The Problem of Employee Burnout and How You Can Help

Experts discuss the pervasive problem of burnout, what it looks like, and what HR leaders and employees can do about it. Get the takeaways.

SHRM’s President and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., Calm’s Chief Clinical Officer, Chris Mosunic and Stress and Burnout Coach, Chibs Okereke

The Calm Team

8 min read

I was CEO and founder. My company was going from strength to strength. I lived in one of the most exclusive apartment blocks in Sydney. I had the fancy car in my garage and a Rolex on my wrist, and the companies that I owned were turning over millions of dollars a year. So from the outside looking in, everything was pretty perfect. But standing at the top of this mountain and looking around, there were a few problems. I was standing there stressed, I was deeply depressed, and at times I didn’t want to be here anymore.   – Chibs Okereke, stress and burnout coach

Experiencing severe burnout, Okereke said he turned to the only tools he knew to reduce his stress: overeating, drinking, screaming, and avoiding life altogether. Today, years later, he’s a stress and burnout coach specializing in helping organizations, teams, and individuals use practical mindfulness techniques and strategies—the tools he credits for helping him eventually recover from his own burnout experience—to manage stress and burnout. 

Okereke shared his story in a recent SHRM webinar, “Stress, Burnout, and the Workplace: Strategies for Enhancing Employee Engagement,” alongside co-presenter Dr. Chris Mosunic,  licensed clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Calm, and webinar host Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of SHRM. Following are takeaways from their discussion.

Burnout is pervasive and harming individuals and organizations.

Experiences of burnout similar to what Okereke described are all too common. According to Taylor, recent SHRM research revealed that 44% of workers are feeling burned out from their work. “And frankly, some of them won’t have the luxury of being able to step away,” Taylor said. They push and they push until they can’t.” 

While employers might believe they’re getting a lot out of their employees, they’re likely getting less, he continued. “In fact, you may be getting the hours out of them, but over time, you’re getting less and less from them from a quality of productivity standpoint. And so no one wins.”

Employers need to recognize that the employees experiencing burnout are those they want to keep. “It’s your highest-performing individuals who are going to suffer the most from this,” said Mosunic. “So getting in front of it is key.”

What’s more, HR professionals are especially prone to burnout, he added, just like the therapists, nurses, social workers, and other service-oriented workers who inspired the coining of the term “burnout” in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. “People taking care of other people, they’re the ones most susceptible,” Mosunic said.

What is burnout? Look for three quintessential signs.

Asked to define burnout, Mosunic pointed to three characteristics cited by Fredenberger: decreased motivation, a negative attitude, and low performance. “I think the coolest thing he came up with is negative attitude,” Mosunic said. “I like to call it getting crusty. That negative attitude is the quintessential hallmark of burnout.”

When you have all three—low motivation, a negative attitude, and low performance—several problems are likely to follow, according to Mosunic. “The most obvious are presenteeism and absenteeism. Those things are going to come at very elevated rates. And then what’s going to come after that is chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, or depression. It’s just this snowball effect.”

Burnout develops in stages. Here’s what to pay attention to.

We all have tough days and weeks, so it’s important to know what leads to burnout, said Okereke. He walked through five stages researchers have identified:  

  1. The honeymoon phase, which often begins when we start a new task, project, or job. “It’s the time we say yes to everything,” said Okereke. “We’re filled with energy and creativity. We love our jobs, and we’re in that space of optimism where that stress feels motivating rather than harmful or uncomfortable.” High performers are susceptible to this phase. “I think there’s maybe a dirty little secret that we don’t like to admit to ourselves, but these stress hormones actually feel good to some of us. . . . [W]e’re at home with these feelings of stress. But if handled well, if we are looking after ourselves, if we’re bringing in the right tools, we might be able to stay in this honeymoon phase indefinitely.”
  2. The onset of stress. “At this stage, you notice that some days aren’t quite as bright as before,” said Okereke. “The initial excitement might not be there, and now we’re irritable. We have difficulty sleeping and focusing, tiredness, headaches, maybe tension, sore neck, that kind of thing. It’s here that many of us are going to start to feel the real signs of stress impacting our lives.”
  3. Chronic stress happens when we have too many stressful days in a row, perhaps one to three months of continuous stress, depending on the person. “That’s when permanent changes begin in your nervous system and your body starts to adapt to what it now thinks is a dangerous or urgent environment,” Okereke explained. Anxiety, procrastination, tiredness, withdrawing from friends and family, and stepping up consumption of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances are symptoms and behaviors to watch out for.
  4. Burnout, which, in addition to the low motivation, reduced performance, and negativity described by Mosunic, is characterized by “physical, spiritual, and psychological exhaustion,” said Okereke. Cognitive decline is another symptom researchers are finding, he added, noting that his own decision-making ability was impaired during his period of burnout. 
  5. Habitual burnout, stage five, is where you get to if you’re burned out too long and not doing anything to fix the problem, said Okereke. “And that burnout is so deeply ingrained and affecting your mental and physical health that you won’t be able to continue doing what you’re doing.” Recovery is slow and likely to require making significant life changes, he added.

