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The real costs of burnout in the workplace

Corporate Mental Health Week 1 – 5 July 2024

According to the latest Gallup report, 36% of the South African workforce experience excessive daily stress and more than 71% are either disengaged or actively disengaged at work – some of the alarming signs of burnout.


This is not surprising considering that according to the Mental State of the World Report, South Africa, with a mental health quotient of 50, ranks 69 out of 71 countries and has the greatest percentage of distressed or struggling respondents at 35%.


Studies have found the dedicated and committed are particularly prone to burnout - a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. The condition is classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization for its debilitating impact on productivity, bottom-line and the overall health of especially, top achievers.


A study found that up to two-thirds have experienced burnout and that the majority say companies are not doing enough to prevent the condition. 

Prof Renata Schoeman, Head of Healthcare Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School says burnout is a workplace phenomenon that cannot be confused by daily stressors of everyday personal life responsibilities.


“Burnout is a persistent feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion that frequently comes with pessimism and disengagement from work. The culprits are usually an imbalance of resources and/or demands on what is expected of you at work versus the availability of time, finances, training, support systems, mentorship and other resources needed for you to do your job.”


“Another contributing factor is conflicting values: either a mismatch between your personal values and the organisational values, or, the officially stated values of the organisation and the values in action.”


The cost of burnout

Prof Schoeman says burnout could and should be avoided but when it’s left unmanaged the monetary and non-monetary cost of burnout to the economy and business is unavoidably high.


Health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions cost the South African economy R161 billion per year due to lost days of work, presenteeism (being at work but unwell), and premature mortality.


“The direct cost of burnout leads to increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, poor work performance, mistakes and high employee turnover – all quantifiably impacting the organisation’s bottom line.”


“The hidden, indirect cost for businesses is the institutional loss of knowledge when employees leave, the time and cost spent on training and upskilling new employees, and the negative impact on organisational culture. Once an organisation is known for its toxic work environment, it will be difficult to attract top talent.”

Prof Schoeman says the cost to the employee is their overall health and points out that burnout does not happen immediately and gradually builds over time, with subtle signs and symptoms.


“Although not a condition that is medically diagnosed, if left untreated, burnout can lead to mental health conditions that requires medical treatment – this is not about simply taking a few weeks holiday or resting to overcome the constant state of depletion.”


Burnout contributes to depression, anxiety and other stress-related disorders, impacting one’s quality of living, relationships and outlook on life.  Physically, prolonged burnout can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues and weakened immune systems.”


The difference between fatigue and burnout

Feeling tired is a natural state of wanting sleep or rest. If you are tired, it doesn’t mean you have burnout. Although fatigue can be a symptom of burnout, sometimes you are just tired. Nothing more. In this instance, rest is helpful by sleeping, taking a break, or doing something that brings you pleasure or take a holiday.

Prof Schoeman warns however that “viewing burnout as something your work has done to you, is not helpful.


“Organisations do have a responsibility to invest in preventing burnout and promoting mental wellness however if you view your discomfort as purely ‘work has done this to me’, it will contribute to a lack of autonomy and passivity and generate victim mentality.”


She advocates that the best defense for burnout is to limit the possibility from the start by practicing selfcare every day (enough sleep, exercise, eating healthy, participating in leisure and creative activities and spirituality) to ensure that one does not ignore any of the signs of burnout.


Strategies for managing burnout in the workplace

Organisations can employ strategies to prevent and address employee burnout by means of: 

  • Recognise and reward performance. Although high performers expect to work hard, and are willing to do so, they do not thrive when taken for granted. Acknowledge high performers with tangible rewards such as bonuses, promotions, or additional vacation days. Public recognition can also boost morale and motivation.

  • Distribute workload evenly. One of the reasons companies rely so much on their star performers is that they retain bad hires. Ensure that work is distributed fairly among team members to avoid overburdening top performers and implement systems to monitor and manage workload effectively. High performers are often held to higher standards than their peers which can lead to feelings of unfair treatment and resentment, as they may feel that they are being held to an unattainable level of excellence.

  • Avoid imbalance in assignments. Managers often make decisions based on certain biases. Be clear as to the reasoning why you are roping in a particular person to avoid you always overusing the top performer:

  • Similarity bias: “I’ll give the task to the person who shares my view on the subject.”

  • Expedience bias: “I assume this person has the most capacity for this task.”

  • Experience bias: “I think this person completed a similar task before.”

  • Distance bias: “This person is already on the phone with me, so I’ll just ask them.”

  • Safety bias: “I don’t feel I can trust anyone else for this task.”


  • Provide support and resources. Offer professional development opportunities to help high achievers manage their workload and stress. Ensure access to mental health resources and encourage their use.

  • Encourage work-life boundaries. An organisational couture of overwork and a belief that working long hours is a sign of dedication and commitment can lead to a cycle of overworking, as high performers feel pressure to meet these expectations to be seen as valuable employees. Promote policies that support work-life balance and boundaries, such as flexible working hours and remote work options. Encourage employees to take breaks and use their annual leave.

  • Foster and open communication culture. Create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their workload and stress levels. Regular check-ins with high achievers – not only those that “struggle” – to help identify and address issues before they escalate.

  • Rotate assignments. Rotate high performers across different projects and roles to not only provide them with a new challenge and learning opportunities but also to vary their workload

  • Provide mentorship and coaching. Pair high performers with mentors or offer them coaching opportunities to develop strategies to manage their workload.

  • Tailor personal development plans. Invest in your high performers with personalised plans that can enrich their career goals and personal wellbeing.

  • Encourage delegation. When allowing high performers to delegate tasks, they will not only be able to manage their workload better but they will also be able to upskill members of the team. 

  • Implement wellness programmes. By activity prioritising mental and physical health, high performers will feel more comfortable in setting boundaries, taking breaks, and caring for themselves long before burnout becomes an issue.


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