How Employee Burnout Became An Epidemic And What It Might Take To Fix It

HR managers can stem workers’ mounting dissatisfaction, but they say they need better tools to do it.

How Employee Burnout Became An Epidemic And What It Might Take To Fix It
[Photo: Anemone123 via Pixabay]

You’d be forgiven for feeling a little burned out from hearing about burnout. For years, experts have been sounding alarms that modern workers are struggling with career-sinking levels of chronic exhaustion and other issues.


So when Charlie DeWitt, vice president of business development at Kronos, a workforce management software company, declares that “employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions,” you may think you’ve heard it all before. But according to new research by Kronos and Future Workplace, burnout really is getting even worse and more widespread, and so are the consequences of it. This time around, there are some surprising reasons why–and a few steps employers can take right away to turn things around.

The Overwhelming Data On Burnout’s Big Consequences

Kronos and Future Workplace surveyed 614 U.S. human resources professionals at organizations with 100 to over 2,500 employees. The result: 46% of respondents blame burnout for up to half of their staff quitting each year.

These HR managers and executives believe that three factors are contributing to all that burnout:

  • Unfair compensation (41%)
  • Unreasonable workload (32%)
  • Too much overtime or after-hours work (32%)

The survey also found that the bigger the company, the more likely it is to burn you out. Larger organizations are more likely to have exhausted employees. Fifteen percent of HR leaders at companies with more than 2,500 employees say burnout causes 50% or more annual turnover, as opposed to 10% turnover at smaller firms with less than 500 on staff.

The consequences by now are clear. Burnout, according to this and other surveys, leads first and foremost to lack of engagement (another HR crisis many of us have grown fatigued of hearing about). No wonder that Gallup’s most recent survey on the issue found only 33.1% of respondents reporting that they’re engaged at work, while a 2015 study by the Marcus Buckingham Company, a management consultancy, found only 19% of U.S. employees saying they’re involved, enthusiastic, and committed to their jobs.

Nowhere has this so-called (forgive me for this one) epidemic of burnout been clearer than in health care. Fast Company previously reported on the results of a survey of nearly 9,000 registered nurses, more than one-third of whom said they wanted to quit their jobs. The nurses listed a variety of reasons, including not enough time spent with patients, inadequate pay, long hours, an unmanageable workload, not enough staff, and lack of support from management. This prompted Marcia Faller, RN, PhD, chief clinical officer at AMN Healthcare, to tell us at the time, “The harm to the health-care industry goes beyond the numbers. The loss of this intellectual asset may be acutely felt in terms of quality of care and patient satisfaction.”


Faller’s assessment could apply just as well to any employer, no matter the industry. All those bad feelings–whether workers feel taken for granted or overworked and underpaid, or any combination of similar grievances–certainly back up findings from yet another recent study, by Oregon State, in which the majority (52.1%) of people who quit their jobs burn bridges in the process–by walking out without notice, trying to harm the company, or some other display of ill will.

The Culture Component

The Kronos/Future Workplace survey found that while burnout due to too much work and too little pay is a problem, those are not the only contributing factors. There are some others that HR professionals can control, without having to pump more money into everyone’s paychecks.

Among them: poor management, employees seeing no clear connection of their role to corporate strategy, and a negative workplace culture. Fast Company recently reported that corporate culture and values are becoming ever more important, both in terms of making a workplace inspiring and how much it resonates based on how much a person earns.

In both instances, culture can make or break retention efforts–especially if a company’s core value (explicitly or otherwise) is rewarding working long hours or being on call all the time.

In a 2015 survey of nearly 9,700 full-time workers by the professional services firm EY, some 50% of managers worldwide reported working over 40 hours per week, and four in 10 say the hours they put on the clock have increased in the last five years. And managers with kids at home may be faring worse: Those who are full-time working parents (41%) have seen their hours increase more in the last five years than those who don’t have children (37%).

How AI Can Help

“Advances in technology are keeping employees working around the clock without additional pay incentives, causing them to burn out and quit their jobs,” Dan Schawbel, research director of Future Workplace, tells Fast Company. “Leaders need to start having conversations around work flexibility with their employees or will otherwise have to suffer high attrition rates as a consequence.”


But not all technology is contributing to burnout, according to the Kronos/Future Workplace survey. Nineteen percent of HR professionals believe their current work is suffering from a lack of automation. More specifically, they reported their current technology requires them to tackle repetitive administrative tasks manually. That takes away time from coming up with ways to fix bigger issues like retention.

The good news is that artificial intelligence and automation are already at work in this arena, almost exclusively in recruiting and hiring. We’re only now seeing startups taking on more daily challenges. The question now is whether the pressure that technologies take off of human workers will be passed onto the workers themselves.

On that question, some are optimistic. Glassdoor’s chief economist Andrew Chamberlain believes that 2017 will be the year human resources transforms itself into “people science,” in part by tapping into workforce data and analytics. Chamberlain says that metrics tracking every stage of an employee’s progression through a company, from onboarding through training and promotions, can prove to be major assets in accomplishing this makeover.

The additional challenge the Kronos/Future Workplace survey uncovered was the lack of budget to spend on automated tools to make HR professionals’ jobs easier, or to spend on programs to boost engagement and retention. This includes the 16% of respondents who cite lack of funding as the primary obstacle for retention efforts over the next 12 months, and the 27% who say limited resources are holding back much-needed HR-related tech efforts.

But even if budgets don’t suddenly balloon in 2017, allowing AI-powered solutions to take work off employees’ (and HR managers’) plates, a little extra investment may go a long way. In his report on future workplace trends, Chamberlain argues, “There are many low-hanging fruits today for better data science in HR,” and they don’t cost much.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.