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Employee Burnout: A Workplace Safety Hazard?

Source: Fisher Phillips, On The Front Lines (No.8, August 2019)

Employee burnout is now an officially diagnosable condition. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which recently updated its definition, employee burnout is not a medical condition. Instead, the WHO calls burnout an “occupational phenomenon.” Here’s how the organization is defining it:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

The WHO’s definition likely comes as no surprise to the multitude of employees who have experienced a sense of feeling “burnt out” at some point in their careers. But what does this mean for employers? Are you now liable for employee burnout in the workplace? Can burnout be considered a safety hazard? Here’s what you should know about employee burnout and its safety implications.

Burnout and Worker Safety

First and foremost, no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards govern work-related burnout. That means there are no OSHA regulations requiring you to have a workplace “employee burnout” policy or plan for dealing with workers’ affected by burnout. 

However, under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, you have a duty to protect all employees from certain workplace hazards. When you think about an employer’s obligations to keep its workplace free of hazards, maybe you think of machine-guarding, lockout/tagout, or fall hazards. Maybe you even think of the less obvious hazards, such as ergonomics, workplace harassment, and violence. But rarely does anyone consider burnout a hazard. Yet recent studies suggest that employee burnout has the potential to impact many facets of work performance and safety.

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