When it comes to burnout, what’s the latest – and what’s working?

Groov is an organisation I’m a huge fan of. It started when Sir John Kirwan – a founder of Groov – agreed to write the Foreword of my book Beyond Burnout. Since then I’ve had some great conversations with JK and done a customer-exclusive webinar with Dr Fiona Crichton.

This is an article I wrote for them recently. As usual, I have lots of opinions!

Burnout has gained a lot of press in the last two years. When I first researched, wrote, and published my book Beyond Burnout in 2020, Covid had just arrived on the scene.  But even before Covid hit, burnout was an increasing and worrying problem for people and organisations alike – so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.

We can’t blame Covid for all our burnout woes. But it certainly hasn’t helped. As Ben Laker and his co-authors say in their recent HBR article, “If there’s one thing that the pandemic has made obvious, it’s that burnout is a global problem.”

So what have we learnt? What’s the latest when it comes to burnout? And perhaps, most importantly, what is working when it comes to reducing its prevalence?  

There’s some good news and some bad news. I’ll start with the bad news:

It’s on the rise

Burnout rates globally have risen exponentially since Covid hit. There hasn’t been any research I’ve seen that contradicts this trend. And this research is just one of many studies which paint a gloomy picture.

The rise of burnout during the covid pandemic is no wonder, when you take a look at the six causes of burnout:

  • Overwork. No surprises here, but long hours on their own aren’t necessarily the problem. Burnout occurs when we’re lacking the adequate resources to do what’s been asked of us. It’s much more likely when we need to work long hours merely to keep afloat of what’s coming at us.
  • Lack of control. Little or no control over how we do our job, or the way we perform our role, is stressful. We all desire a sense of self efficacy to feel good about ourselves.
  • Isolation. We’re hard-wired for connection, so loneliness has a big impact. Supportive, trusting and connected relationships at work act as powerful buffers to burnout.
  • Values conflict. The greater the gap between individual and organisation values, the more we feel we need to make a trade-offs. Misalignment wears us down over time.
  • Absence of fairness. We’re highly attuned to the concept of fairness – that, and distributive justice affect employee engagement, turnover and productivity. We may not always like what leaders within our organisation do, but if we feel a process or communication is fair and equitable – and that trust, openness and respect are present – burnout is less likely to rear its head.
  • Insufficient reward. These include tangible and non-tangible benefits. It’s not just about financial rewards. We experience this when we perceive an imbalance between how much we feel we invest in our job compared to how much we feel rewarded for that investment.

It’s not much of a leap to see that in the last couple of years, a lack of control, increased isolation and work overload have contributed to increased rates of burnout. Professions that were already featuring (and not in a good way) in burnout statistics – such as healthcare and teaching – have been hit particularly hard.

The challenge of remote leadership

Leadership can be challenging. Leading remotely even more so. Leaders must be purposeful and creative in finding ways to build social connection to buffer against isolation, a major cause of burnout. Always connected doesn’t mean better connected – zoom fatigue is real. As Andrea Alexander says in this Stanford article, “as organizational leaders chart the path toward the postpandemic world, they need to communicate more frequently with their employees—even if their plans have yet to solidify fully. Organizations that have articulated more specific policies and approaches for the future workplace have seen employee well-being and productivity rise.”

Most organisations are still finding their way when it comes to meaningful solutions to burnout.

As I explained in this recent blog post which struck a chord with so many, too many organisations are playing around the edges when it comes to wellbeing and burnout prevention. Burnout won’t be fixed by yoga classes and a fruit bowl in the lunchroom. These should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Unless organisations take a serious look at how they prioritise and organise work, all their other burnout initiatives will continue to be undermined.

So what’s the good news when it comes to burnout?

It’s getting more press. Organisations are waking up to the fact that wellbeing is not some light and fluffy ‘nice to do.’ Wellbeing is taking its rightful place in most organisations’ strategic imperatives. This means that burnout is no longer seen as an individual’s problem – it’s an organisational one. And that’s good news. It’s dangerous to look at burnout in a singular light, or to view the person suffering from burnout in isolation. In doing so, we forget they’re part of the ecosystem. Just like if we treated a sick fish when it’s the water that’s contaminated, the ecosystem is almost always at the root of the burnout problem.  

Because we’re now having more conversations about burnout, our understanding of its causes and the solutions that work, is also growing. There’s more research on burnout now and this is a good thing.

When it comes to burnout, what is working?

When I look at organisations who are tackling burnout effectively, they’re doing a few things:

  1. They’re looking closely at the six root causes of burnout. They’re asking: which one of these might be at play in our organisation? Which of these causes are our employees most at risk for? And then they’re taking strategic and actionable steps to address these.
  2. They’re getting better at prioritising work at an organisational and team level. They’re being realistic about workloads and taking things off their plates when they add something new. They’re proactively looking at what they need to ditch or delay. They’re embracing the idea of making a ‘to don’t’ list, as well as a to do list. They’re reducing the red tape and bureaucracy that litters most organisations – getting rid of the pebbles in peoples’ shoes.
  3. They’re viewing burnout as something which is not relegated to HR, but rather is championed at the highest levels – CEO and even board level.
  4. They’re looking at the ways flexibility could work for their unique context and finding ways to build a level of flexibility into how employees carry out their work. They’re involving their people in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of their work, not just the ‘what’.
  5. They’re focussed on improving leadership capability within their organisations. The research is unequivocal: there’s a direct link between poor leadership practices and increased rates of burnout. But conversely, skilled leadership across a company reduces burnout.  
  6. They’re thinking differently and innovatively about how they build meaningful social connection within their organisations, particularly when it comes to hybrid and remote working.
  7. They’re serious about building psychological safety and trust within their culture. They’re eradicating the excessive politics, bullying and inequity which are lighter fuel for burnout.
  8. Finally, they’re stamping out the stigma associated with not only burnout, but other mental distress in the workplace. As Brene Brown has said, “shame never drives positive behaviour”. And many people are too scared to admit they’re overwhelmed, for fear that doing so will be a career-limiting move. The best organisations make it safe for people to have conversations about mental wellbeing and to reach out for help.

When it comes to addressing burnout, each organisation and team must develop a strategy based on their unique context. No one size fits all. What is clear though, is that this urgent imperative has become even more pressing in the last couple of years – and it will take systemic change (much more than a few fruit bowls) to kick burnout to the curb.

1 Comment

  1. LCDR Charles J Brucklier on September 1, 2022 at 12:57 am

    Hello Ma’am,
    Your comments on how to control “burn out” was very useful. The 8 comments on “When it comes to burnout, what is working?” was also very helpful. The challenge of remote leadership, I found to be purposeful. I used to work remotely, and after years of not being able to around other individuals in my work place, got me in a really bad place. I did not like working alone.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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