Employee burnout is on the rise. How can HR tech help?

Steve Boese examines some of the tech options organisations can adopt to reduce burnout and support employee wellbeing.
By: | April 11, 2023

With the onset of the fourth year of disruption and change brought upon by the global pandemic (and its associated aftershocks to the world’s economies and workplaces), it is probably not surprising that employees are feeling more burned out than ever.

According to new research from Future Forum, employee burnout caused by stress in the workplace has reached an all-time-high since its tracking began in mid-2021. In a survey of more than 10,000 full-time desk and office-based workers across six countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, 42% of these workers reported feeling burned out. The World Health Organisation defines burnout as an increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of energy depletion and negativism.

That level marks a new high in this category since Future Forum began measuring worker burnout two years ago; at that time, 38% of workers reported burnout, indicating that even after years of employer interventions, employee burnout has only increased. With the issue of burnout tied closely to disengagement, quiet quitting and even actual quitting, it will remain incumbent on HR and business leaders to look for ways to reduce burnout and support employee wellbeing. And while no single technology solution can address all the aspects and contributing factors of employee burnout, it is useful to understand the available tech options that could be leveraged in this area. In particular, let us look at tech as it corresponds to the three dimensions of burnout, as defined by the World Health Organisation.

Dimension 1:  Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

While HR has many approaches to alleviating employee workload and stress, one method that has not typically been emphasised enough is ensuring that employees are taking adequate time to disconnect from work and recharge.

U.S. workers are notoriously tied to our work and workplaces. We do not take enough time off from work, and when we do, we are often still connected to work via our devices—checking emails, Slack or Teams messages, and responding to communications even when our “out-of-office” response is on. Only about a quarter of U.S. employees used all their allotted paid vacation time in 2021, according to research from Qualtrics. And when employees do take time away, nearly half report they do at least an hour of work a day.

Sadly, few HR technology solutions look to assist organisations and their workers in better understanding the problems caused by taking too little time off, and to actively encourage them to make better use of their available paid time off. But PTO Genius, an HRE Top HR Tech Product in 2022, offers a suite of tools that can help organisations better understand PTO-usage trends, allow employees to better utilise their paid time off, and give HR leaders insight into how time off impacts burnout and organisational performance.

Dimension 2: Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

Typically, evaluation of employee burnout along this dimension requires the use of survey technology—ideally a survey that has been proven to be effective at identifying the underlying causes of burnout. Several examples of validated surveys include the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the Shirom-Melamed Burnout Measure and the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory. Each of these is a text-based survey, includes 15-25 items and has been utilised by many organizations for years.

But all of these instruments entail fairly lengthy questioning, which could be interpreted as just another assignment for already overtaxed employees. Especially if employees are already feeling burned out, the last thing they would welcome is a long, complex survey designed to assess if they are indeed burning out.

So, for HR leaders concerned both about employee burnout and survey fatigue, many HR technology options can facilitate shorter, less stressful and less time-consuming ways to take the pulse of the organisation. Leaders in this domain include Culture Amp, Workhuman and Qualtrics. Plus, many of the “full-suite” HCM providers have or will soon incorporate pulse survey capabilities into their offerings.

Additionally, many of the technology providers can also assist HR leaders with the content and structure of these burnout surveys, as they can draw upon the insights and learnings from their customers’ experiences and anonymised data.

Dimension 3: Reduced professional efficacy

A reduction in efficacy or productivity could be a by-product of burnout, but it can also contribute to burnout at the same time. When technology and processes create barriers to working effectively and efficiently, the frustration can accumulate—eventually to the point where employees feel burned out.

To help remedy these problems, organisations need to take a hard look at how, where, when and why employees face barriers to their day-to-day work, especially if those are coming from any of the core HR systems they rely on for things like payroll, benefits, time and attendance, and time off. Usually, the organisation will uncover numerous opportunities to upgrade, extend or implement new technology solutions to reduce barriers to task accomplishment, make needed information more accessible, and improve the service level and quality of information HR teams provide to employees.

The list of effective HR technologies that can be utilised are too many to mention, so I will just highlight a few solutions from very different functional areas that both meet these goals and are also noteworthy as past recipients of HRE’s Top HR Tech Product of the Year award.

Payroll: Beti from Paycom. Beti identifies payroll errors and guides employees to resolve them before payroll submission, resulting in improved data accuracy, reduced employer liability, increased process oversight and unparalleled employee insight into pay—the latter of which can help reduce a major source of employee frustration.

Productivity: Joyous. Joyous starts thousands of conversations among frontline workers, leaders and subject matter experts on operational topics. It then uses a new AI solution to find opportunities for improvement across all those conversations, helping employees become more efficient and the organisation smarter.

Development: Oracle Opportunity Marketplace. This solution surfaces internal roles, projects and gigs to employees, allowing them to find opportunities to extend or develop new skills, while simultaneously helping managers accomplish important tasks.

Finally, it is important for HR leaders to not overlook the challenges and potential issues with burnout in their own HR teams. Recent reporting by HRE pointed out that “HR leaders ranked the highest among other professionals when it comes to two key burnout metrics,” according to Executive Networks’ 2023 Future of Working and Learning Report and “HR leaders were substantially more likely than others to be at risk of leaving their current employer in the next 12 months.” These figures, as well as the lived experience of HR leaders in most organisations remind us that HR professionals are not somehow immune from all the mental health, stress and burnout challenges impacting all members of the organisation. HR should follow the advice they give to employees: Utilise available support resources, have open conversations with management, and work to identify and act on problems with burnout before they become too severe.

The problem of employees burnout will be a focus area of the upcoming Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in May, where benefits leaders, industry experts and providers of benefits technology solutions will all be in attendance, sharing insights to help organisations make progress on these important issues, and demonstrate support and care for their workforces. I will be at HBLC as well, ready to learn—and I hope to see you there!

Steve Boese is HRE’s Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference. This article was first published on Human Resource Executive.