Burnout statistics are tracking in the wrong direction: what leaders can do to turn them around.

57% of the workforce could be classified as burnt out.

These latest statistics are gleaned from Professor Jarrod Haar’s ongoing research through Massey University. Several weeks ago, Jarrod released his latest burnout risk update; this was based on April 2024 data.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  

According to this study, we’ve reached the highest levels of burnout since early 2020, indicating that current figures exceed anything we saw during or directly following the pandemic.

What’s driving the increase in burnout?

Haar points to two key drivers that are contributing to these sobering current figures:

The first is high job insecurity - unsurprising when we consider public sector cuts, job losses, current economic conditions and significant changes to industries like the news media. Alarmingly though, if you’re experiencing high job insecurity, you are 14 times more likely to be at risk of burnout. One of the causes of burnout is a lack of control. High job insecurity is an example of this, so no surprises there.

The second driver however, increases our odds of burnout even more greatly – and that’s a high level of loneliness, or as I refer to it in my book, Beyond Burnout, a sense of isolation at work.

Feeling lonely or isolated doesn’t only occur when we’re working on our own. It happens when we feel disconnected from others at work. Those who are experiencing loneliness or a sense of isolation at work are 30 times (yes, 30 times) more likely to be burnt out.

If it wasn’t already a key priority for leaders to foster a sense of inclusiveness and cohesion among their teams, let it be so now.

Social connection is like oxygen when it comes to our ability to survive and thrive. Given that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it follows that social connection at work is insanely important.

Social connection and a sense of belonging at work can buffer us significantly against burnout. And while some organisations leave this largely up to their employees to create, that’s a mistake. Fostering social connection, creating trusting and psychologically safe environments, and encouraging more meaningful and safe communication should be high on every leader’s list of priorities.  

What leaders can do to build social connection at work?

Leaders can make a significant impact on reducing burnout, just by creating cultures within their teams that foster social connection. This is about creating an environment within your team of trust and inclusion.

Even a leader’s individual relational energy – the extent to which their interactions with others either motivate and invigorate, or drain and exhaust – can have a notable effect on the isolation-causing element of burnout.

The relationship between a direct report and their manager also plays a massive role when it comes to burnout. Showing you genuinely care for your direct reports is critical. My own research, via the Cogo Workplace Wellbeing Survey 2020, found that those who feel that their direct manager genuinely cares about their mental wellbeing are significantly less likely to show signs of isolation, exhaustion, or disengagement.

1. Start with building trust. 

The importance of trust can’t be underestimated in leadership. In fact, it should be your first priority as a leader. As well as being a building block for high performance, trust within a team creates a wall of protection from isolation.

Consider:

  • Do all team members feel safe to share their worries, mistakes, weaknesses and challenges with the other members of the team and with you? 
  • Are they comfortable to speak up and offer their opinions, even (and especially) when they might be different from the rest of the team?

2. Have “how are we going?” conversations. 

Ensure you’re having “how are we going?” conversations, as well as the “what are we doing?” conversations. Focus not only on the task at hand, but also on the relationship and wellbeing of the person charged with the task.

This can be as simple as asking your team as a whole, “what do we need to keep doing, stop doing or start doing to improve our working relationships or team performance?” And it’s by being genuinely interested in your direct reports’ wellbeing. Ask a version of “how are you doing?” and follow this with your full presence and deep listening. Active listening, even for a few minutes, can invite a deeper conversation.

3. Put your own connection oxygen mask on. 

As that overused but useful metaphor suggests, “it’s important that you put your own oxygen mask on before you help others”. 

Ensure you build your own professional social connections at work and in your role as a leader. How can you connect with peers at a leadership level across the organisation?

Continually focus on improving your self-awareness and emotional intelligence too. Just as emotions are contagious, so too can burnout be (the term used in the research is ‘crossover’). Leaders who are burned out “infect” a team in much the same way as if they showed up to work with the flu. So, it’s important that you take steps to safeguard yourself from burnout and build social connections that work for you in your professional life.

Do little things that build connection with your direct reports. This can be as simple as smiling and connecting with people, regularly practicing active listening, calling people by their name and taking an interest in their interests, or remembering the names of their family.

4. Give and seek regular feedback. 

Offer FAST (frequent, accurate, specific, timely) feedback. People need to know that they’re valued and that their contributions are generally positive – and research suggests we should give up to three times more positive and valuing feedback, than corrective feedback. So, shine a light on what you want to see grow in those you lead. The worst thing you can do is give people no feedback at all. That’s isolation-building.

5. Pay attention to onboarding and team building sessions. 

Pay attention to how you onboard people into your team. This not only means getting them up to speed on the task-related aspects of their job, but also how you integrate your new team member into your team in terms of the social and relational aspects.

What you decide to do will vary depending on your organisational culture, but examples might include assigning them a mentor or buddy within the team. Or organising regular, informal catch ups or coffees with yourself and other members of the team, not with any formal agenda, but just to listen and see how they’re going in those early, crucial months. Think about how you introduce them to your ‘ways of working’ or team behaviours.

Spend time during the year connecting on team dynamics and higher-level strategic issues. I personally don’t like the term “team building days”, as it conjures up naff team building activities that make people cringe. But spend at least 1-2 days a year, away from the office, to focus on assessing and improving how your team is working together, with specific actions following these sessions. This not only builds social connection, it improves team performance as well, provided it’s designed and facilitated well. I run leadership workshops like this for executive leadership teams, and most will lament leading up to the sessions that they don’t have time to do this. But I have never (yet) had any member of the team afterwards say that it was not a very worthwhile investment of their time.  

Despite having written Beyond Burnout in 2020, it’s unfortunately still as relevant now – perhaps even more so – than when I published this book. If you haven’t yet got your copy, you can do so here to see the four strategies to help us spot, stop and stamp out burnout. The ‘Socialise’ chapter specifically includes thorough lists of what organisations, as well as individuals can do to reduce isolation and loneliness – plus there are loads of helpful resources included in the Appendices. 

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