Employee burnout continues to challenge workplaces across industries and around the world. According to Forbes magazine, a global study found about 70% of employees had experienced burnout over the past 12 months.

Burnout isn’t a new concept, but solutions remain elusive. And the need for answers is clear. Burnout’s hallmark signs of exhaustion, stress and disengagement negatively impact employees and organizations. Employees suffer from lower engagement, performance, morale and well-being. Employers suffer from increased mistakes, miscommunications and turnover.

An ongoing obstacle is that responses to burnout tend to be reactive rather than preventive. Let’s examine how to proactively tackle employee burnout through job design and culture.

A proactive approach

Inc. magazine reports many workplace resources provide coping mechanisms after burnout has set in. Research in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) notes workplace wellness programs and self-care resources are effective for enhancing other health factors but are ineffective for addressing burnout.

HBR research further states burnout is an organizational matter, not an individual issue. Examining job designs and office culture is essential for addressing the root cause and preventing burnout.

Experts recommend the following steps to reduce burnout:

  • Set clear duties and responsibilities.
  • Provide autonomy and flexibility.
  • Recognize and reward employees.
  • Create a supportive culture.

Clear duties and responsibilities

The concept of a “manageable” workload may differ by organization and employee. Frequent check-ins can capture feelings, ensure employee responsibilities are fair and catch early signs of burnout, according to the news site Business.com.

Job designs for long-term sustainability include:

  • A mix of deep work and focused time
  • Opportunities for collaboration and socializing
  • Time for planning and reflection, especially after busy periods

Though the definition of manageable is subject to individual differences, HBR research highlights some universal attributes contributing to job burnout. Researchers recommend avoiding workload mismatches such as high demands but little time or few resources, or high expectations but low rewards.

Autonomy and flexibility

Employees crave autonomy. Lack of control over work duties and schedules increases the risk of burnout.

According to HBR, offering flexibility around when, where and how to work gives employees a sense of control and competence. Flexibility is a critical component. There isn’t a single solution for all employees because preferences about when and where to work differ.

Research suggests autonomy is more effective than assigned flexibility. For example, directing employees on a hybrid schedule to be in the office for set hours on the same days won’t deliver the same results as allowing employees to choose the days and times that best fit their schedules.

Autonomy and flexibility also enhance work-life balance, another essential factor in preventing burnout. Supervisors can reinforce this balance by encouraging daytime breaks and paid time off to recharge. Business.com notes it’s not enough to offer time off. Leaders must also promote and model work-life boundaries and time away from work.

Rewards and recognition

Another critical element for warding off burnout is positive feedback, reports Inc. Rewards and recognition increase engagement and job satisfaction.

However, recognition must be appropriate to employee effort and output. Giving the same recognition regardless of effort or providing equal rewards despite unequal contributions leads to feelings of unfairness. This sentiment breeds resentment and detachment, which lowers employee engagement and increases the risk of burnout.

Bonuses and salary increases can reduce financial worries, another critical factor for psychological health. But rewards don’t have to be monetary. Opportunities for professional development, such as online courses and educational conferences, reward employees for hard work and help them build knowledge and skills.

Public acknowledgment of effort through company communications can also be a reward or incentive. Again, fairness is paramount. Use similar criteria and measurements when delivering bonuses, promotions and public recognition.

A supportive culture

A strong workplace culture enhances the employee experience and reinforces the job designs noted above. Top workplaces promote psychological safety, belonging and fun. In this type of culture, employees enjoy being at work, experiment without fear of mistakes, trust their teammates and connect to the organizational mission.

Culture starts with executive leadership and supervisors. Respect and civility affect employee perceptions and business outcomes, according to the human resources association SHRM. Employees who say their workplace is civil are significantly more likely to feel a sense of belonging, be satisfied with their job and want to stay with the organization.

The employee-manager relationship is one of the best tools for preventing burnout, according to the industry news site BenefitsPRO. More than 30% of employees cited a strong supervisor as the most important motivator for doing their job. Leaders build trust, professional development, autonomy and inclusion. When examining your culture, ensure managers have proper training and deliver real-world results.

Regular employee feedback can help you monitor cultural trends. Train managers to hold open dialogues with their teams and one-on-one reports to gauge employee health and engagement. Use pulse surveys and suggestion boxes to gather anonymous input. It’s important to include anonymous options so employees speak honestly without fear of reprisal. Report back to employees about their ideas for improving jobs and the overall culture. Be open to adapting and fine-tuning strategies based on employee input, and communicate changes resulting from feedback.

More information

For more strategies on addressing employee burnout, talk to your benefits adviser. They can help you examine job designs, rewards programs, employee surveys and workplace best practices to prevent burnout and improve employee well-being.