Employees and businesses are struggling to adapt to the new reality of work.
Almost every survey and research study highlights that people are more stressed, disengaged, and burned out than ever. This is despite the billions of dollars being spent each year on wellness, benefits, and employee engagement tools. Science and practical experience show us a clear solution, but most companies have failed to take the simple steps necessary for change to happen.
Awareness of burnout is higher than ever, and it’s abundantly clear that the “wellness window dressing” (AKA corporate “wellness washing”) isn’t working to decrease stress or improve wellbeing.
For now, let’s peel back the layers, look at the sobering numbers, and get a clear picture of why this is happening. We will also outline the simple, yet overlooked actions leaders and companies can take to virtually eliminate burnout in the workplace.
What is Burnout?
First, it’s helpful to align on the definition of burnout. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
In a state of burnout, employees feel cynical, detached, and have a lower sense of purpose and accomplishment. While slight variations exist, this description encompasses the large majority of definitions related to corporate burnout.
Depending on which studies you look at and the specific measures used, burnout rates range from 41% to 77% of employees having experienced burnout in their current role. More importantly, between 25-50% of employees are currently experiencing multiple burnout symptoms at work. Whether we take the top, bottom, or average of these numbers, it’s still astronomically high and a massive opportunity for businesses to address.
The Biggest Issue with Addressing Burnout at Work
While many barriers exist, the biggest challenge I see to addressing burnout in business is that most senior leaders think they are doing a great job at addressing burnout and employee wellbeing!
In a recent study, almost 2/3 of workers say their health and wellbeing decreased from last year, while 3 of 4 executives believed the health of their workforce improved!
This is from a survey of 3,150 C-suite executives, managers, and employees across four countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia) conducted by independent research firm Workplace Intelligence.
That’s a massive leadership blind spot and it’s directly impacting every aspect of organizational performance, including bottom line profitability. Perhaps this gap is related to leadership burnout itself! A recent Microsoft Work Trend Index reported that 53% of managers are burned out. This level was slightly higher than the employees on their teams.
We’ve all heard the instructions that flight attendants give to “Put on your own oxygen mask first”. This is just as important in leadership and wellbeing! If leaders are burned out, they are less capable of helping their teams, and therefore their organization.
So who is helping leaders? In most cases…nobody!
Leaders often think stress and burnout is simply part of the job at that level. They resign themselves to the “grind” of work until they burnout or retire. This perpetuates the “work sucks but I need to make a living” mindset that permeates so much of today’s workforce and it’s at the heart of the opportunity available to us as a society. There’s a way to have success financially, in business, AND be a healthy, happy, thriving person.
Sadly, Erica Coe in an interview with Harvard Business Review highlights that burnout rates continue to increase, despite many organizations elevating burnout to a C-suite priority.
It’s true that companies are making a larger effort to support employees, but the current methods are largely ineffective. This is in large part to the previously mentioned mindset around wellness in business. McKinsey highlights that burnout impacts individuals across all industries and hierarchical levels in an organization. While this is true, without handling burnout, workplace culture, and mindset at the C-level, things will remain the same.
What are the causes of burnout?
While there’s no single cause of burnout, and many factors contribute to the overall impact, the most common factors in the burnout equation are:
Long working hours
Lack of support
Lack of role clarity and expectations
Low level of control/autonomy over your work
Dysfunctional Workplace Dynamics (ie. Toxic Workplace)
Neglecting self care habits
What does this mean for business results?
Aside from decreased productivity, lower job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, massive presenteeism, higher turnover, and lower company profits, the factors contributing to burnout simply make work suck!
At the most basic level, healthy, happy, engaged employees produce a higher quality of work over a longer period, and enjoy the process much more than those who are sick, unhealthy, stressed, and burned out. Therefore, reducing stress and burnout while increasing health, happiness, and wellbeing is highly profitable for companies over the long term. Of course, this means investing in the wellbeing and performance of people over a longer timeframe…beyond the next one or two quarters.
This is nothing new, but companies are failing to capitalize on the opportunity by relying on old, outdated methodologies or failing to follow through with consistency and integrity.
What can leaders and employees do about it?
Leadership is at the heart of reducing and ultimately preventing burnout. The first step is shifting mindset on three separate levels. A leader’s personal mindset around wellbeing, mindset of how employee wellbeing contributes to company performance, and the mindset around the strategies and tactics needed to improve employee wellbeing and change corporate culture.
Step 1: Personal Wellbeing Mindset
The first step is for leaders to “look in the mirror” and determine whether they are healthy, happy, engaged, and fulfilled in their life and work. If the answer is no, this is the first area of focus. Until this improves, they will be unable to bring their best to their family, team, and company.
