Beating Burnout

Combatting the employee burnout crisis and maintaining workplace productivity

It’s something that can affect workplace productivity, employee engagement and retention, and, ultimately, organizational success. Some say it’s reaching crisis status at U.S. organizations.

Employee or workplace "burnout," as one definition puts it, is the loss of mental or physical strength and stamina due to stressors at work. It can make individuals feel unnecessary, worthless and apathetic,1 and can trigger a downward spiral in individual and organizational performance.

“If it’s not managed effectively over time, it can affect job performance,” said David Ballard, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Applied Psychology. “It can leave one feeling exhausted, unmotivated and ineffective on the job.”2

Psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, who first used the term “burnout” in the mid-1970s, identified the hallmarks of burnout as exhaustion resulting from the excessive demands of the job, and physical symptoms, such as headaches, sleeplessness and quickness to anger. The burned-out worker “looks, acts, and seems depressed,” he said.3

Burnout is a problem that many organizations tended to treat as a personal issue or a talent management issue. Now, however, many organizations are taking employee burnout much more seriously and considering it a broader organizational challenge because:4

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year recognized burnout as an official medical diagnosis, classifying it as an official syndrome related to chronic workplace stress that is unsuccessfully managed. Burnout is now included in WHO’s handbook that guides medical providers in diagnosing diseases.5
  • The Harvard Business School recently estimated that stress-related burnout may impose a healthcare cost of $125 billion to $190 billion a year in the United States alone.6 Another estimate says workplace stress is responsible for up to 8% of national spending on healthcare and contributes to 120,000 deaths a year.7
  • Recent employee engagement research by Gallup showed that nearly 80% of employees experience mild to severe burnout, and 40% experience moderate to severe burnout.8

What causes burnout?

Everyone has bad days from time to time, and mounting stresses are nothing new in the workplace. But what factors can cause burnout? Employers have a duty to see these signs, reduce the stressors that cause them, and make sure their employees remain happy and productive.

  • Unrealistic expectations. When both employees and supervisors overload on what work must get done, burnout can happen fast.
  • Micromanaging. Sometimes it’s a lack of control—whether real or perceived—that leads to feelings of helplessness and frustration. Managers can avoid this by empowering employees instead of micromanaging them. 
  • Poor instructions. Clear expectations are needed for job success. It’s not possible for anyone to complete a task without knowing what they are to do. Yet, many people will try anyway. They’re so eager to please that they stress themselves out over instructions they don’t understand. 
  • Isolation. People are already separated from their families while at work. If they’re separated from their colleagues, too, it can cause feelings of loneliness and depression.9

How do you identify someone is at risk for burnout?

  • Long hours. Those who burn the candle at both ends—time and time again. Sure, there will be days and weeks that require extra hours, but when that work arrangement is ongoing and becomes the new routine, it may become detrimental.
  • Everything is a priority. When employees start struggling in prioritizing tasks. “When somebody sees everything as being a really high priority, they don’t know what to minimize and they don’t know when to stop,” said Adam Goodman, director of the Center for Leadership at Northwestern University.10
  • Mood changes. When a typically chatty employee who often participates in meetings and is engaged and enthusiastic suddenly becomes unmotivated and quieter, that may be showing that their heart and soul are not into the work anymore.
  • Negativity. When a person becomes overly negative all the time without offering solutions, it could be a sign they are stuck in a rut, according to Ben Fanning, author of The Quit Alternative: The Blueprint for Creating the Job You Love Without Quitting.11 Expressing anger or sarcasm, and showing irritability, frustration, indifference or apathy also are red flags to watch for.
  • Ongoing problems. When a usually reliable and productive employee surprisingly makes repeated mistakes, has trouble concentrating or can’t get back into his or her regular rhythm of work, that might be a sign burnout is brewing.

What can management do?

