The Upside of the Burnout Crisis

By Kate Lee

There is a silver lining to the burnout crisis. Leaders who recognize burnout as an organizational problem, take action to create an organizational solution, and make systemic changes will build a stronger organization – one poised to thrive.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Wayne Dyer

In the before days, the days when we were blissfully unaware of an impending global pandemic, the prevalence of burnout hovered around 10%. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it served as an accelerant, rapidly increasing the prevalence of burnout to 20%. And, recent research suggests that more than half of employees are overextended, ineffective, and disengaged and are on their way to burnout. We are in a burnout crisis.

What is burnout?

The biggest misconception about burnout is that it is exhaustion. Because of this, people often use burnout as a synonym for exhaustion. Here’s the thing, while exhaustion is a part of burnout, being exhausted doesn’t mean you are burned out.

Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to define and measure burnout. The MBI uses three criteria to evaluate burnout: exhaustion or total lack of energy, feelings of cynicism or negativity toward a job, and reduced efficacy or success at work. A burnout profile requires a negative score in all three. To put it simply, to meet the scientific definition of burnout, one must be exhausted, have feelings of cynicism towards work, and lack efficacy.

Many of the surveys conducted over the past year have used the colloquial definition of burnout, not the MBI. For example, a survey conducted by Indeed found that 52% of respondents reported feeling burned out, with 67% reporting the feeling had worsened over the pandemic. While this survey contrasts with the 20% prevalence rate when using the MBI criteria, we should not discount the research. Nor does it mean there is not a crisis.

recent survey conducted by Maslach and several others combined the MBI with the Areas of Worklife Survey (AWS), which assesses employees’ perceptions of work-setting qualities that affect whether they experience engagement or burnout. The survey found that more respondents matched the burnout profile than those who had taken the survey before the pandemic. The survey also found that those surveyed during the pandemic also scored very high on exhaustion and cynicism — two predictors of burnout.

“These survey responses make it clear that a lot of people are having serious disruptions in their relationship with work,” Michael Leiter, study author, notes. “It’s not surprising that people are more exhausted — people are working hard to keep their work and personal lives afloat. But the rise in cynicism is even more troubling. Cynicism reflects a lack of trust in the world. So many people feel let down by their government’s poor preparation for the pandemic, as well as by the injustices in work and well-being that the pandemic has highlighted.”


An Organizational Problem

Burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual problem.

When the World Health Organization added burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, it characterized burnout according to the three criteria used in the MBI. What’s more, the WHO described burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

How the WHO described burnout is important. Historically, the burden of solving the burnout problem has been placed on the shoulders of individuals; however, when it comes to preventing burnout and addressing the burnout crisis, an organizational solution is needed.

According to Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, burnout has six main causes:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

Looking at the main causes of burnout, it is clear that yoga classes, gym memberships, and wellness retreats will not be effective at addressing the causes of burnout. Instead, what is needed is an organizational solution.


The Upside of Burnout

DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 found that 60% of leaders feel “used up” at the end of every workday, a strong indicator of burnout. Among leaders who said they definitely felt used up at the end of the day, 44% said they expected to have to change companies to advance, and 26% said they expected to leave in the next year. In comparison, only 24% of leaders who reported not feeling used up said they had to leave to advance, and only 6% expected to leave their current company within the next year.

Looking at high-potential employees who aspire to leadership, 86% reported feeling used up at the end of their workday, a 27% increase over the past year. Further, these high performers indicated that they are twice as likely to leave as peers who reported they didn’t feel used up at the end of the day (37% vs. 17%).

Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, a survey of more than 30,000 people, found that an astounding 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year

In an interview following the burst of the dot-com bubble, Jim Collins said, “Today, we’ve got the greatest opportunity that we are going to have for decades to snag a boatload — not a busload, but a boatload — of great people. And great companies always start with who, not what. We can finally get to the right side of Packard’s Law. Packard’s Law is like a law of physics for great companies. It says that no company can become or remain great if it allows its growth rate in revenues to exceed its growth in getting the right people in a sustainable way. It’s one of those timeless truths that transcend technology and economics. Now, instead of trying to accumulate capital, we can accumulate people.” He continued by offering this advice, “If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could. I’d put off everything else if I could afford it — buildings, new projects, R&D — to fill my bus. Because things are going to come back. My flywheel is going to start to turn. And the single biggest constraint on growth and the success of my organization isn’t markets, isn’t technology, isn’t opportunity, isn’t the stock market. If you want to be a great company, the single biggest limitation on your ability to grow is the ability to get and hang on to enough of the right people.”

Organizations that make systemic changes that address the causes of burnout will be at a competitive advantage – they will attract and retain the right people.

Visionary leaders recognize they need to focus not only on the organization’s immediate needs but also on assessing their current situation, the changing competitive landscape, and the strengths and weaknesses of their organization. 

Leaders that place the burden of tackling burnout not on employees but on the organization itself, and those that commit to addressing the causes of burnout, will be able to attract and retain top talent. What’s more, by managing unmanageable workloads and using this information to give employees more control, better tools, and the discretion to figure out how to do their jobs better, and by focusing on aligning the organization, the organization will be more effective and more efficient. Not only will people be better off, but the organization will be stronger and will also realize increased performance and profitability. This is the upside of burnout and what will propel your organization forward and enable you to thrive.

In a BBC interview with Kate Morgan, Maslach said: “There’s that old saying, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. The thrust of our argument is, why don’t you change the heat? How about redesigning the kitchen?”

Right now is the time to redesign how we work and make systemic changes to the organizations.


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