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When Stress Takes Over, Employee Burnout Can Set In

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As Labor Day honors American workers, stress weighs on many. A changing world — and therefore a changing workplace — has many employees on the job and staring at screens for hours upon hours. Some have reached a breaking point.

John Challenger, CEO of workplace consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, diagnoses burnout. He tells NPR's Jacki Lyden stress can manifest emotionally, mentally or physically. "It can be combined with doubts about your confidence or the value of the work you do," he says.

Businesses can take a hit from burnout, too. At least one study indicates that U.S. businesses lose an estimated $300 billion a year to stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

The federal workforce is facing a particularly high turnover rate, according to Jeffrey Neal, who spent nearly 30 years working in human resources for the federal government.

"Federal employees have been beaten on pretty severely for the last several years. Federal employees haven't gotten a pay raise in more than three years. They are constantly being used as a political football," he says. "You're hearing these constant attacks on the federal workforce, and people are reacting to that. You can only take so much of it before it breaks your spirit."

Neal says federal retirements have increased every year for the last four years. Not only are older workers retiring more quickly, younger workers are also leaving.

"They're coming in, taking a look around, and saying, 'No, this isn't really for me,' " Neal says. "So not only are we losing the most experienced people at the upper end of the age ranges, we're losing a lot of the younger folks who really should be the future."

Moreover, agencies like the Small Business Administration require a specific skill set that takes training and support. "You may find the agency's ability to carry out its mission crippled by the lack of qualified personnel," Neal says.

During his time with the government, Neal says he used words like "burnout" and "crush."

"Because that's what's happening to folks. ... You can crack down on a workforce, and they will perform, for a while," he says. "And then the fatigue sets in. The frustration sets in. The anger sets in. And at some point, they just break. And then they leave."

So what's a company to do? Challenger says there may be some insight to gain from humans' cyclical emotions.

"We stay in one place and grow to the point where, all of a sudden, things are just too much the same," he says, "and there's burnout and change has to occur."

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