Employee Burnout Starts on the Weekend

employee burnout

You're not overworked; you're undersocialized.

That's the Cliff's Notes version of a recent study about today's challenged work/life balance equations.

According to the study, we as employees aren't unhappy when we don't have enough free time; it's when our free time doesn't synch with the people we love.

This may be partially true. Family time matters; spending time with people we love matters. Missing a child's activities is a perpetual source of parental angst. And even working dads told us that work that prevents family time is a greater source of job burnout than career stress.

But the picture is more complex than that. It's not just about who's available during an employee's free time, but having a choice about how to spend it.

The Key to Avoiding Employee Burnout? Time to Power Down

In the age of smart phones and tablets, choice about when (and when not) to work is one of the things that's been whittled out of our universes. In a perfect world, employees may choose to work on a Saturday or Sunday, but they don't (or rather shouldn't) have to. In this scenario, people would be happier on weekends because they don't have to set alarm clocks, be in a particular place at a particular time for a meeting, or meet a deadline. They can choose whether to check email. Being off the clock then becomes salvation. And people can work extra-long hours between Monday and Friday when they know quitting time is ahead.

But that salvation is eroded when technology or imposed weekend deadlines invade. When that happens, Sunday might as well be Thursday. Suddenly choice is gone...you're scheduling a family dinner around an important report or missing a Saturday soccer game to reply to an email chain. Then weekends become just another part of an endless tunnel of weekdays without any daylight in sight. And then employee burnout becomes inevitable.

Working Parents and the Empty-House Effect

Yet more evidence that our discontent is not all about spending more time with people is illustrated by what might be called "the empty house effect." Ask a few working moms and dads if they'd like to take a day off on a Tuesday when their kids are at school and their spouse is at work, and I'm betting you'll see a happy dance busted out such as you've never witnessed before.

Parents surely love their families. But in a life bookended by meetings on one side and homework routines on the other, eight hours in an empty house with no kids, no spouse, and zero interactions with a blessed soul is like a river of chocolate flowing while it's raining ice cream.

This is where flex time and remote work arrangements are not mere conveniences but actual tools. They provide not just a respite from the commute, but an escape hatch from the chaos - the additional space in which to recharge while still getting the job done. And if the work week continues to seep over into the weekend, these tools will become more and more important.

Flex Time as a Key to the Employee Burnout Problem

Study after study has shown not just an erosion of weekends and time off, but a failure of managers to acknowledge it, saying one thing ("Enjoy your weekend!") and doing another ("Response required immediately!"). And that disconnect between cultural philosophy and practice is causing employees to quietly burn out right under the boss's nose.

The benefits of choice would also seem to explain why even the unemployed in the study are distinctly happier on weekends. The job of looking for a job takes place during the same 40 hours as actually having one. Without anyone to network or interview with, the stress of staying "on" goes away, leaving people on the job hunt free to enjoy the peace of not hunting.

More telling data might have come from shift workers or other people who work non-traditional hours. For them, the term "weekend" is a qualitative term - it could just as easily be a Wednesday as a Sunday. When are they happiest?

It's true I'm not a Stanford researcher. But this doesn't seem to be just about too little people time during out-of-work hours; it's about having too little choice about how to spend those out-of-work hours.

Yes, in the words of Barbra Streisand, people need people. But they also need time to recharge. They need time to catch their breath. And they need time to be able to choose to be off the clock.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.