How Internal Communications Influence Employee Burnout
July 21, 2023
Since employee burnout impacts everyone differently, it’s common to compartmentalize it as a personal affliction. In reality, burnout is a far-reaching and multifaceted issue that intentional, effective internal communications can dramatically impact.
In recent years, mental health in the workplace has become better studied and understood. Of course, some team members will have their own personal struggles with mental health. But burnout is often institutional, not personal.
For professionals who have built their careers in office environments, this concept is relatively new. For decades, workers were expected to simply take a coffee break or plan a vacation. While breaks, both short and long, are integral to productivity and positive attitudes, they're not enough.
The stress of daily life both in and out of the workplace is simply greater than it’s ever been. The coronavirus pandemic overshadowed many people's personal and professional lives for nearly three years. In 2021, nearly half of surveyed Americans reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. This suggests an overall fragile foundation for mental health that is exacerbated by day-to-day workplace stress.
It is no surprise, then, that reports of burnout have risen as well. In 2022, a shocking 59% of all American workers experienced moderate, high, or very high levels of burnout, according to a study by the insurance group Aflac. Burnout impacts women more than men and younger employees more than older ones, while Hispanic people and people who are juggling more than one job feel it most of all.
With this worrisome uptick in burnout, human resources professionals and senior leaders alike now recognize that internal communications can dramatically impact how employees feel during the workday. What employees hear from management can help or hurt their mental state, and improving employees' mental state is the basis for productivity and success within any industry.
Job satisfaction is directly correlated to self-reported feelings of burnout. Employees with low or no burnout report 80% job satisfaction, and just 55% of those with high burnout report being satisfied with their work, according to the Aflac report.
Burnout makes people more likely to look for another job and less likely to be productive in their current position. With this in mind, it’s worth making the effort to understand exactly what burnout entails, what causes it, and what can be done to reduce it within your team.
What Is Burnout?
In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout to be an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition, defining it as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The symptoms of burnout include:
- Feeling exhausted and depleted of energy
- Negative thoughts or cynicism related to the job
- Feelings of stress or being overwhelmed
- Increased “mental distance” from work tasks
- Being less able to complete assignment work
But burnout doesn’t just exist within individuals. It’s a systemic, cultural concern that has little to do with the coping skills or resiliency of any particular team member. For example, managers who haven’t been trained in compassionate, nonviolent communication may be completely unaware of how their words are heard and processed. Chronic trickle-down stress is a shortcut to burnout on a pervasive level.
The ensuing lack of motivation and negativity associated with burnout create an institutional problem of toxic behavior in the workplace, explained Tessa West, the author of “Jerks at Work” in a recent McKinsey interview. Her research found that when C-suite leaders address burnout, they often address toxicity as a systemic symptom as well.
While burnout is a cultural effect, it isn’t unique to the United States. In a 2022 McKinsey report, four out of five human resource directors from international businesses said that mental health and well-being were the top priorities of their organizations. The global workplace and seemingly endless productivity expectations for many corporations have ramped up burnout in nearly every industry. The hospitality and food service, manufacturing, healthcare, education, construction, retail, transportation, marketing, public administration, legal, and even recreation industries reported more than 65% employee burnout in 2019, according to Statista.
However, U.S. workers are some of the most stressed in the globe, according to Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report. The result of this burnout is frequently described as the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” which the Gallup poll found that the majority of workers have done. Quiet quitting means that the employee is still physically at their desk but has psychologically disengaged. Almost six in ten workers — basically the same percent as those who say they feel burnout — just stop caring.
Leading Causes of Employee Burnout
Every HR professional knows about the “Great Resignation” of the last few years, during which millions of employees weren’t so quiet when they quit their jobs without accepting new positions elsewhere in their industry. Their reasons for quitting weren’t focused on salary or even overall satisfaction with their industry, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.
It turns out that more and more employees quit because they simply became disengaged from their workplace. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens when an employee experiences even moderate levels of burnout. When leaders don’t cultivate a culture that supports mental health and addresses the root causes of burnout, they create vulnerabilities to higher turnover and a lower bottom line.
The World Health Organization reports the following as causes of burnout:
Workplace stress is an ongoing epidemic, with 44% of employees in the world reporting in Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace poll that they experienced a lot of stress at some point during their previous day of work. A major reason for that is a workload that simply can’t be completed as expected.
Heavy workload often goes hand-in-hand with insufficient staffing levels. Employees are less likely to take regular breaks when they feel that they must accomplish more than is possible in a day. In addition, responsibilities may be unevenly distributed, with some team members picking up others' slack.
