If it feels like burnout may be increasing among employees, you are not imagining the trend. It has been growing for some time. In this article, I will outline the definition of "burnout" and a study that first documented it in July of 2018, and I will provide a 2020 update, along with some ideas from Doug Stephen of CGS on what to do about it in 2021.

In May, 2019, a year before the pandemic struck, the definition of "burnout" was changed in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). It is described as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. In other words, it is a reason that people contact health services, but not an illness or health condition.

Burnout is real

Burnout is defined as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

A year before that, in July 2018, the Gallup organization published results of a study that found 23% of employees reporting feelings of burnout at work "very often or always" and 44% reporting feeling burned out "sometimes".

These feelings likely increased during 2020 and are not likely to decrease in 2021, despite (or perhaps in spite of) many employees now working from home. There are consequences to this trend: absence, illness, and turnover. In addition, employees have less confidence in their own performance and are less likely to discuss performance goals with their managers.

Factors correlated with burnout

Here are the factors identified by Gallup as most highly correlated with burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Preventing burnout in 2021

I spoke with Doug Stephen, President Enterprise Learning Division, CGS, recently about burnout in various kinds of organizations in 2020, including healthcare, education, and manufacturing. Much of the increase in burnout during 2020 can be attributed to the effects of the pandemic and the results of isolation, working from home, and quarantine, but it's not just the obvious cases.

In healthcare, the reasons for burnout among doctors, nurses, and other professionals who provide direct care to COVID-19 patients are pretty apparent: stress, very long hours, and the feelings of lack of support from people in the community who are not following guidelines for minimizing the spread of the virus. However Doug says, "Frontline staff was overwhelmed. But we also see the effects on administrative support staff who were not allowed back into their locations, that had to keep things moving, who must now work from a distance, and who must also enforce protocols that require talking to colleagues across that same distance. On top of that, there just wasn't enough time to provide them with systematic training, so they were learning as they went. It was really a perfect storm of stress because it's critically important to get things done right. They had to do it immediately without a lot of guidance, and it was the first time they were exposed to this. Yet the demands were even greater. In a lot of cases, the burden comes from the fact that people have to make decisions and to make them quickly, but that can have very detrimental effects."

In manufacturing, Doug says for one customer the stress came with new products that were being released and that required support. "Until the right mechanism for training was identified, in this case augmented reality, filed services technicians were actually going to the clients facilities, manuals in hand, trying to repair the equipment; doing on the job training while customers were demanding that things get fixed faster. Things became much more stressful without proper support mechanisms and training to develop some level of confidence and background knowledge."

According to Doug, only 12% of desk-less employees received mentorship or wellness sessions and only 10% had access to conflict resolution or management training.

Asked about warning signs that those kinds of training or help are needed, Doug said, "We interviewed a lot of people on this and what we found is there weren't a lot of telltale signs, but there would be a tipping point where people just quit. People understood the importance of getting things done, but the time from deciding to quitting was just very, very tiny. You might see some signs ahead of time, absences, voicing concern, meeting with a manager, but that's another thing that we noticed, when it's time people move quickly. There's not a lot of those checks and balances that would normally be in the working environment."

What can organizations and their managers do in these times? Doug says, "What's really interesting is companies I can mention, like Blue Cross, put a major emphasis on being quick to the demand and anticipate the mental demands of their employees. They realized that support must be immediate and due to COVID employees could not easily get in to see a health practitioner. So they invested in 24-by-7 medical online medical support. Employees can talk without fear and can find someone understanding. I'm finding that those companies that took a proactive approach to providing these type of services when it's convenient to the employee, they're the ones that are really going to diminish some of the craziness and it will reduce burnout and enhance loyalty to the company. A win-win for both the employee and the employer. In regards to just in time training, what we saw when these frontline workers still had to work, the smart companies realized that the one device that was available to the vast majority of the people was the phone that the employee carried around. As the demands for these frontline workers increased you can't have them go through a lot of systematic training; but what you can do is make sure the steps people must follow are in a checklist. It takes a lot of stress off of the employee because now they can complete their tasks” step by step” without making mistakes. Another forward-thinking company that we work with is McDonald’s. They have always used the tablet, well before the pandemic, for training systematically just in time. That helped them pivot into delivery service and to do it right. If you want make training easy and accessible for the employee then a mobile-first solution is the key.

There's more that can be done

My discussion with Doug contained much more than I can include here, but these are the essential takeaway points for L&D. Provide managers with support that will help them spot potential issues and communicate with employees before the burnout begins. The references provided below from the Gallup organization will be a good start!


World Health Organization. 28 May 2019. Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Recovered December 29, 2020 from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

Wigert, Ben and Sangeeta Agrawal. July 12, 2018. Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes. Gallup Workplace. Recovered December 29, 2020 from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237059/employee-burnout=part-main-causes.aspx

Wigert, Ben and Sangeeta Agrawal. July 16, 2018. Employee Burnout, Part 2: What Managers Can Do. Recovered December 29, 2020 from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237119/employee-burnout-part-2-managers.aspx

Wigert, Ben and Sangeeta Agrawal. July 18, 2018. Employee Burnout, Part 3: How Organizations Can Stop Burnout. Recovered December 29, 2020 from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/237185/employee-burnout-part-3-organizations-stop-burnout.aspx

Gallup Organization. (2019) Re-engineering Performance Management. Recovered December 29, 2020 from https://news.gallup.com/reports/208811/re-engineering-performance-management.aspx