People who are burned out need rest to recuperate and recharge. Can changing how employees are managed make a difference? Is better management a fix for workplace burnout? Here are four tips for managers to help employees avoid burnout:

  1. Encourage unplugging. If you have employees who can’t seem to get away and use their vacation hours, insist that they do. They often come back with fresh ideas and even more enthusiasm. In fact, it’s proven that vacations boost productivity. A study at the University of California showed that vacation time and downtime boost people’s resiliency to stress and germs.12 Another study shows that disconnecting from work on vacation helps make people more productive and engaged at work when they are there.13

    Managers also must set the tone when it comes to work-life balance. In other words, don’t be afraid to stress the importance of having a life: ask about outside-of-work activities, offer flexible work arrangements to help navigate busy schedules and exhibit the behavior you want to see.14
  1. Recognize good work. Building a culture of recognition can cause less employee turnover and better performance. It makes the work environment feel less stressful, more collegiate and more like every employee matters.15
  2. Encourage purposeful work. Having a purpose at work is crucial to employee happiness. According to a Gallup Poll, people don’t just work for a paycheck—they want to find meaning in what they do. It’s crucial for managers to show employees how their work affects the larger whole of the company and perhaps even the outside world.16

    Ocassionally, having team meetings to explain burnout and how to avoid it could help. Management should never belittle or reprimand someone who says they need a “mental-health” day.17

  1. Let off steam. Encourage activities at work that build camaraderie. Order some pizza every Friday for lunch or organize a happy hour. Play games during breaks. Encourage everyone to socialize. Even small, short spurts of these events can relieve some stress at work and can improve productivity.18

What can individuals do?

To become equipped to avoid burnout yourself or prevent it from spreading to colleagues, individuals should be mindful of these factors:

  • Keep your workload in the healthy range. In other words, keep an eye on the quantity, difficulty and emotionality of your work.
  • When your control on a project is limited, that can set off stressors and you can lose motivation. Monitor your control levels by staying aware of how motivated you are.
  • Workplace relationships are important. If there are conflicts and you don’t feel like your workplace community is strong and positive for you, perhaps a change of scenery is needed.
  • Do your organization’s values align with yours? If not, that may lead to dissatisfaction and frustration down the line. Assess this factor with your organization and be mindful whether you are detaching from your commitment to your job.19

A culture of well-being

Workplace burnout isn’t just an individual problem or an organizational problem. All sides must watch for signs of burnout and foster a culture of well-being.

“Employees have to take steps to have effective coping skills to manage stress,” said Ballard. “Employers can work to create an environment that is conducive to healthy employees: identifying stressors and reducing and eliminating them when they can and making sure they have health and management resources.”20

—compiled by Mark Edmund, associate editor


  1. Angela Roberts, “4 Tips for Managers on How to Avoid Employee Burnout,” Thrive Global, Aug. 28, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/tips-to-avoid-burnout.
  2. Kathryn Vasel, “Burnout Is a Big Deal. Here’s How Managers Can Spot It,” CNN Business, Sept. 9, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/burnout-big-deal.
  3. Kim I. Mills, “What You’re Probably Getting Wrong About Workplace Burnout,” Fast Company, Sept. 24, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/wrong-about-burnout.
  4. Eric Garton, “Employee Burnout Is a Problem With the Company, Not the Person,” Harvard Business Review, April 6, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/problem-with-company.
  5. Naz Beheshti, “Burnout Is Not What You Think It Is: How Leaders Can Confront the Three Faces of Burnout,” Forbes, Sept. 17, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/burnout-not-what-you-think.
  6. Garton, “Employee Burnout Is a Problem With the Company, Not the Person,” see reference 4.
  7. Michael Blanding, “National Health Costs Could Decrease if Managers Reduce Work Stress,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Jan. 26, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/reduce-work-stress.
  8. Carley Porter, “O.C. Tanner Culture Report Highlights How Workplace Culture Can Create or Prevent ‘Burnout,’” Daily Herald (Provo, UT), Sept. 19, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/create-prevent-burnout.
  9. Roberts, “4 Tips for Managers on How to Avoid Employee Burnout,” see reference 1.
  10. Vasel, “Burnout Is a Big Deal. Here’s How Managers Can Spot It,” see reference 2.
  11. Ben Fanning, The Quit Alternative: The Blueprint for Creating the Job You Love Without Quitting, JetLaunch, 2014.
  12. Emma Seppälä, “Three Science-Based Reasons Vacations Boost Productivity,” Psychology Today, Aug. 17, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/vacations-boost-productivity.
  13. Josh Fechter, “How to Guide Employees Through Burnout Healing,” Thrive Global, Sept. 12, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/burnout-healing.
  14. Vasel, “Burnout Is a Big Deal. Here’s How Managers Can Spot It,” see reference 2.
  15. Fechter, “How to Guide Employees Through Burnout Healing,” see reference 13.
  16. Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal, “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes,” Gallup Workplace, July 12, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/5-main-causes.
  17. Roberts, “4 Tips for Managers on How to Avoid Employee Burnout,” see reference 1.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Matt Plummer, “These Are the 6 Signs You’re Heading Toward Burnout, According to the Berkeley Professor Who Pioneered the Term,” Inc., Sept. 20, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/6-signs-burnout.
  20. Vasel, “Burnout Is a Big Deal. Here’s How Managers Can Spot It,” see reference 2.


