Famously coined “hustle culture” by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, there has been a recent trend in the workplace of glamorizing hard work, long hours, the “always-on” attitude, and a lack of work-life balance. However, with the rise of hustle culture has come a corresponding uptick in employee burnout. First recognized by Herbert Freundenberger in 1974, burnout refers to the state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion brought on by consistently pushing oneself to and beyond limitations. The three central drivers of employee burnout are exhaustion, engagement, and efficacy. While Mr. Ohanian refers to hustle culture specifically within the context of the start-up and technology community (where employees are greeted with Instagram-friendly neon signs reading Thank God It’s Monday “T.G.I.M.”,), hustle culture has become prevalent in a multitude of industries including healthcare, financial services, professional services, and NGOs.
Burnout affects both employee well-being and organizational efficiency. For employees, tying ideas of happiness and personal success to how deeply one commits to intensive work can result in destroying personal connections, disregarding self-care, and ultimately burnout. Perpetual burnout often leads to poorer decision-making abilities, decreases in employee health, more aggressive leadership, lower employee productivity, and an increase in employee turnover. According to a recent study, 46% of HR leaders say employee burnout is responsible for up to half of annual workforce turnover.
The costs of burnout can be significant. For example, burnout in positions requiring a high level of concentration such as physicians and industrial workers can put lives at risk. In a recent study conducted by Stanford University, researchers found that physician burnout is at least equally responsible for medical errors as unsafe medical workplace conditions. Through the study, researchers discovered that physicians who reported symptoms of burnout had more than twice the odds of a self-reported medical error, indicating that physician burnout influences quality of care, patient safety, and patient satisfaction. Additionally, burnout can cause material financial losses for companies. A recent HBS study estimated that burnout costs the healthcare system an estimated $4.6 billion a year in billings from reduced hours, physician turnover, and expenses from hiring and firing.
Burnout has been recognized as a workplace phenomenon since 1974, but in May 2019, the World Health Organization officially classified burnout as a syndrome. The WHO defined burnout as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. This decision lends further credence to the rising prevalence of the issue. As Forbes argues, the WHO’s new definition brings a sense of urgency to the issue.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently proposed clear steps employers can take to change their organizational structure and culture to reduce employee burnout, arguing for a broad, organizational approach to combatting burnout rather than a talent management or individual approach. HBR recommends companies bring greater discipline to time management, avoid micromanaging, and give employees a sense of autonomy over their workdays, as removing productivity drains allow employees to feel more effective and fulfilled. Further, HBR recommends companies establish new cultural norms around time and boundary-setting, making it clear that employees’ time is a precious resource and that working extra hours to get ahead will not be rewarded. Leaders should further reevaluate the attributes they look for in employees, avoiding words such as “resilient,” which suggest an employee should be able to cope with or avoid burnout and other work-related stresses on their own. Beyond cultural shifts, HBR recommends leaders track key human capital statistics such as employee engagement, absences, and turnover, which serve as indirect indicators for which employees or job functions are most at-risk for burnout. Increased transparency between employers and their workforce can allow for companies to take proactive measures in addressing and preventing employee burnout.