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Workplace Burnout at 'Epidemic Proportions'

Long days, little pay, IT overload, executive cluelessness are all reasons, survey finds

A woman is sitting in front of a pile of papers.

​Too much work. Too little pay. Too many technological advancements. Too much emphasis on recruiting new employees rather than keeping existing ones happy.

All these are reasons employee burnout is perhaps worse than it has ever been, according to a new survey from Kronos Inc. and Future Workplace.

"Employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions," said Charlie DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which provides workforce management and human capital management cloud solutions and which commissioned the survey along with Future Workplace, an executive development firm. "While many organizations take steps to manage employee [burnout], there are far fewer efforts to proactively manage burnout. Not only can employee burnout sap productivity and fuel absenteeism, but, as this survey shows, it will undermine engagement and cause an organization's top performers to leave the business altogether."

The survey of 614 U.S. HR professionals, conducted by Morar Consulting from Nov. 14-19, 2016, found that 95 percent of HR leaders said employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. The survey targeted HR managers and directors, vice presidents of HR, and chief HR officers—all of them working at organizations with at least 100 employees.

Unfair compensation (41 percent), unreasonable workload (32 percent), and too much overtime or after-hours work (32 percent) were the top three contributors to burnout, respondents said.

Too Much To Do

With modern technology automating many tasks that workers of decades past had to do themselves, one wonders why "unreasonable workload" and "too much overtime or after-hours work" would account for 64 percent of the reason behind burnout.

Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace, noted that the average workweek is now 47 hours and that there is no longer such a thing as a 9-to-5 workday. Answering a work call after 10 at night or a work e-mail while on vacation has become the new norm, he said.

Mollie Lombardi, co-founder and CEO of Aptitude Research Partners, an HR research and analyst firm in Boston, said "the 'more with less' mantra is definitely a significant part of" burnout.

"Even if you work a job where you're not checking e-mail all the time, as a society we are more and more inundated with incoming streams of information, which can lead to a general sense of being overwhelmed, making individuals more susceptible to burnout," she said. "My hunch is that high-performers may be even more susceptible because they want to be involved, want to take on more things, but the 'always on' connection can turn a positive desire into an overwhelming avalanche."

Adding to the feeling of "overwork," the survey found, is the constant pressure to adapt to new technology—from conference-booking software to robotics. Workplaces are introducing new technology at speeds that make it "nearly impossible" to keep up, Schawbel said, but employees are expected to master new tools even if the technology is glitchy. About 1 in every 5 HR leaders reported that their technology is outdated or insufficient or that it detracts from the ability to get work done efficiently.

"Many of us expect our workplace technology to be as easy to use as our consumer technology," Lombardi said. "But many systems—particularly systems like time and attendance and scheduling—can be clunky and ugly. And a surprising number of companies are still reluctant to deploy mobile interfaces. A retail organization hiring Millennials that doesn't have a way to check schedules on cellphones could lose staff to an organization that has similar pay but more visibility and flexibility with accessing and modifying schedules."

Too Little Pay?

The rise of websites that publish wage and salary information—as well as reports about high executive pay—have made workers keenly aware of any discrepancies between their earnings and others', Lombardi said.

"The story of the haves and the have-nots is always compelling," she said. "There is a lot of data to support that while in real dollars incomes may be rising, the quality of life that income can buy is rapidly deteriorating. Jobs that used to be able to support a family are no longer cutting it in many areas. Of course, everyone has always thought they were overworked and underpaid. But now those feelings are being validated by both perception and reality."

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Salary Increase Projections 2017]

Schawbel noted that if one accounts for inflation, some workers today earn less than they did a decade ago. And he said that when employees feel overworked and underpaid, "that's a deadly combination."

"A company is in business to make a profit even at the expense of the health, well-being and security of its employees," he said. "Workers have to spend more of their time doing work and less with their family, and for no additional pay. This has frustrated workers and is one of the reasons you see more job-hopping."

No Help from the Top or the Budget

Despite the well-documented costs of employee turnover, Schawbel said, organizations are more apt to invest in recruiting new employees than in retaining existing ones. The survey found that:

  • 97 percent of HR leaders are planning to increase their investment in recruiting technology by the year 2020, including nearly one-quarter (22 percent) who anticipate a 30 percent to 50 percent increase in such spending.
  • Lack of funding is the chief obstacle in the next 12 months to improving employee retention (cited by 16 percent of respondents); boosting employee engagement (15 percent); and introducing technology that might ease workloads, such as tools that would reduce manual or administrative work (27 percent).
  • Lack of executive support (cited by 14 percent of respondents) and lack of organizational vision (13 percent) were two more obstacles to improving retention in 2017.

Schawbel and Lombardi said "lack of executive support" encompasses both lack of investment in retention as well as a disconnect between how executives view their workers' engagement and how engaged workers really are.

"Employees and their managers need the support of executives to relieve them of burnout because they approve policies that enable employees to get more vacation days and limit time outside of the office doing work," Schawbel said. "If [HR] had the funding, they could invest in an onsite gym, meditation classes, compensation increases [and] social events."

Said Lombardi: "Often there is a disconnect between a senior leader in their desire to 'put people first' and what actually gets executed. In a study we did recently, we found that 53 percent of senior leaders felt that performance expectations were clearly communicated, but only 34 percent of the rest of the organization agreed. Forty-four percent of leaders felt that there was a clear, cohesive understanding of the organization's culture, but just 28 percent of the rest of the organization felt the same way."

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