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Expecting Employees to Fix Themselves Won't Fix Burnout

Organizations have well-being and burnout all wrong.

Key points

  • Research shows that burnout is largely driven by the culture of an organization (West et al., 2020).
  • Even the most resilient employees will eventually break down in an unhealthy work environment (West et al., 2020; Klaver et al., 2020).
  • Here are 5 things leaders of organizations can do to battle burnout.

You know how you have those defining moments in your career when you have to make a decision to either say what someone wants to hear or to say what they actually need to hear? Now is one of those moments — but sit tight and let me rewind a bit.

In early 2020, a leader of a large organization requested my services to speak with their staff about work-life balance. Out of curiosity, I asked what the organization was already doing to support work-life balance. I followed this up, explaining that while I’d love the opportunity to work with their people, I wanted them to understand that even the best science-backed skills taught for individual application can't remedy a systemic problem.

While this level of honesty doesn’t always go over well, once again I feel the need to say what some of you need to hear. Telling your employees (overtly or covertly) that they are responsible for ensuring their own well-being when your organization employs policies and practices that drive employee stress is like blaming a cucumber for becoming a sour pickle after soaking it in a vat of vinegar (Maslach, 2020). Asking employees to "fix" themselves is ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

Employees are facing burnout at record rates
Source: Istock

Research shows that burnout has more to do with the culture of an organization than an employee’s ability to deal with stress (West et al., 2020). Yet, here we are in 2021, still throwing well-intentioned advice and mental health apps at our employees as reactive, misguided measures to address pandemic fatigue and burnout.

While teaching employees science-based strategies for stress management is still a highly valuable aim (when done correctly) — as higher levels of personal resilience are linked to lower levels of burnout — even the most resilient employees will eventually break down in an unhealthy work environment (West et al., 2020; Klaver et al., 2020).

While I’m thrilled to see the recent movement towards prioritizing employee well-being, it's become quite obvious that the way we’re working isn’t working. But neither is our approach to employee well-being.

Burnout is real, it’s becoming rampant, and it can happen to the best of us. But it’s not inescapable. Here’s what organizations can actually do to help their employees.

1. Become educated on burnout. Learn what it is and what it isn't. A couple of points here: It’s not an excuse. It’s not a sign of weakness, laziness, or just a bad attitude. Burnout is a workplace syndrome characterized by 3 distinct features: cynicism, exhaustion, and ineffectiveness. The fact is, you can be both resilient and passionate about your work and still experience burnout under the right cocktail of conditions.

2. Understand the conditions that contribute to employee burnout. While the World Health Organization defines burnout as a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed", their definition is very misleading. First, burnout is not an employee problem, and it certainly isn't just a stress management problem. Burnout is a syndrome resulting from one's job demands (see below) consistently exceeding one's job resources (i.e. supportive leadership, job control, decision latitude, etc.) and personal resilience resources. Here are the top job demands that create an environment ripe for burnout (Lee & Eissenstat, 2018; Deloitte, 2018; Maslach & Leiter, 2016).

  • Workload (Both Underload and Overload)
  • Unfair Treatment
  • Lack of job control and autonomy
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Lack of support and recognition

3. Identify the specific job demands within your workplace that drive stress and burnout. Then, take the hard steps necessary to change the culture of your workplace — as to support the well-being of your workers. Involving employees at all levels, identify, institute, and embed policies and practices to create a healthier atmosphere.

To help with that task, here are five science-based strategies for buffering burnout and creating a culture of workplace well-being.

  1. Upskill leaders. Ineffective leadership is one of the largest contributing factors to employee turnover, disengagement, and burnout (Gallup, 2014). Not only that, but leaders are also susceptible to burnout. Take time to assess leader’s needs and provide them with science-backeded tools to help them better manage stress and their employees. Doing so will help mitigate the amount of stressors employees are subjected to in your workplace. Some of the ideas below may pinpoint areas to upskill your leaders in.
  2. Cultivate connection. The research is clear: Connection is key to employee well-being, and social support has been shown to protect people from burnout (Craig & Kuykendall, 2019). Not to mention, working from home has cultivated a sense of isolation, taking a toll on the mental health of our workforce. Establish concrete practices that facilitate shared, positive experiences as well as opportunities for employees to safely express ideas and concerns. Celebrate wins, big and small. Plan fun, virtual team activities that don't require mandatory attendance. Be intentional in expressing appreciation for all that your workers do.
  3. Activate autonomy. If you’re a micromanager, this one’s for you. Recent research shows that having a high sense of internal job control builds resilience in employees (Lee & Eissenstat, 2018). By promoting employee autonomy, enabling workers to exercise control over when, where, and how they work, you can greatly reduce their likelihood of burnout and enhance their job satisfaction. Encourage self-leadership. Allow for flexible work hours. Engage employees in identifying how they'd like to apply their strengths to their role.
  4. Champion work-life symmetry. Prior to the pandemic, many employees were already working long hours and foregoing vacation time. However, over the last year, the line between work and home life has become completely obliterated, leaving many people feeling as though it’s impossible to separate the two. Given this, it’s critical for leaders to not only advocate for but to also model practices and policies that enable a separation between job demands and home life. Set boundaries around work hours and email/phone availability. Encourage the use of vacation time. Ensure employees have the opportunity to — and feel supported in — taking deliberate breaks throughout the day.
  5. Seek to support. Supervisor support buffers the effects of workplace stress on employees, preventing burnout and increasing job satisfaction (Wu et al., 2020; Klaver et al., 2020). In fact, a Gallup (2018) survey demonstrates that workers who feel they are supported by their manager are 70 percent less likely to experience burnout than those with low support. Be available and check in on your employees, asking them how they’re doing. Listen to employee's concerns from a place of empathy and compassion. Find meaningful ways to motivate and encourage their professional growth.

In no way is this an exhaustive list, but it is a place to start. In the next week or two, I challenge you to pick one of these strategies to begin implementing within your team or organization.

Remember, preventing and managing employee burnout isn’t just the responsibility of the employee; the onus is largely on the organization. After all, you can’t ask someone to fix what they didn’t break. It’s time to begin working in a way that works for well-being.


Cooke, F. L., Wang, J., & Bartram, T. (2019). Can a supportive workplace impact employee resilience in a high pressure performance environment? An investigation of the Chinese banking industry. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 68(4), 695–718.

Craig, L., & Kuykendall, L. (2019). Examining the role of friendship for employee well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 115.

Klaver, M., Hoofdakker, B. J., Wouters, H., Kuijper, G., Hoekstra, P. J., & Bildt, A. (2020). Exposure to challenging behaviours and burnout symptoms among care staff: The role of psychological resources. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. Advance online publication.

Lee, Y., & Eissenstat, S. J. (2018). A longitudinal examination of the causes and effects of burnout based on the job demands-resources model. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 18(3), 337–354.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111.

West, C. P., Dyrbye, L. N., Sinsky, C., Trockel, M., Tutty, M., Nedelec, L., & Shanafelt, T. D. (2020). Burnout isn’t due to resiliency deficit. It’s still a system issue. American Medical Association.

Wu, F., Ren, Z., Wang, Q., He, M., Xiong, W., Ma, G., Fan, X., Guo, X., Liu, H., & Zhang, X. (2020). The relationship between job stress and job burnout: The mediating effects of perceived social support and job satisfaction. Psychology, Health & Medicine. Advance online publication.

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