The ‘essentialist’ leader: Cultivating high-performing teams in the burnout era

With half of workers now saying work causes them to be burned out, Rachel Stanley says a different leadership approach needs fostering: 'essentialism' - doing only what is absolutely necessary:

Article main image
Jul 1, 2024

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, burnout has become a pervasive and alarming phenomenon in the workplace, especially amongst younger workers.

Burnout rates experienced by Gen Z increased from 46% to 52% between 2022 and 2023, whilst for millennials burnout is up from 45% to 49% between in the same period.

We know why. Employees across different industries and hierarchies are finding themselves stretched thin, constantly juggling multiple demands and priorities and struggling to maintain a sense of balance and well-being.

The consequences of burnout are far-reaching, impacting not only individual health and happiness but also team morale, productivity and retention.

The role of ‘essentialism’

As HR leaders though, we have a critical role in combating the burnout epidemic and cultivating high-performing teams that can thrive in the face of ever-increasing pressures.

However, traditional leadership paradigms and practices prioritizing hustle, multitasking and “doing it all” are no longer sufficient – and may even be contributing to the problem.

Enter essentialism, a powerful philosophy and framework that empowers leaders to cut through the noise, focus on what truly matters and create an environment where their teams can do their best work without sacrificing their well-being.

By embracing essentialist principles and strategies, leaders can help prevent burnout while unlocking their teams’ full potential to drive sustainable success.

The essence of essentialism

Essentialism is about dedicating time, energy and resources to the things that matter the most.

In the context of leadership, essentialism empowers leaders to create clarity, alignment and focus for their teams in an increasingly complex and distracting world.

Essentialist leadership is grounded in three core principles:

  1. Clarity of purpose: Defining and communicating the team’s mission, vision and values to inspire motivation and commitment.
  2. Focusing on the vital few: Prioritizing important tasks and projects to avoid spreading thin and maximizing impact.
  3. Elimination of the non-essential: Removing unnecessary tasks or projects to streamline work and achieve exceptional results.

But while these might look like simple goals to achieve, embracing these core principles requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to challenge the status quo, e.g., the traditional leadership approach of trying to do everything for everyone.

Essentialism promotes focusing on fewer tasks and excelling in them.

This approach helps leaders establish a clear purpose and direction rather than just delegating tasks and overseeing operations.

Essentialism-driven leaders also prioritize the well-being and sustainable performance of their teams, recognizing that burnout is a major threat to long-term success.

By embracing these principles, leaders can create a more focused, purposeful and resilient team culture that drives real impact and value.

But what else can leaders do to become essentialist?

Assessing your team’s burnout risk

The majority of employees, 82%, are at risk of burnout in 2024.

This pervasive crisis can manifest as physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, decreased productivity and increased absenteeism or turnover in team members.

These effects greatly impact employees and their organizations, as burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to actively seek a different job.

Common causes of burnout include:

  • Heavy workload, tight deadlines and long hours.
  • Limited control over work and decision-making.
  • Inadequate support, training and resources.
  • Role ambiguity, conflicting priorities and interpersonal tensions.
  • Poor work-life balance.

To proactively assess and monitor your team’s burnout risk, leaders need to prioritize regular check-ins and surveys.

One-on-one conversations provide an opportunity to discuss individual workloads, challenges and well-being, while anonymous surveys can offer a more comprehensive and honest picture of team morale and burnout levels.

By actively listening to your team and gathering data on their experiences, you can identify early warning signs and take proactive steps to mitigate burnout risk.

Note: assessing risk is not a one-time exercise but an ongoing process.

Essentialist leaders must continuously monitor and adapt to their teams’ changing needs and pressures.

Implementing and measuring the impact of essentialist strategies

After assessing your team’s burnout risk, activate essentialist principles by articulating a clear vision and priorities.

Empower team members to focus on essential tasks through collaborative goal-setting and delegation.

Next, promote work-life balance by encouraging boundaries and self-care.

Why? To foster a culture of holistic well-being.

By demonstrating the importance of setting boundaries and practicing self-care, you not only nurture a healthier work environment but also lay the groundwork for investing in team development.

Research shows that employees who feel supported in achieving work-life balance are more engaged and productive, highlighting the significance of integrating wellbeing practices with professional growth initiatives.

Furthermore, investing in team development through training and mentorship is crucial for enhancing skills, boosting engagement, improving retention and strengthening team cohesion.

PwC found 74% of workers want to acquire new skills in their training. Building a competent, motivated and cohesive team benefits both individual team members and the organization as a whole.

As you implement these essentialist strategies, measuring their impact on team success and well-being is vital.

Use key performance indicators (KPIs) to track include employee engagement and satisfaction, productivity and quality of work, and retention and turnover rates.

Use your check-ins and performance reviews as data for how your team is faring.

And don’t forget to celebrate successes and milestones along the way!

Recognizing your team’s hard work and achievements builds momentum, boosts morale and reinforces the benefits of the essentialist approach.

Essentialist leadership is an evolving journey. Leaders must continuously refine and adapt their strategies based on feedback, results and changing circumstances.

This requires a willingness to experiment, learn from failures and make adjustments as needed.

Overcoming resistance for organizational betterment

It’s natural for resistance to emerge when implementing essentialist leadership principles, even in the context of positive change.

In many traditional work environments, the prevailing belief is that success is directly linked to how much work is being done rather than the impact and value of that work.

Therefore, the idea of focusing on fewer tasks may raise concerns about potentially missing out on opportunities, decreasing overall productivity or being perceived as less productive and competitive.

There may even be a fear of change or discomfort with altering familiar ways of working.

Embracing essentialist principles requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to challenge established norms, which can be met with resistance from those who are comfortable with the status quo.

Leaders can address these concerns by communicating the benefits of focusing on the most impactful work.

In my own team we have prioritization framework to help teams focus on their essential duties. We identify daily “wins” and “blockers” to celebrate successes and address challenges in real-time, ensuring team members have the capacity to complete assignments.

We believe our own essentialism approach is working – for both team results and individual success.

In 2023, the team helped increase Banzai’s NRR by 14%. Nine people on my team have achieved career advancements, and her employee retention is exceptional.

Organizational constraints and a culture of busyness may require difficult conversations and advocating for your team’s right to prioritize.

But seeking out allies, sharing success stories and consistently communicating the positive impact of essentialism can help build support for your approach.

Remember that overcoming resistance is a continuous process requiring persistence, patience and adaptability as you navigate the challenges of creating lasting change.

Essentialist leadership offers a transformative approach that empowers leaders to cultivate high-performing teams and combat burnout effectively.

By embracing essentialism, leaders can drive sustainable success and prioritize everyone’s wellbeing.