Having realistic expectations for employees can sometimes require offering a flexible schedule or remote work environment, and not every company culture encourages this. A hybrid work environment is at least worth considering: a 2022 McKinsey study found that 87% of workers jump at the chance to have a flexible work arrangement.
It’s one thing to feel the burden of impossible expectations, and another to not even understand what the expectations even are. A Gallagher study on internal communications in 2023 found that about half of the surveyed employers thought that the members of their team understood the strategy, vision, and purpose of the organization. It's crucial that internal communications are clear and direct so as to effectively guide employees.
What’s more, employees need to be held to consistent levels of accountability. This includes individualized performance reviews that are focused on solutions rather than punitive consequences. Team members need to be given the opportunity to pivot and excel, and that requires them to receive clear instruction that can set them up for success.
Discussions with any employee, from C-level executives to interns, must always be a two-way communication. When concerns arise, difficult conversations can be emotionally defused when they are direct and focus on the long-term success of every person on the team. Listening is a critical communication skill that can be easily lost when work deadlines or crises arise.
Lack of training
Employees who aren’t adequately trained for the tasks that are assigned to them are far more likely to feel exhausted and depressed. Senior leaders are responsible for proposing and implementing a training schedule, and it’s important to leave an open door for training suggestions from within the team. The individual workplace will determine whether in-person training or online training, which is more accessible to hybrid environments, is best.
While there is available training specific to each industry, training to reduce burnout could entail a focus on coping strategies. However, it isn't enough to simply teach employees to prioritize their health. Mindfulness and exercise are part of a long-term strategy to reduce burnout, but these methods put the responsibility back on the employee. Burnout, however, is a systemic problem.
Consider the corporate cultural expectation surrounding email. Do company leaders applaud workers who immediately answer emails, even during after-work hours? Or are employees discouraged from working when they are not at work? This is just one example of how tricky it is to maintain an appropriate balance between work and non-work.
Companies can offer incentives for employees to engage in a healthy lifestyle filled with hobbies that release stress and keep them away from the tasks of the workday during non-work time. Organizing walks, volunteering opportunities, and social activities can strengthen teams and remind employees of the value of social relationships for better mental health.
You can make time spent at work more pleasant as well. Work-life balance improves when team members receive added benefits that support their needs. For example, a simple coffeemaker serving a great cappuccino in the break room will save some people the time it takes to wait in line at Starbucks. A locker room with a shower may make it more likely for employees to ride their bicycles to work. Ask employees what would make the work environment better for them and be open to their ideas.
Missing workplace support network
The workplace can be a place of group support to enhance energy rather than drain it. Weak teams with managers who never make time for enjoyment operate in a chronically stressful environment, and disengagement and lowered productivity are almost inevitable.
Workplace support networks can come in many different forms, but they start with a focus on what is known as social capital. Enhanced relationships - the kind that let struggling employees seek help and advance within the organization - start with intentional internal communications.
Employees might inherently have less experience and wisdom than their managers or C-suite leaders, but that doesn’t mean they should never be involved in decision-making. The more autonomy a team member has, the more valued they will feel. How people feel about their job is nearly four times more important than work location when it comes to chronic stress, according to the Gallup poll.
Remember, trust is a two-way street, so communication must be as well.
Poor conflict resolution
The American Institute of Stress found that 42% of surveyed professionals said that yelling and verbal abuse was common at their workplace. Ten percent reported that there was physical violence on the job due to stress, and another 29% said they yelled at a coworker because they were stressed on the job. One in four said they had been to tears by workplace stress.
Individual mental and neurological disorders notwithstanding, the cause for these types of behavior is generally a toxic work culture. Managers and even fellow employees must be reminded never to turn a blind eye to bad behavior. Employees who work 12-hour days and skip lunch due to job demands — and over half report that they do — should be encouraged to rest. Otherwise, they risk the emotional overwhelm of burnout, which frequently leads to conflict.
Finally, while burnout is an institutional concern, some employees are at greater risk. Work-focused consultations with managers who are trained to listen can help organizations identify team members who may require extra support. Everyone can benefit from training on how to be more adaptable and resilient, and many employee insurance plans include mental health benefits.
How Internal Communications Can Help
Wellness programs that include yoga classes or gym memberships can help alleviate symptoms of burnout, but these measures alone are not enough. The misconception is that if employees take better care of themselves, they will not feel so overwhelmed at work. When leaders understand the underlying role that internal communications play in burnout, they see that much of the responsibility rests with them.