Trusted and engaging resources are critical for employees experiencing burnout.

What do you do when you see burnout in someone else, particularly when you’re responsible for shepherding them through their career? Taylor asked. “First and foremost, we know exactly what not to do,” said Mosunic. “You do not say, ‘We have this wonderful EAP [employee assistance program] and you can get a psychiatric evaluation for free.’ There is a stigma. It does exist. It’s getting better . . . but we as a nation don’t embrace the idea of getting a psychiatric evaluation.”

On the other hand, what people actually do is consult “Dr. Google combined with AI,” which is problematic, he explained. Instead of exclusively surfacing credible sources such as the Mayo Clinic, which offers 100% factual information, searches on Google with AI often deliver information from the “loudest voice,” said Mosunic, which can result in a person receiving incomplete, skewed, or inaccurate information.

Rather than suggesting a psychiatric evaluation or letting employees rely on AI-driven searches, employers need to offer trusted resources, Mosunic said. “But they have to be engaging, because for many, it can be boring to read factual information from the Mayo Clinic,” he added. “When you listen to someone like Chibs and the content is trustworthy, that’s the winning formula. . . . If it’s not engaging, they’re not likely to use it.”

Calm is an easy, engaging, and trustworthy first step.

When it comes to getting support for stress and burnout, some people will want to jump right in and learn as much as they can about mental health and mindfulness, said Mosunic, “but 99% of us want to put a toe in first.” The path of least resistance is finding an app you can trust, he said, and Calm is a great example of a trustworthy app. 

“I’m a licensed psychologist and I work for Calm because . . . we have tons of science behind it to know that it works at the subclinical to mild level,” said Mosunic. Most of us fall in that subclinical to mild bucket where people have mental discomfort, but they haven’t developed actual mental health symptoms or worse, he explained. “That’s the place where an app like Calm can really help.”

For people with severe anxiety or severe mental health issues, an app is not the right place to start, he explained. In those cases, the best step is to take an online GAD screening for anxiety or respond to a Patient Health Questionnaire for depression to help you understand your symptoms and the right resources to seek, such as support from a mental health professional.

HR leaders can model prevention strategies and encourage employees to use them.  

In his work with organizations, Chibs said, he recommends four prevention strategies that HR leaders can advocate employees use:  

  1. Micro breaks. We don’t need to meditate for half an hour to reduce our stress, he explained. Even mini breaks throughout the day are enough to impact our stress levels. “One thing that I really encourage my corporate clients to do, especially if you want to integrate this into the organization, is to start each meeting with a micro break. We carry our stress from one meeting to another meeting to another, and then by the end of the day we’re exhausted and wonder why. So micro breaks are super important.” Chibs pointed to the 60-second meditations that he narrates on Calm as something employees can try.
  2. Breathing exercises. “Honestly, it can be a couple of breaths,” Chibs said. “Sometimes it’s just stopping, taking a pause, allowing your body to regulate, and then moving on.” One example of controlled breathing is lengthening your exhale by inhaling on a count of three and breathing out on a count of six. It’s something you can do anytime, anywhere, he noted.
  3. Daily meditation practice. “Daily practice is important for training ourselves to be present, training ourselves to be focused, and training ourselves to be aware of what’s going on in our internal and external experience,” said Chibs. He emphasized that a daily meditation doesn’t need to be 30 minutes. “It could be 5 minutes, 10 minutes. All my meditations on the Calm app are super short.”
  4. Purpose and alignment. “This is particularly important, and I think especially for HR folks, when we feel connected to our work’s purpose and when we can see how that aligns with our values, it not only enhances our job satisfaction but also serves as a buffer against burnout,” said Chibs. “So it’s about knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing and ensuring that what you’re doing aligns with your personal and professional goals and with your values. And this alignment helps us in setting boundaries and making tasks that aren’t simply urgent, but rather are important, priorities.”

Don’t overlook social connection.

“What’s the predictor of happiness? Social connectivity,” said Mosunic. “What’s the predictor of health? Social connectivity. We’ve known this forever.” Yet it’s one of the most neglected things in the workplace, he said. “So what can an employer do? Promote social connectivity among employees.  

“Promoting social engagement is something that many people look at as a luxury, and I would say it’s essential, especially in a remote workforce,” Mosunic added. Creating a workplace where people feel like they’re living their values and can trust those around them seems so simple, but that’s the “holy grail” for preventing burnout, he said.

Every organization should be measuring burnout.

Finally, every organization should be measuring burnout, Mosunic stressed. “You can use a free burnout survey and put it into the population.” At the very least, employees will see that you’re paying attention to the problem. “And we change what we measure. So a very simple thing is using the Oldenberg burnout inventory. Do it once every quarter and you’ll be able to measure it.”

You can watch the full webinar here.For more information about how Calm can help you support employee well-being and prevent burnout, connect with our Calm specialist today.

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