While the problem of burnout is as old as the institution of work, it’s recently become a weightier issue for many executive teams. Complications and anxieties brought about by the pandemic, multiple natural disasters, political strife and acts of racial injustice have escalated feelings of disconnection, stress and fear throughout the workforce.
Earlier this year, more than half of workers in a Microsoft study reported feeling overworked, with 41% saying they are considering leaving their jobs. In addition to experiencing burnout on a personal level, as leaders we feel its effects in declining employee morale and lowered productivity, resulting in reduced profitability.
But recent research draws two conclusions that, in my opinion, are game changers in solving the burnout problem:
- Burnout is not an employee problem, it’s a workplace problem.
- Burnout is fixable. Leaders can take proven, actionable steps to mitigate, or even prevent it altogether.
Why Burnout Happens
Burnout starts when we experience profound levels of daily stress for an extraordinary amount of time. Cynicism, disconnection, exhaustion and loss of meaning set in. Productivity drops. We feel unappreciated, as though what we’re contributing doesn’t matter. Thoughts like, “This doesn’t matter. Nobody notices anyway” are common.
Christina Maslach, burnout expert and professor emerita of psychology at UC Berkeley, identified six organizational factors that directly contribute to burnout:
- Demand overload.
- Lack of control.
- Insufficient reward.
- Socially toxic workplace.
- Lack of fairness.
- Value conflicts.
Although it’s certainly not an easy task, dismantling burnout at the organizational level starts with acknowledging all of the contributing factors from the list above that may be present in your organization, then flipping them on their head.
So, what can we do?
Related Article: How Workplace Managers Can Help Prevent Employee Burnout
Assess Weaknesses, Build on Employee Strengths
Assess how well your organization manages employee autonomy, work-life balance, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), interpersonal relationships and shared values.
For a quick win with a big impact, start by ramping up employee recognition efforts. Remarkably, burnout drops 30% when people simply feel appreciated. Focus on publicly recognizing work anniversaries, personal achievements and meaningful contributions. Offer praise that’s timely, specific and tied to impact.
To offset the lack of control employees may feel, find ways to offer more autonomy through permanent remote or hybrid work options and flexible schedules. Mandate uninterrupted, meeting free hours so employees can get into deep work, rather than feeling trapped in back-to-back meetings.
To promote fairness, set specific, actionable goals around DE&I, like creating a DE&I style guide to promote inclusive company language that speaks to individuals with varying backgrounds and points of view.
Related Article: 3 Ways to Put More Control in the Hands of Remote Employees
Listen and Offer Support
As you’re working on flipping each of the risk factors listed above, talk openly with employees. Make burnout a line item in regular 1:1s. Normalize sharing emotions in work settings — even through a brief one-word check-in at the beginning of meetings.
Invite employee feedback by creating systems where team members can report on their experience without fear. Offer further care through access to mental health support that could take the form of an emotional support AI system with the ability to offer a quick reflection exercise each morning, or providing time with a mental health professional.
The trouble with burnout is it's a self-perpetuating cycle. The more we feel it, the harder it is to conquer. However, it’s not unsolvable. We have the tools — now is the time to start using them.