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What Are The Core Causes of Burnout — And How Can You Fix Them?


In February 2020, Emplify CEO Santiago Jaramillo made a confession on LinkedIn that resounded with a lot of people.

First, he noted that more than half of US employees are currently suffering from burnout.

Then, he went on to share this:

“As someone who has experienced the debilitating, soul-crushing effects of burnout in the past, this statistic is heartbreaking to me. Some of the darkest days in my adult life were the result of burnout.”

If Jaramillo’s sentiments sound familiar, you’re far from alone.

Emplify’s latest employee engagement trends report found that a startling 62% of people are currently experiencing burnout at work. One in three contend with it weekly. And for 21% of workers, burnout is a daily struggle.

But what, exactly, is burnout — and how can you prevent it from pervading your workforce?

This is an important question to consider at any time, but has become especially critical as employers are determining how best to lead in the midst of uncertainty.

Identifying the core causes of burnout

In a recent Women at Work podcast, workplace well-being expert Mandy O’Neill defined burnout as “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decline in the sense of personal accomplishment.”

She said it starts at the organizational level…

Throughout her work as a senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, O’Neill has noticed a distinct correlation between company resources and levels of burnout. Businesses that are generous with the support they give employees — both through pay and benefits and in the form of engagement drivers such as rest and psychological safety — tend to be the workplaces that experience the least amount of burnout.

In contrast, organizations that are “resource poor” tend to suffer from some of the worst levels of burnout. In these instances, poor working conditions and a lack of staff can be just as detrimental to employee well-being as cutthroat company culture that needs to be improved.

…and is exacerbated by cognitive load.

For many employees, the causes of burnout don’t end when it’s time to leave the office or power down the PC. Studies show that this is the time when many people, and women in particular, tend to enter a second shift.

“They’ve gone home to more work,” O’Neill explained on the Harvard Business Review podcast. “They’re often the people who are responsible for the household finances and the childcare.”

Those extra responsibilities can lead to what’s known as cognitive load — a problem that surfaces when the brain is tasked with processing too much information at a time. Tackling too many issues all at once, such as problem-solving a big business issue while simultaneously stressing over who’s going to watch the kids, can lead to a severe lack of focus.

This issue is already a significant challenge for many employees, and will no doubt become even more pronounced as people are forced to figure out how to continue working in the midst of COVID-19 school closings and heightened responsibilities at home.

And those star employees who appear to operate at peak performance no matter what stresses and situations come their way? Sometimes, those are the very individuals who most need your support.

In one of O’Neill’s Stanford University studies of Berkeley MBAs, researchers found that the most successful employees—those who were most frequently promoted and had the highest earnings—were also the ones who were most likely to drop out completely.

In other words, after working so hard for so long and experiencing severe burnout, they determined it was best to just quit rather than deal with the effects of burnout.

2 proven ways to reduce burnout within your workforce

Burnout doesn’t look the same for every person, or impact each employee in the same way.

Case in point: long hours.

While some employees might work long hours out of perceived obligation, others willingly devote more time to projects that fill them with a sense of purpose and are fueled by passion. 

Similar discrepancies exist elsewhere, which is why it’s crucial that managers take the time to understand what’s important to each employee.

Two essential strategies in particular can be highly effective in preventing burnout — both as companies contend with coronavirus concerns and throughout the year.

  1. Make it easy for employees to get rest.

Often, getting sick or feeling fatigued is the body’s way of alerting the brain that burnout is occurring. When that happens, your employees will need more than a little time to take a few yoga classes to get back on track.

Our recommendation? Bake rest cycles into your culture. Every employee needs to take time regularly to refresh, both through paid time off (PTO) and by building breaks into daily and weekly routines.

  1. Foster stronger relationships with managers.

Did you know that 35% of employees meet one-on-one with their managers once a month or less? For 12% of employees, individual meetings with managers rarely (if ever) take place.

That’s not nearly frequent enough. Whether those meetings take place in person or online via videoconferencing, taking time to talk to direct reports is an essential ingredient of burnout prevention. Being unable to draw support from superiors will force an employee to suffer burnout in silence.

Looking for more insights you can use to overcome burnout and keep employees engaged? Be sure to download the complimentary 2020 Employee Engagement Trends Report.