Workplace Burnout and How it Affects Safety

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Over the past two years, amongst other important issues facing our country we have seen a decline in the workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies and leaders are facing employee issues they previously may not have encountered. On top of employers facing difficulty finding reliable help, they are now dealing with additional issues retaining current employees.

With the demand to push productivity and meet deadlines, employers are finding that with a declining workforce, current staff may be becoming overworked and burnt out. Survey statistics show that since the start of the pandemic 75% of workers have experienced burnout, with 40% saying they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic (FlexJobs). 67% of all workers believe burnout has worsened over the course of the pandemic (Indeed).

The effects are not only limited to entry-level employees. Supervisors, foreman, superintendents, and project managers are just as likely, if not slightly more so, to suffer frequent or constant burnout than individual contributors (26% of managers vs. 24% of individual contributors – Gallup). This is due to the added responsibilities of managing a declining workforce along with the responsibilities and other duties that come management positions.

What is Employee Burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies employee burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Some symptoms may include the feelings of exhaustion, expressions of negativity towards their career, the use of more personal or sick days, and not meeting productivity goals.

How Does Worker Burnout Affect Safety?

When employees are overworked, they may experience low morale which can be attributed to both a heavy workload and extended time away from family. Another effect can be attendance issues, which in turn can have a ripple effect on a crew. As you know, when employees call out sick, others often must pick up the slack. This may cause tension in the ranks as well as add to the stress of employees who may already feel over worked.

When an employee is overworked, they may pay less attention to detail and just “go through the motions” to make it through the day. This can lead to poor job performances and worse, may also create unsafe working conditions. A combination of these situations can be catastrophic when working in an already dangerous profession. Unchecked, these factors can result in accidents, injuries, and even fatalities.

Who is Responsible?

The above factors bear consideration: who is ultimately responsible if someone is injured when it involves an employee who is overworked and suffering from burnout? Who is liable? Since company leadership is responsible for maintaining a safe work environment – which includes recognizing employee burnout, the ultimate responsibility for any resulting injuries or fatalities falls on that same leadership.

How to Reduce Employee Burnout

Recognizing and have a plan for employee burnout should be a priority for companies. Some things to consider when putting together a plan are:

  • Improve Communications: Letting your employees know that you recognize how hard they are working and keeping them informed can lead to a more positive working environment. Having honest and frequent communications from leadership can help your employees know what is expected and plan for the future.
  • Employee Work-Life Balance:
    o Remaining flexible and respecting an employee’s home life and time away from work can significantly improve that employee’s view of the job. Particularly since the beginning of the pandemic, technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives and many of us fail to disconnect from work, even after hours. If an email or text can wait, pass the information along during working hours.
    o By establishing boundaries and ensuring that employees have family time, you can expect generally better performance when they are on the clock.
    o Consider rewarding a job will done and wrapping up early on a Friday to show appreciation for your people’s hard work. Remaining flexible and accommodating when possible relies on the judgement of the front-line supervisors, so listen to what they have to say.
    o Encourage your employees to unplug during scheduled time-off and when taking breaks throughout the day.
    o Emphasize the importance of your people taking mental breaks from work and encourage them to disengage during nonworking hours.
  • Consider Offering Mental Health and Wellness Benefits and Resources: Whether its posting communications about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or communicating these resources during Safety Briefing meetings, this step can greatly improve your employees’ perspective about work.

While nothing listed above is revolutionary, taking steps to proactively combat workplace burnout can vastly improve your personnel’s wellbeing, positively impact their outlook on work which, in turn, can result in enhanced performance and reduced workplace burnout.

At a time when every good employee matters, it’s worth putting in the extra effort to limit the burden your people experience. Consider it an investment in retention because that’s just good business.

Mike Flowers is Director of Safety, Training and Education for National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA).

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