Feeling Burned Out at Work? Join the Club

Rachel Feintzeig

Feb. 28, 2017

Workers who used to take the lead on projects grow taciturn during meetings. Top performers start coming in late, leaving early and watch their careers stall. Others struggle to get out of bed in the morning, feeling that they just can’t do one more thing.

Burnout is claiming victims at work, and companies aren’t ready to cope, say psychology and human-resources experts. An always-on work culture, combined with feelings of job insecurity and directives to do more with less—even when business is booming—has driven workers to the breaking point, they say. And the problem appears to be worsening, resulting in steep turnover and health costs.

Stress and anxiety are cited in 70% of the calls placed to phone-counseling lines at Workplace Options, a provider of employee-assistance programs; in 2014, 50% of callers complained of those feelings. Total calls to those counseling lines reached 42,500 last month, an 18% increase from 2016’s average.

Gallup’s most recent large-scale survey about burnout in the U.S., conducted in 2012, found that more than 40% of workers were so stressed at work they felt burned out. A more recent survey of German workers, conducted in 2015, found that nearly a quarter felt burned out.

During the financial crisis, companies held back on hiring plans and asked existing staff to do more while times were tough. Nearly a decade on, the lack of certainty and stability appears to have become a permanent fixture of the workplace, said Alan King, Workplace Options’ president and chief operating officer.

Workers aren’t “assertive about their boundaries because they fear for their jobs,” said Alden Cass, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist who treats patients with high-stress jobs. Burnout begins when a worker feels overwhelmed for a sustained period of time, then apathetic and ultimately numb, he said.

Those feelings—historically more common in professions such as medical resident and litigator, jobs known for round-the-clock schedules and high pressure—are growing widespread. “Everyone’s job is now an extreme job,” said Jeanne Meister, a consultant who advises Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. on workplace issues.

Executives who largely shrugged off burnout complaints five years ago are starting to acknowledge the toll that stress is taking on their businesses—in part because they’re suffering from it, too, said Mr. King.

Health-care costs related to work stress range from an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion annually, according to a 2016 paper from researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Long hours and heavy work loads are fueling turnover, too. In a survey conducted last November by software company Kronos Inc. and Future Workplace LLC, nearly half of HR professionals said burnout was driving up to 50% of annual turnover; for a smaller number, burnout was responsible for more than 50% of employee exits.

“Folks are thinking, ‘Well, if I could just go somewhere else; maybe this feeling, this burnout feeling, is going to go away,’ ” said Kim Davis, an executive vice president at insurance broker and consultant NFP Corp., which advises companies on burnout.

A rising demand for American whiskey forced workers at the Clermont, Ky., Beam Suntory Inc. distillery to log mandatory overtime, sometimes enduring 12-hour shifts for as much as a week at a time, said Janelle Mudd, president of the local union.

Some employees chose to sleep in their cars rather than go home for the break between shifts, said Ms. Mudd. Co-workers felt tired and hopeless, unable to really focus, she said. The bourbon business was “doing great, but we were suffering the whole time,” she said.

After a worker strike last October, the company agreed to hire more full-time employees and limit mandatory overtime. Ms. Mudd and a company executive said things have improved.

“We’ve put in place a new leadership team at [two] plants and hired 23 new full-time employees,” David Hunter, Beam Suntory’s chief supply-chain officer, said in a statement. “Productivity is up, overtime is down, and the culture continues to improve at these facilities.”

Bringing workers back from the burnout zone takes effort. Companies must first figure out why workers are overwhelmed, said Christina Maslach, a professor emerita at University of California, Berkeley who researches burnout.

Most companies remain resistant to even talking about burnout, Dr. Maslach said, fearing it will be “wildly expensive” to fix, requiring expensive programs or new hires. Some firms add yoga or mindfulness to calm frazzled nerves, efforts Dr. Maslach called window dressing. “This is not a solution for the stress problems we’re having on the job.”

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