This is where I began my career 30+ years ago and what inspired me to begin working with companies. I saw thousands of senior leaders stressed, burned out, and broken down both mentally and physically from their work. The process of helping these professionals get back to thriving opened my eyes to the broken model of how companies and leaders treat their people.
Step 2: Corporate Performance Mindset
Yes. Businesses exist to generate profits, and leaders are hired to drive results for the organization and shareholders. However, this can be accomplished in a number of ways.
Currently, most leaders follow a traditional “human resources” model where despite many changes in messaging, people are viewed as tools to accomplish business results.
Wellness in this model is something people are responsible for individually and ideally on their own time. Performance management conversations happen when people mess up and are regarded with fear and trepidation by most employees.
This “Command and Control” style of “leadership” often intimidates, divides, and disengages people over time though it can sometimes produce good short term (i.e. quarterly) results.
This type of leader generally protects power, control, and information. They want everyone to follow directions, never question authority, and to “fall in line”. Therefore, employees tend to “fly under the radar”, and don’t want to stick their head up for fear of having it chopped off. Despite sometimes producing positive financial results, it’s not efficient, rarely sustainable, and takes a massive toll on the people in the business, along with long term operational expenses (turnover, safety), and decreases in innovation and creativity (R&D, staying ahead of the curve).
The more effective way to benefit people and the business is through people focussed performance leadership. This style produces exceptional long term results by building people up, helping them learn, grow, contribute, and be heard while understanding the positive impact this has on business performance (profitability, operations, quality, safety, retention, recruiting, etc.).
Leaders that help employees feel included and respected, while empowering them to do their best work each day and express themselves as unique and valued humans will be the catalyst for their team members to thrive and continue gaining momentum over the long term.
While this sounds great, it also requires humility and a completely different mindset from the leader. To know you don’t have all the answers and to be ok with that! To rethink your role as a leader. To realize that you your role is to guide, lead, inspire, provide the tools, resources, environment, and compelling vision that brings out the best those around you. To celebrate their wins, not claim them as your own.
Even with high workloads and a fast pace, burnout is almost non-existent in workplaces like this. I know, I’ve been there, experienced it, and seen it in my client companies.
The issue is that few leaders have been trained and consistently rewarded to lead this way. In order for people across the organization to thrive outside of the scope of “rockstar” leaders, this style of leadership must be operationalized throughout the business. This starts with the executive leadership team and is the key to improving wellbeing and decreasing burnout.
Step 3: Status Quo Strategies and Tactics Mindset
The issue identified in this step is what I’ve termed “The Wellness Curveball”.
Companies are aware of the issue (Burnout, mental health, turnover, engagement, etc.).
They’ve invested money, time, and effort in adding tools and resources to address wellness.
They are marketing these new tools to employees and the market to show how great their workplace is, and how much they care about people.
They feel they’ve done their job by “checking all the right boxes” for wellness
However, they are not tracking results that matter.
To put it simply, the game has changed, but companies are expecting different results from the same old strategies and tactics. This was glaringly evident when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
To address the challenges of a remote workforce that was simultaneously managing an avalanche of changes, fears, and uncertainties, companies simply increased their benefits coverage. While this is a great gesture, it did little to address the real issues or to move the needle on results for people or organizations. It just cost the company more money for minimal long term return.
It’s like seeing a person drowning, then cheering them on and reminding them that the life preserver is on the wall if they choose to access it. Over three years since the start of the pandemic. Companies are still throwing more of the same resources at wellbeing and wondering why things haven’t improved.
Employees don’t need another resilience workshop, mental health app, DEIB seminar, or yoga class at lunch. They need a systemic overhaul of how companies THINK, SPEAK, and ACT about wellbeing.
This starts with how the organization (board/shareholders) hold leadership accountable for delivering on their vision and values for employee wellbeing. When the mindset and actions of leaders change, companies miraculously notice that employee wellbeing and corporate performance improves.
Additional Strategies for Prevention and Mitigation of Burnout at Work:
At the heart of reversing and preventing burnout is to prioritize the employee wellbeing, but companies keep falling for “The Wellness Curveball”
Harvard Business Review emphasizes the importance of creating a supportive and inclusive work environment that promotes work-life balance and values employee feedback. Research from McKinsey highlights the role of effective leadership in managing burnout. They emphasize the need for managers to communicate openly, set realistic goals, encourage, and support self-care practices.
Deloitte’s annual workplace status report encourages implementation of wellbeing programs that prioritize mental health, stress management, and resilience-building skills. Simple examples of this can include mindfulness training, employee assistance programs, and flexible work arrangements. McKinsey results also encourage regular breaks, promoting a culture of recognition and appreciation, and fostering social connections among employees as additional strategies that can combat burnout.
