Powering Strong Communities

Confronting Employee Burnout

With the added stressors and uncertainty from the past few years, more attention is being paid to how employees — particularly frontline workers — may be experiencing burnout. For utility workers, burnout might stem from a constant pressure to perform or meet expectations, such as trying to ensure the highest reliability, feeling a need to improve customer service or call times, or a drive to keep outage times low.

Burnout is common — a survey from Catalyst suggests that 88% of workers have experienced some level of burnout, and 60% reported high levels of burnout.

The World Health Organization put out a definition for burnout in 2019 as a “phenomenon” of unmanaged chronic workplace stress characterized by exhaustion, cynicism or negativity toward one’s job, and reduced productivity. Notably, the WHO clarified that burnout is not a medical condition, but can be a factor behind underlying health conditions.

But burnout can lead to serious consequences. Prolonged burnout can spur depression, anxiety or substance abuse disorders. When an employee is burned out, the organization may suffer. Potential effects include a higher likelihood of safety violations, diminished productivity, decreased morale, and increased negativity in the workplace. There is also a direct financial cost. A Gallup survey found that employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to call out sick, and 2.6 times as likely to seek a different job. Lost productivity from workplace stress is estimated to cost employers in excess of $190 billion annually.

Organizations must change from thinking of burnout as an individual employee issue to thinking about it as a workplace problem, said Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic and keynote speaker at APPA’s 2021 Business and Financial Conference. She recommends organizations look inward to assess why the work environment lacks conditions for employees to flourish and to determine how to make it safe.

For employees such as lineworkers and plant operators, who must be available around the clock, simply changing a worker’s hours or allowing an individual to take a few days off to rest does not address the underlying problems, which could include a mismatch of the employee’s skills and the role, or a feeling of being under-appreciated. In addition to considering flexibility for the employee, supervisors might want to consider how an employee’s roles can adjust to better fit individual skills or interests (and support another utility need), or how they might recognize employee efforts in a new or meaningful way.

Naz Beheshti, author of Pause. Breathe. Choose: Become CEO of Your Wellness, suggests that employers can combat burnout by involving employees in collaborative discussions, which can foster a sense of increased autonomy, and model transparency and fairness in making decisions. Public power organizations can strive to support a community connection and reinforce the shared values of the organization’s mission.

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health offers a suite of resources for employers on how to combat burnout in the workplace. The organization suggests surveying employees about factors that may be contributing to burnout and then creating a team to develop an action plan for addressing the identified factors.