One of the greatest threats to building an engaged workforce is the “epidemic levels” of employee burnout. Across the U.S., 67% of full-time workers report feelings of burnout with varying frequencies, and overall employee stress levels have risen close to 20% over the last three decades.
This puts even the most well-intentioned of companies in a tight spot: they have to inspire higher productivity and performance as they struggle to keep their people and maintain healthy morale. It’s a fine line to walk, and the majority of organizations already know they’re involved in a balancing act.
A 2017 national survey by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace® found that 95% of HR leaders say burnout is “sabotaging employee retention” and accounts for as much as 20% to 50% of annual turnover. Additionally, the study shows that the key drivers of burnout are entirely within organizational control. In fact, results from an ADP Research Institute study revealed that over 75% of turnover is preventable with company intervention. But when it comes to employee burnout, in particular, a lot of companies haven’t nailed down a solution quite yet—mainly because it’s no small feat to solve a problem with so many triggers.
Employee burnout: more than just stress
Not to be confused with the stress of a tough work week or demanding project, burnout is a legitimate medical diagnosis that results from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been managed successfully. According to the International Classification of Diseases, or the ICD-11:
“[Burnout] is characterized by 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.”
Now, workplace stress doesn’t always stem from being at work. Rather, for millions of Americans, it starts with their morning commute, long before they even step foot in the office.
Commuting is a top trigger for employee burnout and turnover
A team of Harvard researchers found that employees often view commuting as part of their job, and, as a result, are more likely to attribute their negative feelings during their commute to their actual work. This is among the reasons why commuting is the second-most common source of workplace stress.
“What you do in the car on a moment-to-moment real-time basis makes a very big difference about your experience,” explains clinical psychologist Curtis Reisinger, Ph.D. “Humans are well-equipped to deal with acute moments of stress—say getting cut off in traffic—but when these moments happen day after day, those acute moments of stress turn into long-term chronic stress.”
Not only do these stressful moments repeat themselves daily, but they also happen for long periods of time. Eighty-five percent of Americans drive to work for an average of 53 minutes roundtrip. As the country grows increasingly more suburban, American workers are living further from job sites and major metro areas. It’s these folks—the ones who drive back into large, urban cities—who feel the strongest effects of burnout, according to a 2015 study exploring the relationship between commuting and burnout. The risk for burnout increases, even more, when the commute lasts over 20 minutes. Once it passes the 35-minute mark, that’s when workers start to feel more negatively about their job.
Commuters have become so burnt out that the commute is now the third-largest driver of voluntary employee turnover. What’s more, IBM issued a survey to more than 22,000 multi-generational workers to learn more about why employees quit their jobs. Turns out, there’s no generation left unscathed by the commute: 54% of millennials, 49% of Generation X, and 40% of baby boomers said “an easier commute to work” would motivate them to leave a job.
Strategies to address commute-related burnout
If you want to help solve employee burnout at your organization, you have to understand the role commuting plays in workplace burnout. Start by issuing an employee commuter survey to learn how your people get to work, how long it takes, and how it affects their well-being, productivity, and engagement. With these insights, you can reevaluate your existing commuter benefits and explore customized solutions that alleviate commute stress, in turn, alleviating—or even preventing—employee burnout.