How Does Burnout Affect Productivity?

Most employees will have an off day at work now and then; that’s normal. However, the effects of burnout run deeper than the occasional off day at work.

Burnout negatively affects productivity at both organizational and personal levels. On a personal level, it does that by reducing motivation, problem-solving ability, and attention span. For the organization as a whole, it lowers productivity by reducing employee retention, output, and engagement.

Read on to learn more about burnout, the different ways it can affect productivity for both individual members of the workforce and the organizations as a whole, and some of the most effective ways to fight it.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a unique form of work-related stress. It creates a state of emotional and sometimes physical exhaustion that’s often accompanied by a lack of personal identity and a crippling sense of reduced accomplishment.

In the workplace, this form of chronic stress may be mistaken for procrastination, difficulty collaborating with colleagues, lack of enough sleep, or loss of dedication and interest in work. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The WHO recently recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon, defining it as a syndrome resulting from inadequate management of chronic workplace stress.

One of the main reasons burnout is hard to spot is that it manifests in various symptoms that resemble those of laziness or mental conditions such as anxiety and depression. To determine whether someone is experiencing burnout, look out for the following symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Higher susceptibility to illness
  • Feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, loneliness, and anger
  • Increased irritability and apathy
  • Cynicism towards one’s job

How Burnout Affects Productivity at a Personal Level

In a workplace setting, burnout negatively affects productivity and both personal and organizational levels. At a personal level, burnout reduces productivity by creating cognitive deficiencies that make it hard to perform at a high level at the workplace. Such cognitive deficiencies include:

  • A reduced attention span
  • Total absent-mindedness
  • Reduced problem-solving capability
  • Lack of motivation/ a negative attitude towards work

There’s a growing body of research demonstrating the negative correlation between burnout and productivity. In a 2014 literature review that set out to investigate how burnout affects physicians, researchers found enough evidence to conclude that it decreases productivity. Elsewhere, a 2013 study found that burnout and stress negatively affected employee performance in a Botswana Power Corporation.

These are just two examples of the numerous studies that have found burnout to reduce individual employee performance. We could go on and on citing scientific evidence, but you get the point: burnout translates to lower performance at a personal level.

But is the effect the same at an organizational level?

How Burnout Affects an Organization’s Productivity

Employees are one of the main factors determining a company’s performance. However, they aren’t the only determinants, with other external and internal factors also chipping in. So, is a burnout-induced dip in the workforce’s performance significant enough to affect a company’s overall performance? As it turns out, yes.

Employee burnout can affect a company’s productivity in several ways:

  • By reducing the overall output quality and quantity of the organization’s workforce 
  • By increasing turnover rate
  • By reducing employee engagement

Let’s take a more in-depth look at how each effect of burnout contributes to a dip in organization performance.

Low Workforce Output Quality and Quantity

The well-being of each employee contributes to the workforce’s overall productivity. So when a significant chunk of an organization’s workforce suffers burnout, the company is likely to experience a reduction in the overall quality and quantity of output.

Numerous studies have found a link between employee well-being and the quality and quantity of output, as demonstrated in IZA’s review of relevant scientific evidence. In one of its many endeavors to investigate the relationship between employees’ well-being and productivity, the independent economic research institute set out to determine whether happy workers are more productive. Among its key findings were the facts that:

  • Being in a positive mood increases creativity in employees.
  • Positive emotions (AKA being happy) have a positive effect on an employee’s innovation capacity.
  • Experimental studies have found positive emotions improve memory in employees.
  • Positive emotions may improve an individual’s overall performance in the workplace.

The key takeaway here is that employees in a healthy mental state are likely to function at a higher level than their stressed-out counterparts. A healthy workforce is likely to put in more hours and be creative and innovative as they go about their business.

On the other hand, a burnout workforce is likely to do the bare minimum in terms of the hours put into productive tasks (or even struggle with that), meaning company goals and objectives will take longer to accomplish. It’s also low on creativity and innovation, two workforce elements critical to the success of many modern companies and small businesses.

A High Turnover Rate

Burnout is one of the main reasons behind staff attrition. A recent study found burnout to be one of the most significant contributing factors to turnover in primary care clinicians. Elsewhere, a study carried out by Kronos Inc., and Future Workplace found that 95% of HR leaders feel that burnout sabotages employee retention. To be precise, the key findings of the study were that:

  • 46% of HR leaders feel that burnout accounts for 20%-50% of the annual employee turnover.
  • About 10% of HR leaders feel burnout causes more than 50% of the annual workforce turnover.

Indeed, burnout is a significant threat to staff retention. Since burnout increases the turnover rate, it can negatively affect your organization’s overall productivity by:

  • Draining away valuable talent.
  • Increasing the cost of employee replacement, which robs the company thousands of dollars that would have otherwise been allocated to other income-generating endeavors.

Low Employee Engagement

In layman’s terms, employee engagement refers to how passionate employees are about their work and how committed they are to achieving organizational goals. Engaged employees are much more likely to go the extra mile to help steer your business forward, while a disengaged workforce can curtail its success.

Burnout reduces employee engagement. That means it reduces the workforce’s motivation and commitment, which translates to lower overall company productivity.

How To Address Employee Burnout: The Harvard Threes

Harvard researchers recently identified three key traits that are common in organizations with high rates of employee burnout:

  • Subpar time management practices
  • Excessive collaborations
  • A trend of overloading the best performers with too much work

If you’re guilty of doing any of these, you need to change a few things.

Understand that while collaboration may be great for creativity, endless decision making isn’t. If your employees’ schedule is already tight, don’t take up a significant chunk of their time with endless meetings and still expect them to meet deadlines. Also, carefully study how long it takes each employee to accomplish specific tasks and choose what you assign them based on their skillset and speed.

Lastly, avoid the common pitfall of overestimating how much work your best performers can handle. Your best talent may be able to complete a task twice faster than their colleagues, but that doesn’t mean they should be handling twice the workload. They might have the time and ability to do that, but it’ll inevitably lead to burnout.

Final Thoughts

We’ve established that burnout lowers productivity for both the affected employee and the company as a whole. Ultimately, it’s up to you as the business owner/manager to identify employees who’re struggling with this kind of work-related stress and make a few changes to your man-management to get them producing again. 

The key is to create a win-win situation for everyone, where employees are happy and the company benefits from their productivity.

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