Running A Business

Measuring Burnout at Your Small Business

May 18, 2021 • 4 min read
Tired and frustrated man sitting at his desk
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      Burnout at a job is a feeling almost everyone has experienced—it might even be why you wanted to become your own boss in the first place. But burnout can easily impact workers at a small company as well as a large one.

      As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, burnout is becoming common, as more American workers feel high levels of psychological stress.

      Workplace burnout, though, is nothing new. Since the 1970s, corporations and researchers have invested time and resources into understanding this phenomenon. Their latest findings can help you understand and prevent burnout at your business.  

      New Understandings of Burnout

      Most of us probably recognize burnout as an unpleasant emotion, but it can be hard to define. In the global business environment, though, this difficulty is changing.

      In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an official “occupational phenomenon.” The WHO’s definition specified several facets of burnout.  

      “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” the WHO stated. “It is characterized by 3 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.”

      Importantly, this definition of burnout only refers to the workplace, and the WHO warns against using the term to describe other areas of life.

      This definition mirrors an understanding of burnout that has gained popularity in recent years: the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a methodical way of measuring burnout at a workplace.

      The Maslach Burnout Inventory

      Invented in the early 1980s by psychology professor Christina Maslach, the MBI is a series of questions posed to workers. The answers are used to rate burnout on 3 different but related metrics: exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy.

      Maslach gave the survey these different aspects because the concept of burnout remains somewhat ephemeral to most people.

      “I may mean I’m bored, and you mean you’re tired, and somebody else means they hate their job,” Maslach told the Wall Street Journal in 2021. “It’s not just about the individual, but it’s also about the team or workplace or organization.”

      You can purchase an MBI survey for your team online.

      Ways to Understand Burnout

      Even if you’d rather use meetings or anonymous surveys instead of the MBI for your company, you should seek to understand burnout in an objective and nonjudgmental way. Utilizing the 3 dimensions of burnout defined by the WHO can be useful to uncover how your employees are feeling.

      “The MBI was designed for discovery—both of new information that extends our knowledge about burnout and of possible strategies for change,” according to a Harvard Business Review piece by Maslach and Michael Leiter. “This discovery can also take place when organizations use the MBI for practical studies and planning. When the MBI is used correctly, and in strategic combination with other relevant information, the findings can help leaders design effective ways to build engagement and establish healthier workplaces in which employees will thrive.”

      Understanding and engaging levels of exhaustion, cynicism, and productivity can help you determine solutions. Especially if your employees are working from home amid the pandemic, it’s important to check in about burnout even if you aren’t face-to-face.

      Unethical Uses of MBI

      Don’t be tempted to use MBI to pathologize your individual employees. If an employee reports feeling burned out, your first thought might be that there’s something wrong with them—and you might, for example, suggest therapy or quitting. Not only does this abuse your employee’s trust, but it can obscure underlying workplace issues and worsen feelings of burnout for your whole staff.

      “Given that there is no clinical basis for assuming that burnout is a personal disability and no evidence for established treatments for it, the use of an individual’s scores in this way is clearly wrong,” Maslach and Leiter continue.

      Instead of being defensive, it’s most helpful to look at MBI scores as an important metric of your workplace culture.

      How to Beat Burnout at Your Small Business

      Even people working in their dream jobs experience burnout. Recognizing the signs of burnout in your employees is the first step toward preventing it, which is why the MBI has become a popular tool.

      You should also develop a plan for alleviating burnout, either on a short- or long-term basis. Maybe you can institute rotating work schedules for workers with children or commit to fewer meetings. Importantly, open up lines of communication with your workers—a culture of trust itself can be a buffer against burnout. Let your workers articulate what would make them feel less burned out.

      If you start feeling burned out from trying to prevent burnout at your business, think small. What are some incremental ways you can improve your workplace culture, like a thank-you email or an MBI survey, before moving onto something more substantial?


      About the author
      Barry Eitel

      Barry Eitel has written about business and technology for eight years, including working as a staff writer for Intuit's Small Business Center and as the Business Editor for the Piedmont Post, a weekly newspaper covering the city of Piedmont, California.

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