood that employees feel safe disclosing work problems, praise and comfort. Maslach’s research supports that isolation and impersonal workplace relationships can create a hostile environment with no possibility for social progress.

Insufficient reward

A perception of unsuitable rewards, often meaning salary and benefits, can be interpreted as disrespect for the work and worker. However, Maslach stresses the importance of perceived inner rewards, such as pride or recognition of a valued employee. If both external and internal rewards are not balanced, this can lead to dangerous pitfalls towards burnout. 

Absence of fairness

Fairness is essential for a functional community. Employees don’t feel valued if equal rights to issues like compensation, workload or promotions aren’t discussed during company-employee negotiations. Only in a setting where everyone’s voice is heard equally can there be mutual respect.

Value conflict 

When there is a mismatch of work, ethics and personal principles, people may feel uncomfortable continuing with their jobs. A common instance mentioned in Maslach’s report is when workers felt compelled to be deceptive or violate moral values. They acted as such to support the organization’s profit. This often resulted in discomfort within the workplace.

Bottom-up, not top-down

The order of the topics suggested in Maslach’s study varies for each organization. It’s crucial to remember that whenever interventions or changes are implemented, employees should have access to discussions and decision-making processes. Without employee input, some companies take on their own wellness measures. Which often makes the situation worse because it can be interpreted as distrust of the workers.

Building a balanced workforce to prevent burnout starts with understanding the risk factors of organizational structures and policies. Then, the next best action is ensuring employees a secure and fair environment in which to express their thoughts. A valued employee leads to valued, respected work.

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