To Prevent Workplace Burnout, Employees Have to Open Up

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Only 26% of burned-out employees have told their manager or HR about their struggles. What can employers do to start a dialogue?

two sad men looking at the ground with speech bubbles hovering over their heads

Before companies can solve the employee burnout epidemic that has now consumed two out of every three full-time workers in the United States, they first need to know who in their organization needs help.

You would think this would be the easy part. But our survey of more than 500 employees who say they’re burned out reveals that only one in four (26%) have told their manager or HR about it—indicating many are staying silent with their struggle.

Pie chart showing 74% of burned out employees havent made their employer aware

To prevent burnout in the workplace, employees need to open up when they need help. But for that to happen, employers need to provide the right environment and technology for them to do so.

Let’s explore the two biggest reasons why your employees are hesitant to talk about workplace burnout and what you can do to open a dialogue in your quest to learn how to prevent workplace burnout.

Culture can combat cynicism

Workplace burnout is no exception to the pervasive cynicism that plagues other mental health issues. As employees suffering from burnout told us in our survey, the top reason they’re hesitant to talk about it with their employer is simply the belief that their employer will be unable to help them:

Chart showing the top reason burned-out employees havent made their managers aware: a belief nothing can be done

Let’s avoid cynicism ourselves and assume that you want to help your employees with burnout. If that’s the case, why would your employees believe they’re helpless?

One reason is a disconnect on culture. These days, 86% of employees think their company’s culture should be open about supporting mental health—a stark contrast to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitudes toward workplace mental health issues of the past.

Simply put: If you’re not talking about burnout yourself, your employees won’t talk about it either. At an organizational level, there are a number of things you can do to broach the topic:

  • Have company leaders talk about their own struggles with burnout and how they sought help in all-hands meetings.
  • Host training sessions with employees on how to cope with burnout symptoms and how they can find different company burnout resources.
  • Put on different wellness events during Mental Health Awareness Month every May.

That’s not all. Employees also need the right signals on a more intimate level from individuals.

As this viral tweet of a CEO sending a positive email in response to one of their employees taking a mental health day shows, it’s small gestures that will ultimately reduce the stigma around burnout and convince your employees that you’re their ally, not their enemy.

Why you can’t “set it and forget it” with burnout solutions

Another reason employees are skeptical that their employers can help with burnout is a simple lack of awareness around the solutions at their disposal.

When we asked what solutions their employer offered to alleviate burnout, most often the burned-out employees responding to our survey said “nothing”; no wellness programs, no work sabbaticals, not even generous amounts of PTO.

a graph showilg the solutions offered to prevent or alleviate burnout

We can look at other responses to know that’s not true. For example, only 20% of respondents say they have access to an employee assistance program (EAP), but the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) say 54% of U.S. workers have access.

All that to say: With any burnout solution you implement (or plan to implement), continuous marketing is key if you actually want employees to be aware of it and use it when they need it. That means things like wall posters, regular email reminders, and notices on the company intranet are critical.

Just remember: It’s important to frame these solutions, even more widely applicable ones like PTO, in the context of burnout. It shows that you’re compassionate as an employer, and not afraid to talk about the elephant in the room.

Using technology to ease retaliation concerns

Not far behind cynicism as a reason for staying quiet about burnout is outright fear. Thirty-nine percent of burned-out employees who haven’t told their employer about it say it’s due to a fear of being punished or losing their job.

Chart showing that 39% of burned out employees havent made their employer aware because of fear

Even if you do the work to start a dialogue on burnout and make employees aware of their options for relief, employees might still feel pressure to hit goals out of their reach or suffer the consequences. This is especially true in competitive environments like sales, or for workers who have a tougher manager than others.

Because some workers will be hesitant to bring up burnout concerns face-to-face, even in the most welcoming environments, you need to provide an alternative outlet that gives them psychological safety.

Technology can be that outlet. Employee engagement software systems, for example, allow companies to send out “pulse surveys”: frequent surveys of only a few questions that employees anonymously complete so HR managers and company leaders can gauge workplace morale over time.

If concerns over burnout arise, leadership can use these platforms to respond directly without revealing the identity of the afflicted employee—giving them the safety to be open and honest about what’s plaguing them.

Replying to an anonymous complaint in Peakon

Responding to anonymous employee complaint in Peakon (Source)

HR case management systems (also known as whistleblower software) allow employees to be more proactive. If a worker is worried about retaliation or believes their manager is the source of their burnout, they can submit an anonymous tip to HR to open an investigation. The employee can track the progress of the investigation and see how it is resolved.

The hope is always that employees never feel like they have to turn to more anonymous means. But if it encourages workers to bring up burnout issues they would have otherwise stayed silent on, it’s a good investment.

Employees need to talk, but are you listening?

If all the buzz around the end of the five-day work week is to be believed, employee burnout will be the defining talent management issue of the 2020s. Organizations that figure out solutions so workers can reclaim their mental energy and motivation will succeed, while those that continue to ignore the issue will struggle with high disengagement and turnover.

But before employers can act, they must listen. Creating a culture of mental health acceptance and providing avenues that allow employees to voice their concerns means nothing if you don’t take those concerns seriously, and can’t connect the dots between individual issues to identify larger organizational problems.

If you liked this article, check out these additional resources on workplace burnout:


Survey Methodology

To collect this data, we administered an online survey to 517 full-time employees at U.S. businesses who self-identified as being burned out in their current job. Responses were collected in October 2019.

Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.

Looking for Human Resource software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Human Resource software solutions.

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About the Author

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Brian Westfall

Brian Westfall is a Senior HR and Talent Management Analyst for Capterra. His research has been cited in various publications, including TIME, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Undercover Recruiter.

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