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Burnout Is Real, On the Rise, and Retractable

Discover how the best leaders help their teams prevent burnout.

“I am OVER quarantine today. You?” That was the email I received from a beloved former client just a few days ago. I laughed, whole-heartedly agreed, and felt pangs of sadness. Some days I feel like I am drowning in a puddle. Other days, I feel okay. What I don’t feel is how I did six months ago.

Being in quarantine for months has put a huge strain on everyone’s wellbeing. As a result, whether we’re aware of it, we are now all putting a lot of energy into simply avoiding burnout. If you're a leader, you are likely not only doing this for yourself but also your team.

What is Burnout?

Burnout may sound abstract, but it is real, and during the pandemic, it has been on the rise.

According to the World Health Organization, burnout results from, "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO further notes that burnout is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. reduced professional efficacy

Since many people have lost work during the pandemic or lost their ability to move the dial on work-related projects, it is not surprising that burnout is on the rise. In fact, according to a Korn Ferry survey of 7,000 employees, by May 2020, 73 percent of American professionals were feeling burned-out. Several months later, this figure is now likely much higher. Since May, the pandemic has spread in many parts of the United States and millions of summer vacations have been canceled. People are working harder and with even more uncertainty than they were earlier in the pandemic.

However, even before COVID-19 upended how and where we work, burnout was already a problem. Pre-pandemic, the cost of burnout was estimated to be anywhere from $125 to $190 billion annually. Burnout also has many known causes: managers failing to provide meaningful feedback; lack of time to reflect on one’s purpose at work; and workplaces that simply fail to inspire and challenge their employees.

How Leaders Can Prevent Burnout

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to turn organizations upside-down, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a new study on workplace burnout. The study outlined twelve factors in three categories that proactively prevent burnout:


  • Increasing/maintaining job control
  • Increasing/maintaining supervisor social support
  • Increasing/maintaining co-worker social support
  • Feedback seeking
  • Seeking/performing tasks that energize
  • Reducing hindering job demands


  • Increasing/maintaining home autonomy
  • Increasing/maintaining home social support
  • Reducing work-home conflict


  • Improving/maintaining physical health
  • Developing/maintaining psychological wellbeing
  • Engaging in relaxing activities

While leaders can’t control what happens at home or on a personal level, they can control what happens in the work domain.

Increasing and Maintaining Job Control

First, create clear expectations with success criteria. What success looks like now may not match what it looked like six months ago. If things have changed, be clear about your new expectations. Second, be transparent about significant decisions. If you have to layoff or furlough workers, being transparent about the decision process will help workers feel more in control, even as they face the prospect of being let go.

Increasing and Maintaining Supervisor Social Support

In 2020, “It’s lonely at top” has become “It’s lonely at home.” Recognize that even at home surrounded by family, some workers may feel lonely. Also, create laser clarity on meetings to limit Zoom time. Before the pandemic, we were already over-inviting and over-attending meetings. Now that meetings are happening online, be even more judicious about who is invited and what is on the agenda. Also, remember that smaller meetings are more likely to foster authentic connections, especially online.

Increasing and Maintaining Coworker Social Support

One of the greatest impacts of COVID-19 has been its impact on coworker social support networks. Overnight, people we talked to every day in the elevator, over coffee, or after work, were no longer in our daily lives. Encourage your employees to keep building support networks, including mentorship relationships.

Feedback Seeking

Working remotely should not feel like you are working in the wild. Intentionally take time out to provide real-time feedback and calibrate. Aim to increase how often these calibrations happen. While you’re at it, find ways to express your gratitude. Especially as burnout is on the rise, it is important for employees to hear that their work is being acknowledged and valued.

Seeking and Performing Tasks that Energize

The repetition of the pandemic is both depleting and depersonalizing. Seeing progress on challenging projects and feeling like we are gaining traction are two key ways to trigger greater flow. Even if key projects have slowed down, as a leader, take time out to highlight where and how your team members are continuing to make progress.

Reducing Hindering Job Demands

Working remotely, especially while caring for children and supervising online schooling, is challenging. To help your employees, consider clearing the decks. Get clear on your top priorities and push nice-to-have projects to the backburner, at least for now. This will help everyone focus on the things that really matter.

Sadly, no matter how much we wish we were "over quarantine," we’re not and won’t be for a while. Still, doing our part to flatten the curve doesn’t mean that we have to flatten our souls or stop moving the dial on essential projects. Leaders have an opportunity and obligation to intervene. While they may be unable to prevent burnout entirely, they can take actionable steps to mitigate its effects on their team members.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock


Garton, Eric. Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person. Harvard Business Review (6 April 2017),…

Otto, M., Van Ruysseveldt, J., Hoefsmit, N., & Dam, K. V. (2020). The Development of a Proactive Burnout Prevention Inventory: How Employees Can Contribute to Reduce Burnout Risks. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(5), 1711.

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