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Can companies ease employee burnout?

You know what happens after a prolonged economic downturn that gutted jobs across the country and kicked up the unemployment rate to 10 percent in 2009? Those people who are still employed desperately want to stay that way.

And so even now, years after the recession technically ended, people are still doing whatever it takes to escape the next round of layoffs. They work overtime. They work during vacations and when they're sick. They accept having benefits and wages cut. They pay a steep price to keep bringing home that paycheck.

The emotional toll has been heavy, however. American workers are suffering a massive case of burnout, reporting high levels of stress at work and extreme fatigue, researchers say. More than a third of employees say they are handling the stress in one of the worst ways possible -- by working harder.

"People have been pretty much expected to soldier on," Rebecca Ray, co-author of a survey last year by  business group the Conference Board that measured worker burnout, told USA Today. "And I think they've reached a saturation point."

There's a fine line between extreme fatigue and simply giving up, and some companies have begun trying to keep their workers away from it. For example, Volkswagen (VLKAY) goes so far as to turn off some employees' email 30 minutes after their shifts are over, The Associated Press reports. Another German automaker, BMW, is implementing new guidelines so that employees are not contacted about work matters after hours.

Goldman Sachs (GS) has even done what was once unthinkable on Wall Street, telling junior workers to stop working over the weekends. 

Why the sudden burst of concern? Because employee malaise cuts into productivity and hurts the bottom line. And when workers leave, it is expensive to replace them.

"We cannot afford to lose our best people because we have fewer people," Gary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, told The AP. "We will lose them to companies with better work/life balance, where they don't have to work 19-hour days."

Companies are paying closer attention to that work/life balance now. At SAS, a business analytics software company in North Carolina, employees have unlimited sick time and a free health care center, Fortune reports. Kimpton Hotels holds motivating events like the "Housekeeping Olympics" and offers a $10,000 employee prize for best service. CHG Healthcare Services, a staffing agency in Utah, built a gym for its workers and gave everyone a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

Silicon Valley companies are famous for giving employees enough perks to keep them working hard. Google (GOOG) offers free food, plenty of gyms, a comfortable atmosphere and even free beer. Facebook (FB) is testing out treadmill desks. Other tech companies offer unlimited vacation -- as long as the work gets done on time.

Most companies are a long way from those kinds of benefits. But after years of coasting on profits from panicked employees working themselves into the ground, some bosses are realizing that a more enlightened management style is better for all.

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