It all sound great, BUT…companies already know this and they have many of the pieces of the puzzle in place. The missing piece is WHY companies are doing this in the first place. Without leaders being “bought in” to the concept of wellbeing as a business driver and seeing it as more than simply a some amenities and perks to offer, then all the wellness amenities in the world will fail.
At worst, some leaders view wellness initiatives as time-wasting perks for “slackers who can’t cut it in the ‘real world or work”.
In case you think I’m being overly dramatic, I’ve heard senior leaders (and some employees) talk this way. It speaks to the invasiveness of the “nose to the grindstone” mentality in corporate culture and why work sucks for far too many people. Logically, we know this isn’t helpful, but it’s not changing as fast as it needs to.
Action Steps to Reduce Burnout and Improve Employee Wellbeing
Here’s a short summary of key actions leaders and employees can take that will minimize burnout in the workplace while boosting wellbeing and performance:
C-Suite Leaders…Begin shifting your mindset in each of the three mindset areas, then help your team shift their mindset
Learn and understand the difference between wellness and wellbeing (Wellness consists of tools and tactics. Wellbeing is the OUTCOME and feeling that people have as a result of their interactions with these tools and tactics. In other words, you improve wellbeing by practicing wellness)
Prioritize employee wellbeing by STRATEGICALLY addressing each of the 8 categories of wellness within your organization
Help leaders and employees across the organization build key skills and habits in each area of wellness (including in their job related technical skills). Common skills include: Mindset, resilience, Mental & physical health, success habits, goal setting, communication, organizational expectations, role requirements, etc.)
Create a supportive, inclusive, psychologically safe, and collaborative workplace culture based on shared values and vision.
Hold leaders across the organization accountable for demonstrating these values and actions each day…even if there are short term challenges and setbacks in making the necessary behaviour changes
As individuals, prioritize personal and self-care habits on a daily basis. (Even better when leaders and organizations actively and visually model and support this in the workplace).
Advocate for change in the workplace! As an employee, seek workplaces that provide the environment for wellbeing. As a leader, act each day to build the wellbeing of your team. This alone will begin to reduce burnout. As a C-level executive, you have the loudest and most influential voice…use it wisely to do good and create change.
Hire a Chief Wellbeing Officer (full time or fractionally) that is separate from HR and a vital and functional member of the senior executive team.
Workplace burnout is a complex issue that requires the focus and attention from individual employees, leaders, and organization/boards. We are at an important crossroads where companies can continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, or they can take the hard look in the mirror that’s needed to change the underlying organizational structures, business systems, and leadership strategies that lead to burnout.
Deloitte, McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, and many other highly regarded organizations and research institutions have been able to back up the increasingly positive statistics with a variety of successful case studies demonstrating the tremendous value in understanding and addressing workplace burnout.
It’s been proven that by recognizing the causes and consequences of burnout and implementing targeted strategies, organizations can create healthier work environments that promote employee well-being, productivity, and retention, but it goes much further than this. Companies must change WHY they implement these changes as well as how leaders think and act each day.
Remember that shifting MINDSET is the first step. Without this, nothing else matters.
Written by Tim Borys.
Tim believes that life is awesome and packed with unlimited potential. His passion is helping leaders and teams bring their best to the world and experience what it’s like to thrive.
As an executive coach and organizational performance consultant, Tim helps senior leaders have success in business AND wellbeing. He works with companies to strategize and operationalize wellbeing across their organization.
Deloitte. (2023) The Wellbeing Crisis is a Crisis of Leadership. Retrieved from [https://action.deloitte.com/insight/3187/the-wellbeing-crisis-is-a-crisis-of-leadership]
McKinsey Health Institute. (2022, October 7) Beyond burnout: What helps—and what doesn’t [https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/beyond-burnout-what-helps-and-what-doesnt]
Edmonton Social Planning Council. (2023, February 8). CM: Job Burnout – Why We Need Equitable Access to Mental Health Services. Retrieved from [https://edmontonsocialplanning.ca/2023/02/08/cm-job-burnout-why-we-need-equitable-access-to-mental-health-services/#:~:text=Another%20found%20that%2047%25%20of,levels%20(Moore%2C%202022).]
Mayo Clinic Staff. (n.d.). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from [https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642]
Harvard Business Review (2023, May 18). More Than 50% of Managers Feel Burned Out. Dawn Klinghoffer, Katie Kirkpatrick-Husk [https://hbr.org/2023/05/more-than-50-of-managers-feel-burned-out]
Hybrid Work Is Just Work. Are We Doing It Wrong? [https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index/hybrid-work-is-just-work]