Employee Burnout: Are You Relieving Symptoms or Seeking a Cure?

person looking stressed while tenting hands to face over laptop

Employee Burnout: Are You Relieving Symptoms or Seeking a Cure?

Employee burnout is real. And while it’s not new, during COVID it got worse. During the last two years, compounding pressures including hybrid work and high turnover have impacted the stress that employees feel, their ability to do their work, and whether they’ll look for a new job in the next year. This is according to the American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-Being Survey, in which more than 70% of respondents reported that they “typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday.” As a leader, you may be aware of these rising levels of burnout, and you may be taking steps to address it. But how well are your efforts paying off?

Over the last year, many companies have increased their wellness benefits, including well-being days, access to health coaches, meditation apps and on-site yoga. Others have addressed burnout by offering productivity workshops, combat pay and more in-person social gatherings for teams.

These efforts are commendable and certainly have some benefit. Unfortunately, the relief is temporary. It’s like prescribing pain medication to make a patient more comfortable without addressing the underlying disease. In addition, these actions treat burnout as a personal problem stemming from the employee. Viewed that way, many companies respond to the symptoms of burnout by offering programs focused on the individual employee.

But while burnout is experienced by individual people, the biggest factors contributing to burnout are organizational. When asked about aspects of their jobs that undermine mental health and well-being, participants in a study conducted by McKinsey & Company frequently cited the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support. These conditions are not likely to be resolved through wellness benefits alone.

If you want your efforts and investments to have an impact, consider a systematic approach at the organizational level. For example, that could look like:

  • Hiring temporary workers to help manage workloads, absences and vacant positions
  • Saying no to customers or projects that require extensive evening or weekend work
  • Significantly limiting the number and length of meetings to reduce meeting fatigue
  • Looking for misalignment in communications that celebrate or reward overwork
  • Providing some form of childcare support – financial, logistical or practical
  • Involving employees in redesigning jobs and work to be more sustainable

If you’re still thinking that burnout is an employee’s problem, and that employees who suffer from it are simply not resilient enough, remember this: The most resilient employees are the ones least likely to stay in a challenging work environment where their coworkers are lagging behind.

If you’re seeing the signs of burnout in your organization (or experiencing them yourself!) make sure you look past the symptoms to address the root of the problem. The symptoms are a sign that your organization – not just the individual employees who make up your workforce – needs to make some changes.