The WHO has described burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This language acknowledged that burnout is more than just an employee problem; it’s an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution. Burnout has six main causes:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

When it comes to preventing burnout we need upstream interventions. Below are some suggestions companies can use to address some of the organizational roots of burnout.

A recent study of some 1,500 respondents in 46 countries, in various sectors, roles, and seniority levels, in 2020 showed that:

  • 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse.
  • 85% said their well-being had declined.
  • 56% said their job demands had increased.
  • 62% of the people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
  • 57% of employees felt that the COVID pandemic had a “large effect on” or “completely dominated” their work.
  • 55% of all respondents didn’t feel that they had been able to balance their home and work life — with 53% specifically citing home schooling.
  • 25% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with family, 39% with colleagues, and 50% with friends.
  • Only 21% rated their well-being as “good,” and a mere 2% rated it as “excellent.”

How to Beat Burnout

There are some easy things we can all do to combat burnout, most critically at the organizational level. Factors that predicted lower levels of burnout include the following:

Feeling a sense of purpose
Respondents said that this feeling helped defend against burnout at work. In fact, burnout scores declined as purpose scores increased: Twenty-five percent of people who felt a strong sense of purpose in their work had not experienced any burnout in the previous three months.

Having a manageable workload
This was one of the strongest predictors of lower burnout. To help overburdened employees, organizations should communicate more about priorities and about what can be put on the back burner until time permits (or perhaps forever).
One of the most glaring issues related to workload was meeting fatigue — it tops the list of things organizations must tackle. To begin to address it, use this simple formula:

  1. Ask, Is this meeting necessary?
  2. If yes, then ask:
    • Does it have to be a video call?
    • Does it have to be longer than 30 minutes?
    • Which attendees are absolutely essential?
    • Can we turn off our cameras and use our photos or avatars instead?
    • Can we do an audio-only conference call for a much-needed screen break?
  3. Start meetings with a check-in: How are people feeling? Does anyone have a back-to-back call? If you’re leading the meeting, set a timer so you can let anyone who does have one jump off five to 10 minutes early.

Feeling that you can discuss your mental health at work
The survey found that nearly half of respondents don’t believe they can openly do this — and 65% of those people experienced burnout “often or always.” The first step toward solving it is to create a culture of psychological safety at work. Tactics to offer employees access to mental health support can include:

  1. A mental health resource page listing your EAP Program and other mental health practitioners that are cause- or crisis-specific.
  2. Reduced hours, flexible hours or even paid time off for anyone who has mental or physical health concerns or who is caring for a loved one.
  3. Having managers check in on their direct reports immediately.  If we have communication plans in place before disaster hits, we can provide answers to pressing issues. Just by asking more frequently “How are you doing?” and “How can I help?” we’ll demonstrate that the well-being of our team is a priority.

Having an empathetic manager
This was the second-most-cited need in the survey, just slightly behind manageable workloads. Communicating empathically increases job satisfaction and reduces burnout. Empathetic leadership requires three things: acknowledging and overcoming any personal biases and privileges you might have; actively listening to your people; and taking action. Next time people say they’re fine, ask again, “Are you really fine? It’s OK if you’re not. I’m here if you need to talk.”