Is Employee Burnout Stressing You Out?

Workplace stress could be a symptom of a corporate culture totally disengaged from mental health awareness.

The old adage attributed to safety leaders—“We want our workers to go home at the end of the day in the same condition they were in when they arrived”—apparently has been retired. I attend a lot of safety events, and I’ve heard this new saying quite often lately: “We want our workers to go home BETTER than they were when they arrived.”

That’s a pretty tall order, though, especially when you consider the ever-increasing rates of workplace burnout, which point to the job itself being responsible for burning out so many employees. In fact, when it comes to workplace injuries, more than half (52%) are mental health injuries (according to study from legal firm Atticus), leading to time away from work due to stress, anxiety, burnout and similar psychological issues. Another study, from consulting firm Mercer, reveals that 82% of employees say they’re at risk of burnout. All told, 1 million US workers are absent from work every day because of stress, according to The American Institute of Stress.

What’s going on here? And more to the point, what can be done to improve a very dangerous workplace situation?

One of the questions senior corporate managers always ask is: “What’s the financial risk of employee stress and burnout?” It’s not necessarily a dismissive attitude amongst the higher ranks as it is a basic desire to know exactly how much workplace stress impacts a company’s bottom line. Some of the answers to those questions were discussed at the recent Ohio Safety Congress in Columbus, in a presentation given by Shelly Meadows and Martin Franchi from Navigation Consulting and Training.

Meadows and Franchi cited research indicating that mental health injuries tend to have a much longer recovery time—up to 15 times greater time lost compared to other injury types. Also, there are much higher direct costs for mental stress claims, being 8 times higher than for other injury types.

Anxiety and burnout aren’t the problem, they pointed out—rather, they’re the symptoms of systemic organizational imbalances. That could include stress-filled situations caused by insufficient staffing, heavier-than-normal workloads, or toxic leaders. As Meadows and Franchi noted, companies need to get better at addressing those systemic issues and not just assume that an individual will “get better” after a little rest. “We’re all in the same storm,” Meadows observed, “but we’re not all in the same boat.” Decades of research indicate that merely trying to help an individual cope with a work situation is far less likely to have a sustainable impact on employee health than systemic solutions, including organization-level interventions.

A typical HR response might be to give a stressed-out employee an extra day off, but that does absolutely nothing to change the work situation and might in fact exacerbate it since that person will come back to work one more day behind on their assignments. A more helpful systemic response, according to Meadows and Franchi, would be for the company to actually address the too-heavy workload situation, offer more resources, and even examine the management structure that might be causing problems.

Toxic workplace behavior is the biggest driver of negative workplace outcomes such as burnout and an intent to leave the company, according to a McKinsey study. Unfortunately, there’s a 22% gap in perception of mental health and well-being in organizations between employers and employees. The boss might think everything is just fine, whereas the employees are anxious, stressed, burnt out and ready to go looking for another job. And that’s another one of those financial risks of neglecting the stress levels of the workforce—the workers could very well just decide the job’s not worth it and quit. Not only will the company need to hire replacements, but the company’s reputation will also take a hit as word spreads amongst both current and former employees: “You don’t want to work there.”

So to answer the question, “What can a safety leader do about worker burnout?” Meadows and Franchi recommend that you become a partner with your employees in stress prevention. “Be proactive in addressing the root causes of workplace stress and burnout to prevent psychological and physical injury,” they said. And stay up to date and informed about mental health awareness.

To learn more about stress and stress-related issues go to

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

About the Author: Dave Blanchard | Editor-in-Chief / Senior Director of Content