Hamilton, Tina, “How to Avoid Employee Burnout and Increase Productivity,” The Morning Call, Sept. 11, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/avoid-employee-burnout.


November Marks a Global Celebration Of Quality

To celebrate the people and organizations that practice quality throughout the world, and commemorate quality successes, World Quality Month (WQM) will take place in November.

This year, ASQ has developed an online planning handbook to help you and your organization prepare WQM events and mark the occasion. Some examples include:

  • Printable WQM posters you can display in your workplace.
  • Include a note about it and the work of your quality department in your organization’s newsletter or on your intranet site.
  • Arrange a lunch-and-learn event about quality or WQM at your organization.

Visit asq.org/wqm to find out more about the celebration and access the guide, downloadable posters and banners, and other information and trivia you can use to celebrate quality during the 30 days of November.



The average salary earned by a regular full-time quality professional in the United States in 2019—and the first time the average salary has exceeded $95,000, according to this year’s annual QP Salary Survey. That’s a 1.3% increase over last year’s average salary for a full-time quality professional in the United States, which was $94,561. Look for all the 2019 results and analyses in December’s issue of QP.

Getting to know…

Josh Worthley

Current position: Instructor of dimensional inspection (metrology) at Danville Community College (DCC), Danville, VA.

Education: Autonomous systems network administration, system administration and network security degree from Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, SD. Associate of applied science degree in mechanical engineering technology from Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, IA.

What was your introduction to quality? While pursuing my IT degrees, my welder-turned-inspector father would bring me into his employer’s shop to help understand the computer side of their new FaroArm portable coordinate measuring machine. Soon after, I started as a part-time inspector myself, eventually going full-time after graduation.

Is there a teacher who influenced you more than others? Why? My high school geometry teacher, Mr. Haugen, opened my eyes to the practical use of math and encouraged experimentation instead of a laser focus on getting the correct answer.

Do you have a mentor who has made a difference in your career? Frank Sloup, former vice president of quality at Quatro Composites, always took the time to completely listen and guide. I’m forever grateful for his presence early in my career.

What is the best career advice you ever received? Find a career in which your greatest passion intersects your greatest strength. For me, that means teaching and training in the world of quality.

Any previous noteworthy jobs? Lead coordinate measuring machine programmer and continuous improvement lead at Quatro Composites, now known as AIM Aerospace.

What ASQ activities do you participate in? The Inspection Division, certified quality inspector (CQI) exam prep instructor, member of four surrounding ASQ sections, lead coordinator for the CQI apprenticeship program in which DCC dimensional inspection graduates can sit for the CQI test after graduation.

What activities or achievements outside of ASQ do you think are noteworthy? Leading the 29-credit Dimensional Inspection Career Studies Certificate program at DCC, including developing several online and hybrid classes.

Any recent awards or honors? Achieved my fifth ASQ certification—the Six Sigma Yellow Belt certification.

Personal: Married to Jessica for five years; two young sons, Sebastian and Atticus.

What are your favorite ways to relax? Listening to podcasts and stealing naps.

What books are you currently reading? Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card and Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry M. Prizant.

Do you have favorite blogs? I love the Gemba Academy blog, particularly posts by Jon Miller and Kevin Meyer. Their thoughtfulness and delivery is always so deliberate and genuine. They really make me think.

Are you active on social media? I subscribe to numerous YouTube channels but some of the more educational ones include This Old Tony, Engineering Explained, SciShow, QualityGurus, Matt Risinger, Mark Rober, SmarterEveryDay, and Farming Outside the Box.

Quality quote: Slow down and think through why you need the data.

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