A 2023 Gallagher poll found that 74% of employers believe the purpose of internal communications is to create a positive working environment. Internal communication is a tool to combat burnout on an institutional level. In all messages to employees, the underlying values of belonging and support should be clear.
Focus on these qualities when crafting communications:
Authentic communication can be defined as messages that are true to the sender’s character beyond the role they play within the organization. It can feel challenging to speak “from the heart” without fear of upsetting anyone. The way to be authentic and effective in preventing employee burnout is to enhance your emotional intelligence.
When employees feel like internal communications were written by robots, they might think that their managers care for them just as much as a robot would. But when there is compassion, empathy, vulnerability, and joy expressed through internal communications, team members will feel seen and respected. Personalized, thoughtful, and honest communication can play a powerful role in helping employees get out from under the thumb of chronic stress.
Communication requires two sides: the speaker and the listener. If internal communications are always one-way, you risk employees feeling like they’re being lectured to rather than engaged with. The solution to a clogged feedback loop starts with recognizing that you must actively seek out the thoughts of the team and go beyond passive listening.
Ensure that there are avenues in place for employees to feel comfortable sharing, whether digitally or in face-to-face opportunities. Then, eliminate the barriers that make employees hesitant to discuss whatever concerns them. A culture that supports transparency and openly encourages discussion will make it easier to recognize when employees feel overburdened or overwhelmed.
Internal communications can lean one of two ways. Either messages support employees and make them feel safe to share their ideas, or they do not. Proclamations from above are an old-fashioned, even paternalistic style of communicating, yet they are still used in workplaces around the globe. To create a more psychologically safe environment, focus on what is known as an employee journey.
Just as marketing and sales executives brainstorm an idea around a customer journey, human resource professionals can create a map of the journey for each individual member of the team. Understanding their long-term professional goals, their concepts of success, and the challenges they face as they grow within their careers encourages a safe, supportive atmosphere that helps to eliminate burnout.
With each step in the journey, from recruitment to hiring, training, and productivity, there are internal communication opportunities. Keep it human-focused and let employees know that the company values them as people, not as cogs in the machine.
Modern understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion in workplace dynamics is dramatically different than it was in previous generations. It was barely 50 years ago that a woman, Katharine Graham, first earned a CEO spot in a Fortune 500 firm. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community still struggle to feel included in many professional environments. This makes these groups more sensitive to burnout.
Internal communications can either make employees feel welcome or even more marginalized. For example, five years ago, the Associated Press made a change to its famously strict style to allow journalists to use the singular “they” for people who identify with a non-binary concept of gender. Do your messages to staff presume that everyone on the team uses “he” or “she” pronouns? If so, a simple change could help increase feelings of inclusion.
Does your team cringe when a meeting is called, for fear that pointed concerns or other bad news is the subject? If all internal communications focus on criticism, no matter how constructive, the bias will always shift toward the negative and lead in the direction of burnout.
Instead, internal communication teams can create opportunities to celebrate the wins within the organization, big or small. Milestones such as birthdays, work anniversaries, and new hires can and should be shared with everyone. Announce formal praise of a job well done so that the employees involved can take a well-deserved bow. Internal communications can even be an opportunity for coworkers to practice gratitude with each other by sharing their appreciation for help on a project or other means of support. Let your team members know they matter.
Hybrid workplaces are now commonplace for many industries, but that doesn’t necessarily make internal communications any simpler. However, when leaders allow for schedule flexibility and trust that employees will complete tasks as assigned from whatever location is best for them, trust develops.
After all, the reason so many employees prefer a flexible schedule is because it allows them the space to simply be human. Company culture can support this as well. Give employees the autonomy they deserve as professionals as they navigate their individual approaches to overcoming the challenges of life. Create and share new flex work policies that make sense for your company.
Burnout Impacts Everyone
Finally, keep in mind that burnout doesn’t just happen to customer-facing employees or middle managers forced to balance competing interests. The overwhelming feeling of working too much is a concern for leadership, too. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index in 2022 reported that 53% of managers also felt burned out. Toxic work culture and employee burnout don’t only trickle down.
This is why a focus on internal communication as a means of emotional and psychological support is so important for the long-term success of any organization. Leaders and team members need to work together and encourage each other to not only get the job done but to excel on an individual level. Consider it an investment in the most important resource the company has.
No matter where a company begins its journey toward a mentally healthier culture, it’s possible to improve the intentional, mindful nature of internal communications. Start by rethinking any recent messages within the context of whether they are more likely to increase or decrease burnout. The best way to cure a work culture that leads to burnout is to take the steps to avoid it in the first place.