The real cost of burnout in the workplace

The emotional exhaustion of burnout frequently comes with disengagement from work. | Freepik

The emotional exhaustion of burnout frequently comes with disengagement from work. | Freepik

Published Jul 8, 2024


Prof Renata Schoeman

ACCORDING to the latest Gallup report, 36% of the South African workforce experience excessive daily stress, with more than 71% either disengaged or actively disengaged at work – some of the more alarming signs of burnout.

This is not surprising considering that according to the Mental State of the World Report, South Africa, with a mental health quotient of 50, ranks 69 out of 71 countries and has the greatest percentage of distressed or struggling respondents (35%).

Studies have found that the dedicated and committed are particularly prone to burnout – a state of emotional, mental and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. The condition is classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization because of its debilitating impact on productivity, bottom-line profitability and the overall health of workers, especially top achievers.

A study found that up to two-thirds have experienced burnout, with the majority saying that companies are not doing enough to prevent the condition. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that should not be confused with the daily stressors of everyday personal life responsibilities. It is a persistent feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion that frequently comes with pessimism and disengagement from work. The main cause is usually an imbalance of demands and resources: what is expected of you at work versus the availability of time, finances, training, support systems, mentorship and other resources needed for you to do your job.

Another contributing factor can be conflicting values. This can either be a mismatch between your personal values and the organisational values, or a mismatch between the officially stated values of the organisation and those values in action.

Detrimental impact

Burnout could and should be avoided. When left unmanaged, the monetary and non-monetary cost of burnout to the economy, businesses and individuals is unacceptably high.

Health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions cost the South African economy R161 billion per year due to lost days of work, presenteeism (being at work but unwell), reduced productivity, high employee turnover and premature mortality.

It’s important to note the difference between fatigue and burnout. Feeling tired is a natural state of wanting sleep or rest. Although fatigue can be a symptom of burnout, sometimes you are just tired – nothing more. In this instance, rest is helpful by sleeping, taking a break, doing something that brings you pleasure or taking a holiday.

The best defence for burnout is to limit the possibility from the start. This can be achieved by practicing self-care every day - including getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy, and participating in leisure, creative or mindful activities.

In the workplace, there are numerous strategies that can be employed to manage burnout.

Recognise performance

Although high-performers expect to work hard and are willing to do so, they do not thrive when taken for granted. Acknowledge high-performers with tangible rewards such as bonuses, promotions or additional vacation days.

Public recognition can also boost morale and motivation.

Avoid imbalance

Managers often make decisions and allocate assignments based on certain biases. Being aware of the reasoning behind why you are delegating a particular person can help you avoid over-using the top performer.

• Similarity bias: “I’ll give the task to the person who shares my view on the subject.”

• Expedience bias: “I assume this person has the most capacity for this task.”

• Experience bias: “I think this person completed a similar task before.”

• Distance bias: “This person is already on the phone with me, so I’ll just ask them.”

• Safety bias: “I don’t feel I can trust anyone else for this task.”

Support and resources

Provide high-achievers with professional development opportunities as well as support to help manage their workload and stress.

Ensure there is adequate access to mental health resources - and actively encourage their use.

Work-life boundaries

An organisational culture of overwork and a belief that working long hours is a sign of dedication and commitment can lead to a cycle of overworking. Employees – and high-performers in particular - feel pressure to meet these expectations in order to be seen as valuable employees.

Management should promote policies that support healthy work-life balance and boundaries, such as flexible working hours and remote work options. In addition, employees should be encouraged to take breaks and use their annual leave.

Open communication

A culture of open communication should be fostered by creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable discussing their workload and stress levels.

Managers should also conduct regular check-ins with high-achievers – not only those who “struggle” – to help identify and address issues before they escalate.

Tailored development

  • Rotate high-performers across different projects and roles to not only provide them with new challenges and learning opportunities, but also to vary their workload
  • Invest in high-performers with personalised plans that can enrich their career goals and personal well-being.
  • Encourage delegation – When allowing high-performers to delegate tasks, they will not only be able to manage their workload better, but will also be able to up-skill members of the team.

Schoeman is head of Healthcare Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School