This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center
One aspect of employee engagement that is minimally discussed in the public relations literature is employee burnout. Burnout was initially established and investigated in the human resource literature and is conceptualized as the opposite of engagement (Gonzalez-Roma, Schaufeli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). Specifically, the Job-Demands-Resources (J-D-R) model demonstrates the two processes that lead to job burnout include the high demands of a job and a lack of job resources (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007).
Public relations scholars have recently begun to investigate the negative aspects of engagement. For example, Heide and Simonsson (2018) discussed that “overengagement” is what happens when employee engagement is used to control workers (p. 211). Lemon and Palenchar (2018) conceptualized disengagement as only fulfilling required roles and responsibilities. Pieczka’s (2018) view is even more critical, where employee engagement is about the control of employees’ work lives, which leads to the objectification and monetization of employees. Johnston and Taylor (2018) cautioned organizations to avoid using engagement processes that merely seek to get a reaction from the audience, which leads to a devaluing of that audience.
Despite some advances in the scholarly conversation on burnout and disengagement, we (professionals and scholars alike) don’t spend much time and effort looking into how to help employees cope with burnout. Instead, we focus on how organizations can increase employee engagement through programming or improved processes. However, employee engagement cannot be addressed if a workforce is burned out. Given our current world, I suspect that many industries and organizations are faced with employees who are simply burned out. To speak from experience, I know academics are experiencing such burnout, and the fall semester has yet to begin.
Given the minimal research in this area, I only have anecdotal recommendations that I hope will be addressed in future academic and industry research:
First, establish an organizational culture that values sleep and play. We live in a world where productivity is a badge of honor. However, suggesting and promoting employees to draw boundaries to cultivate time to relax and “turn off” will help individuals return to work refreshed. This would also require management to lead by example so that employees feel encouraged to draw boundaries like not answering emails late in the evening or on weekends.
Second, establish internal programs that promote health and wellness of the mind and body. An organization could sponsor a 5K run for employees to participate in or host a guest speaker to teach employees about mindful breathing techniques.
Third, find ways to streamline organizational processes. Burnout stems from a demanding job, where repetitive processes often take up additional time that could be spent accomplishing something else. Conducting an internal audit to see where process improvements could be made would help eliminate the large workload that burdens employees.
These are suggestions that have been effective in practice. What other recommendations might you add to the list? Remember, the goal of eliminating burnout is not to simply make employees more productive. It is bigger than that. When possible, organizations should strive to develop programs to eliminate burnout to ensure a valuable work experience for employees so they may lead healthy lives because it is the ethical thing to do.
Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti. E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309–328. doi.org/10.1108/02683940710733115
González-Romá, V., Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Lloret, S. (2006). Burnout and work engagement: Independent factors or opposite poles? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68(1), 165–174. doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2005.01.003
Heide, M., & Simonsson, C. (2018). Coworkership and engaged communicators: A critical reflection on employee engagement. In K. A. Johnston & M. Taylor (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication Engagement (pp. 205-220). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Johnston, K. A., & Taylor, M. (2018). Engagement as communication: Pathways, possibilities and future directions. In K. A. Johnston & M. Taylor (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication Engagement (pp. 1-15). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Lemon, L. L., & Palenchar, M. J. (2018). Public relations and zones of engagement: Employees’ lived experiences and the fundamental nature of employee engagement. Public Relations Review, 44(1), 142-155. doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2018.01.002
Pieczka, M. (2018). Critical perspectives of engagement. In K. A. Johnston & M. Taylor (Eds.), The Handbook of Communication Engagement (pp. 549-568). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.