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When Stress Takes Over, Employee Burnout Can Set In

Sep 1, 2013
Originally published on September 1, 2013 5:16 pm

As Labor Day honors American workers, stress weighs on many. A changing world — and therefore a changing workplace — has many employees on the job and staring at screens for hours upon hours. Some have reached a breaking point.

John Challenger, CEO of workplace consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, diagnoses burnout. He tells NPR's Jacki Lyden stress can manifest emotionally, mentally or physically. "It can be combined with doubts about your confidence or the value of the work you do," he says.

Businesses can take a hit from burnout, too. At least one study indicates that U.S. businesses lose an estimated $300 billion a year to stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

The federal workforce is facing a particularly high turnover rate, according to Jeffrey Neal, who spent nearly 30 years working in human resources for the federal government.

"Federal employees have been beaten on pretty severely for the last several years. Federal employees haven't gotten a pay raise in more than three years. They are constantly being used as a political football," he says. "You're hearing these constant attacks on the federal workforce, and people are reacting to that. You can only take so much of it before it breaks your spirit."

Neal says federal retirements have increased every year for the last four years. Not only are older workers retiring more quickly, younger workers are also leaving.

"They're coming in, taking a look around, and saying, 'No, this isn't really for me,' " Neal says. "So not only are we losing the most experienced people at the upper end of the age ranges, we're losing a lot of the younger folks who really should be the future."

Moreover, agencies like the Small Business Administration require a specific skill set that takes training and support. "You may find the agency's ability to carry out its mission crippled by the lack of qualified personnel," Neal says.

During his time with the government, Neal says he used words like "burnout" and "crush."

"Because that's what's happening to folks. ... You can crack down on a workforce, and they will perform, for a while," he says. "And then the fatigue sets in. The frustration sets in. The anger sets in. And at some point, they just break. And then they leave."

So what's a company to do? Challenger says there may be some insight to gain from humans' cyclical emotions.

"We stay in one place and grow to the point where, all of a sudden, things are just too much the same," he says, "and there's burnout and change has to occur."

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Labor Day is tomorrow. And if you're lucky enough to be employed, does the labor part ever stop? The pruning by the Great Recession leaves those still standing susceptible to the disease of modern times. Burnout, that's our cover story today.

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LYDEN: Burnout, the invisible wipeout, is costing American businesses $300 billion a year. And us? What's it costing us?

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LYDEN: Eighty-eight thousand tweets, that's how many times David Roberts' trigger fingers texted. He spent the last decade plugged in, writing for the online environmental magazine Grist. He says his hands started twitching if he was away from his phone for more than 30 seconds. He started thinking in tweets - but no more. As of today, he's taking a year off, cold turkey.

DAVID ROBERTS: During the day, I'm sort of inundated by a constant stream of news and information and emails. And I deal with that, you know, sort of fire hose all day long. And then after my family comes home and we eat dinner and they all go to bed, I'm back online. It all works out well as long as I don't need, you know, enough sleep or any other hobbies or anything else in my life. It's basically - it is my life now.

LYDEN: So he's a lucky man. He's taking a year off to write a novel.

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LYDEN: A huge burnout factor we all know is how wired we've become. You can work from anywhere at any time on a global cycle. Efficient, right? Stay up all night working on that mountaintop. But as we mentioned, U.S. businesses lose some $300 billion a year due to stress, the most common cause of long-term sickness.

JOHN CHALLENGER: It can be, you know, emotional, mental or physical exhaustion.

LYDEN: John Challenger is the CEO of the workplace consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He diagnoses burnout.

CHALLENGER: It can be combined with doubts about your competence or the value of the work you do. Are you seeing physical responses, using food or alcohol or drugs that make you feel better?

LYDEN: And part of the reason we rely on crutches like these is that burnout is so prevalent. The workplace is not the office that we once knew.

CHALLENGER: Often, you're working on the road, from home. You might be hoteling someplace. You have no permanent space, and your hours are completed changed. You could be working 24/7 in a global environment, fitting in pieces of work here and there.

LYDEN: And if the feeling of burnout is one you've faced, now imagine federal employees. Some of their bosses, the taxpayers, don't even think their jobs should exist.

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LYDEN: It comes as no surprise then that the federal government is grappling with burnout. The country's biggest employer is on track to lose about 80,000 employees this year. Federal employees have been retiring at dramatically higher numbers every year since 2009. Jeffrey Neal, who spent nearly 30 years working in human resources for the federal government, explains his perspective.

JEFFREY NEAL: Federal employees have been beaten on pretty severely for the last several years. Federal employees haven't gotten a pay raise in more than three years. They are constantly being used as a political football. You're hearing these constant attacks on the federal workforce, and people are reacting to that. You can only take so much of it before it starts to break your spirit.

LYDEN: Has something else changed, though? Is the economy improved enough that people can maybe take the leap into retirement? Are we talking about people who are over 50 or over 55 or over 60, or what are we talking about?

NEAL: We're actually finding a number of things. One is that the older folks are retiring, and they're retiring in larger numbers now. Federal retirements have increased every year for the last four years. So we're seeing a big increase in retirements. What we're also seeing, though, is a lot of younger employees are leaving the federal workforce. They're coming in, taking a look around and saying, no, this isn't really for me.

So not only are we losing the most experienced people at the upper end of the age ranges, we're losing a lot of the younger folks who really should be the future. The people who are going to be the leaders in the federal government 10, 15 years from now are leaving right now.

LYDEN: First of all, I want to talk about the impact of some of this loss. By 2016, almost half of the employees of the Housing and Urban Development department, HUD, are set to retire. And the same is true at the Small Business Administration, 44 percent of the employees there by 2016. What are the implications of that?

NEAL: They're pretty severe. When you look at what's happening in an agency like SBA - and SBA is one of the ones that, on either side of the aisle, people kind of like what they do. Most people agree that small business is the engine of our economy. SBA has a very specialized set of programs. So you can't just go out and recruit people at the full performance level, senior people who can do that work. You have to train them.

And right now with budgets being cut, they're not being allowed to hire the trainees and get them up to speed to have them ready in two or three years when those people start retiring. So they could end up in a position where things like processing applications for small business loans might slow down. And you may find the agency's ability to carry out its mission crippled by the lack of qualified personnel.

LYDEN: When you were still head of human resources for Homeland Security, did you use the word burnout? Do they use that in the federal government?

NEAL: I used words like burnout, I used words like crush. And it's because that's what's happening to folks. You can only expect people to take abuse for so long. And some people will tell you, well, you know, if you just crack down on people, they'll perform. And, you know, that's true. You can crack down on a workforce and they will perform - for a while. And then the fatigue sets in. The frustration sets in. The anger sets in. And at some point, they just break, and then they leave.

LYDEN: So what's a company to do? Companies grapple with this - flex time, praise sandwiches, meet-the-boss lunches, wellness programs, gyms, quiet rooms, and the new favorite, yoga. But can yoga really solve all our problems? John Challenger has pondered this.

CHALLENGER: No, I don't think yoga's the only answer. It's an interesting idea that one of the causes of the cycles that we go through as an economy, boom to bust, recessions to periods of growth and strength, might in part be due to the fact that as human beings, we're cyclical emotionally. We stay in one place and grow to the point where, all of a sudden, things are just too much the same and there's burnout, and change has to occur.

LYDEN: As we ease into Labor Day and fire up the barbecue, maybe we can all think about how to balance our lives, work a bit less or just mix it up. Downward dog, anyone?

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LYDEN: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.