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Feb 18, 2021

Burnout is old news. The statistics are no longer shocking, nor are the cautionary tales. There’s more burnout awareness in 2021 than ever before, yet somehow people are still just as burned out. 

How can that be? Why, despite the mountain of information and resources available, are we still struggling to cure burnout in our organizations? 

There’s a lot of conventional advice that puts the onus on the employee to “self-treat” to remedy burnout. Learn stress management techniques! Achieve a healthy work-life balance! Get more sleep! Practice mindfulness! The list goes on and on.

But a lot of the time, burnout is a product of the organization, not the person, and the kind of burnout facing most companies today runs deep. While meditation and mindfulness might help for an hour, treating the symptoms won’t fix the underlying cause. In fact, the longer you attempt to self-treat burnout, the worse it will get — kind of like appendicitis, to use a medical analogy. The only cure for burnout— and appendicitis — is surgery. 

Surgery — the organizational kind — involves peeling back the surface layers to repair or remove the embedded policies, processes, and procedures that are contributing to employee burnout. But before going under the knife, it’s important to understand what’s causing burnout in the first place.

5 Causes of Burnout

Burnout usually boils down to one or several of the following:

1. Working beyond capacity.

Employees must feel capable of putting needed time and physical, intellectual, and emotional energy into their work. Burnout can happen when work expectations exceed an employees’ capacity. It’s worth noting that individuals experiencing capacity-related burnout may not necessarily be putting in longer hours. Burnout can also happen when the job demands more emotional energy than an employee has to give. For example, someone dealing with a demeaning or overly demanding client, co-worker, or manager for an extended period of time is at risk of burning out, even if they’re clocking out at 5 p.m. on the dot every day.   

2. Lack of company support.

Employees must feel their company is providing them with the necessary emotional and psychological resources for them to invest in their individual roles. Without that, people will feel like they don’t have what they need to succeed. And when you’re playing a losing game, it doesn’t take long for demoralization to descend into burnout.

3. Not enough rest.

Workers must feel comfortable taking time off — but not just paid time off. People also need opportunities on a daily and weekly basis to rest and recharge, whether that means actually taking a lunch break or not checking email on the weekend. We don’t have an endless supply of energy and focus. The more we use, the more depleted those tanks become. Burnout happens when you fail to replenish those tanks for weeks, months, or even years.

4. Lack of role clarity.

Employees must have a clear understanding of what their roles entail — and what they don’t. When someone doesn’t have that clarity, they also don’t have clear expectations, which means they probably don’t understand how their daily tasks actually impact the business. It’s easy to see why that would be demotivating and lead to burnout. 

5. Low psychological safety.

Workers must feel comfortable approaching their manager for help without fear of negative consequences. In organizations with low psychological safety, burnout is often left to fester because people are afraid to tell someone how they’re feeling. That’s why, too often, the first time a manager hears that an employee is burned out is in the exit interview. So many companies lose high performers to burnout because they’d rather quit than risk looking weak.

5 Steps to Diagnosing Burnout

Now here’s the kicker: Burnout is rarely obvious. People, especially high performers, are exceptional at hiding their true feelings. It can be very hard to tell when someone is suffering from burnout, especially now that so much of our work interactions are filtered through video and phone calls.

So how does one go about diagnosing and treating burnout when you aren’t sure who is suffering from it and what’s causing it? Contrary to traditional Band-Aid approaches, eradicating burnout requires a 5-step, data-driven approach: 

1. Gather data.

When a doctor encounters a sick patient, the first thing she does is ask a bunch of questions: “Are you experiencing pain? Where? On a scale of 1-10, how bad does it hurt? Is it more of an aching, stabbing, or burning pain?”

Similarly, you can’t diagnose burnout without first gathering information on a person’s condition. Last year, I wrote an article about why HR leaders should consider mandatory holiday PTO as a short-term solution for burnout after having tried it at Emplify. The decision came after we conducted an anonymous quarterly survey and found that, across the org, people were struggling with capacity and not getting enough rest.

Anonymous, companywide surveys are an excellent diagnostic tool for burnout. Not only are people more likely to give honest answers anonymously, but survey data will provide insights into which of the five causes of burnout your people are experiencing.

2. Gather more data.

Once you’ve formed a hypothesis about what’s causing burnout, drill down even deeper. Let’s say your survey points to the fact that people aren’t getting enough rest. That could be because they feel guilty taking time off or because they’re actually afraid of taking small breaks throughout the day for fear of missing an important email. Someone could be burned out because, between juggling personal and professional responsibilities, they don’t have enough hours in the day to get all their work done or because working with the kids at home is just plain exhausting.

These nuances are subtle, but ignore them at your own peril. Consider sending another anonymous survey with more targeted questions, or convening a focus group with people from different teams to gather qualitative data through open-ended questions. If you go the latter route, make sure to mention early and often that people’s thoughts and opinions are invaluable and won’t be used against them. You could also keep participation completely confidential and ensure that participants’ names will not be disclosed in any capacity.

3. Use the data to inform “treatment.”

Going back to the doctor analogy, it’s only after you’ve gathered as much information as you can on a patient’s condition that you can make recommendations for treatment. And if you’re intentional and thorough, you should come out of the fact-finding phases with an understanding of the diseased organizational practices that are causing burnout in your people.

From there, you’ll need to audit the written and unspoken policies, processes, and procedures of the affected area. For example, let’s say an entire team is feeling burned out after dealing with an overly demanding and demeaning client. It’s not enough to simply fire the client — because without preventative measures in place, there’s nothing stopping history from repeating itself. In this instance, the organization should consider auditing ideal client fit, scope-of-work documents, contracts, and expectations of account teams, just to name a few things. In doing so, you’ll likely uncover language that needs tweaking, verbiage changed, and policies re-written.

4. Perform “surgery.”

Now comes the hard part: getting to the point where you stop talking about making changes and actually make them. Be prepared for this phase to require time, energy, and resources. You may need to convene a committee.

You may need to put a contract lawyer on retainer. You may need to create a formal presentation explaining to your CFO why company resources need to be rearranged in a certain way and get buy-in from other members of the leadership team. But to protect and help your people — your company’s most valuable (and expensive) asset — this is par for the course. Otherwise, burnout will continue to fester, employees will leave, your culture will suffer, and people will hear about it.

5. Manage the “recovery.”

Once you’ve made the necessary changes to your policies and processes, be thoughtful and strategic about how you roll them out. Organizational change of any kind requires buy-in and adoption at every level, from the top-down and the bottom-up. Since it’s likely that middle managers will be primarily responsible for communicating and enforcing new policies with their teams, take special care to equip them with resources necessary to drive the change.

But resist the temptation to dust off your hands and call it a day at this point. Lasting behavior change takes time and intentionality. Consider scheduling check-ins with managers to answer questions and address issues as they arise, and continue sharing resources until the old ways of doing things are a distant memory.

Burnout is not an organizational death sentence. Many have overcome and helped employees recover from widespread burnout. It takes a lot more than simply encouraging people to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but in the end, the time and effort are worth it. Because your people are worth it.