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Study: Burnout Is a Barrier to Promotion

A woman covering her eyes while working on a laptop.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered what could be an unprecedented level of burnout among U.S. workers. But even as the disease threat wanes, the burnout phenomenon hasn't tapered off.

A 2022 study by insurance company Aflac found that nearly six in 10 U.S. workers (59 percent) were experiencing at least a moderate amount of burnout. That represented an increase over 2021's figure of 52 percent and was similar to the number from 2020, when the pandemic was at its worst.

Burnout has been shown to take a toll on workers' mental health and job performance. Now, a new study says it also could be jeopardizing job promotions for people experiencing it.

For the study, published by the peer-reviewed European Sociological Review journal, researchers at Belgium's Ghent University asked 405 U.S. and U.K. workplace managers to decide whether they would promote a set of fictional employees.

Some of the 1,620 fake employees had gaps in their work history attributed to reasons such as burnout, parental leave and sick leave. The research found that employees with a history of burnout had the worst chance of being promoted. In fact, the burned-out workers scored 34 percent lower in promotion grading than workers without employment gaps.

"In the bigger picture, this study's findings illustrate that the negative consequences of job burnout go beyond health impairment," said Philippe Sterkens, a doctoral candidate at Ghent who led the study. "Even after successful recovery, such as returning to work, the lingering label jeopardizes career opportunities. The stigma accompanying burnout—despite growing public awareness—is not to be neglected."

Sterkens was particularly surprised by how much burnout factored into the decision-making of workplace managers.

The study's findings "provide yet another reason to invest in burnout prevention," Sterkens said. "By refusing to promote individuals with a history of burnout, despite positive performance reviews and indications of restored health, organizations could harm their own HR processes and productivity. Objective and bias-free promotion procedures are important counters to stigma."

Andrew Shatté, co-founder and chief knowledge officer at meQuilibrium, a digital platform that encourages workforce resilience (such as combating burnout), said any employer that allows a history of burnout to impede a worker's path to promotion should rethink this approach.

"We need to create a culture that destigmatizes burnout and promotes a culture of mental health and well-being," said Shatté, adding that he believes the problem of burnout will only become "more ubiquitous."

Indeed, employers as a whole appear to be recognizing the vastness of the burnout dilemma: LinkedIn recently ranked "employee experience manager" as the fifth fastest-growing job title in the U.S. in the past five years. 

Shatté said that if employers fail to curb worker burnout, there will be more absenteeism, presenteeism, "resenteeism" and resignations.

Meredith Michael, SHRM-CP, director of human capital at wealth management firm Gratus Capital, said it should never come as a surprise to managers and other workplace leaders that a worker is experiencing burnout.

"When your team feels empowered to share when they feel burnout coming on or are actively experiencing burnout, leaders have an opportunity to help them take steps to prevent or reduce burnout so they can feel excited about taking on a new role versus it feeling daunting," Michael said.

Lisa Hamill, people and culture generalist at employee benefit firm Sentinel Group, provided these tips for helping ensure that burnout isn't a roadblock on the route to promotion: 

  • Prioritize mental well-being. "Recognize employees for good work output, not necessarily who is staying online the latest or going the longest without taking a vacation day," she said.
  • Show promotion-seeking employees the path to success. Clearly spell out the skills, experience and other factors needed to achieve a promotion. "Promoting an employee who burned themselves out trying to get the promotion is setting them, and the company, up for failure," Hamill said.
  • Be fair with promotion opportunities. Hamill said this is especially crucial as employers and employees alike continue to navigate the balance between in-office work and remote work. "Remote workers may feel that they have to work harder if they do not have the in-office visibility of a peer," she said.
  • Conduct check-ins with newly promoted employees. Just as you would do with new hires, investigate how newly promoted workers are adjusting to their new roles. These check-ins could be at the 30-, 60- and 90-day marks, Hamill said. 

Amy Mosher, chief people officer at isolved, which offers a workforce management platform, said that if a promotion might be too overwhelming for an employee who has been burned out, managers should identify opportunities to slowly expand that person's skill set, such as assigning them to a new project or tapping them to lead a small team.

"New opportunities will not only help employees build new skills, but also feel more connected to their team and company by adding valuable contributions and being recognized by management," Mosher said. "Open communication is one of the most important ways to support employees and show an organization is invested in an employee's personal and professional success." 

John Egan is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.


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