US firms aim to fight workplace stress amid rise of employee burnout

Moyo Studio | E+ | Getty Images

Workplace stress costs the American economy billions of dollars a year, according to researchers – but many employees don't feel comfortable asking to take a break from their workplace to practice self-care.

And burnout isn't limited to people who don't enjoy their jobs – one in five U.S. workers reported feeling both highly engaged at work and high levels of burnout, according to a study conducted by Yale University last year.

Across the board, research from Gallup found that nearly a quarter of U.S. workers feel burned out at work "very often or always."

Wellness app Shine asked almost 2,000 of its 4 million members how they felt workplaces could help prevent employee burnout, finding that 97% of people who had taken a mental health day felt it improved their performance. However, only a quarter of respondents felt comfortable asking their boss to take mental health leave.

Shine co-founders Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi are working with employers across the U.S. to arrange a nationwide Mental Health Break on Wednesday at 3 p.m., hoping it will help workplaces foster environments where mental health is no longer a taboo subject. Workplaces will encourage employees to take a break, whether that means a half day or just 20 minutes away from their desk.

More than 50 companies are taking part, including Lyft, Dropbox and Becca Cosmetics.

Lidey and Hirabayashi told CNBC over the phone this week that people suffering with burnout or poor mental health often entered a "spiral of silence," where they felt they couldn't admit to problems at work and self-blamed.

"People told us they didn't necessarily want employers to put formal, set policies in place, but show they support employees (by letting them) take the time they need," Lidey explained.

"Wednesday's action isn't just something that's been written in a document no one reads – it's giving employees the opportunity to get creative about practicing self-care. Support doesn't have to be overly formal, but it does have to have buy-in from company leadership."

Data suggests that burnout isn't something employers should brush under the carpet, as it can cause unexpected absenteeism and comes with financial costs. Gallup's study found that burned out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day, while 2016 research from Eastern Kentucky University found workplace stress was costing U.S. employers $300 billion a year.

And high levels of burnout aren't just costly for companies. According to the Harvard Business Review, it leads to an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in healthcare spending every year.

Hirabayashi told CNBC that because of the costs associated with burnout, it was beneficial for both employers and employees to take a preventative approach.

"The biggest thing people can do is make self-care a regular practice – take a more preventative approach rather than (being forced into) crisis response," she said.

"Ambition can co-exist with rest and recharging, but often we're hard on ourselves. Follow the advice you'd give to other people and treat yourself like a friend – when you look at yourself through that lens it's amazing the impact it can have in terms of treating yourself better."