Imagine: It’s Monday morning and your alarm goes off. You hit snooze three times, desperate to extend the weekend. Finally, you open your eyes and, when you get up, you feel as though you’re pushing against a huge amount of weight. You just woke up, but you already feel exhausted. With just enough time to guzzle down some coffee, you pull out your phone to survey your to-do list for the day, but it only reminds you of how unproductive you’ve felt lately.

Employee standing and looking stress, with office hallway behind her

According to a 2020 survey, it’s likely an estimated 42% of you reading this don’t have to imagine that scenario, because you’re living it. You’re experiencing work-related burnout.

And you’re not alone. I mean that literally, not metaphorically. If you are experiencing burnout in your workplace, there are likely other colleagues feeling similarly. Although burnout can feel very isolating, the fact that it tends to operate in multiples—across many people, teams, departments—makes it an organizational issue.

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Burnout is not an individual problem requiring personal coping mechanisms. It’s a structural one that demands organizational change.

Understanding burnout

Burnout is a form of chronic stress. The most basic definition of stress is our biological and psychological response to a demand for change.

For example, perhaps you’re working on completing a report—and a colleague walks in and asks you to proofread something they’re working on. If you have the mental and physical resources to respond to the request, then you typically would not experience an adverse stress response. But if your report is due in 15 minutes, your response to that demand will likely be quite different, triggering a stress response, as the body shifts resources to face a threat. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, which speeds up our breathing and heart, dilates blood vessels, and pumps sugar energy into the bloodstream.

Stress becomes chronic when we experience it over an extended period of time (over the course of months or even years) or repeatedly (say, on a weekly basis). The result, burnout, tends to manifest itself along three criteria: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced productivity.

In the work I do with organizations focused on improving employee well-being, stress often comes up as an issue. We’ve observed in our organizational well-being research that clients with higher employee stress tend to have lower employee well-being in areas like psychological safety, belonging, and esteem.

Organizations typically respond to employee stress with “helpful” individual-level tips for employees, like breathing exercises or gratitude practices. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to build our resilience or develop coping mechanisms to manage stress, these steps rarely address the root causes of the burnout.

That’s because job-related burnout is structural, rooted in the context of the organizational environment, specifically the organization’s systems, policies, procedures, and norms. According to a 2020 paper, “Job Burnout: A General Literature Review,” burnout can result from one or more of the following causes: workload, lack of job control, and lack of an effective performance management system. Each of these is rooted in the organization, not the individual.

At Yes Wellbeing Works, we explored each of these dimensions of burnout through employee focus groups. Here’s what we’ve discovered about each one—and what employers can do to address them.

1. Workload

“Because everyone on my team works seven days a week to keep up, it’s become the norm,” said one focus group participant. “So much so that when I try not to work on Sunday, I look and feel like I’m not a team player.”

How could that norm not result in burnout? Why is this team experiencing so much work that they feel they have to work seven days a week, every week? Here are some questions for managers to ask:

  • Do the cognitive demands of the work exceed the amount of time allocated to complete it? Or is the process to complete the work arduous and repetitive? Then that is likely a work design problem. In other words, how are internal processes, procedures, and performance goals set? What’s not being considered?
  • Is the team understaffed? Did someone resign—and was the workload of that person just redistributed instead of triaged for only the most important tasks until they were replaced? If so, then that may be an organizational design problem. What is the structure of the team? How are roles defined? Which tasks drive the organizational impact of each role?
  • Is the team being asked to do more with less people in order to increase profits (private sector) or retain limited financial resources (non-profit)? This tracks with a challenge with the organization’s financial strategy. What is the organization’s strategy to maximize financial resources? Does that strategy ask too much of employees?

These can be hard problems for organizations to solve—but the important thing to understand is that none of them have to do with any one employee.

2. Lack of job control

“When a key process is changed, we are never consulted, yet we are the ones who have the most experience actually doing the work,” said another focus-group participant. “Then there’s all these problems that come up due to the change that we could have prevented if asked in advance.”

Adult professionals tend to work best when they can work autonomously. When that need is met, they report higher levels of overall well-being and productivity. That’s because having control over how you do your job expands the possible solutions you can use to manage work demands and solve problems. Lack of control contracts those possibilities, potentially making the job harder and causing stress.

Feelings of job control relate to the extent to which employees believe they can make decisions about how they approach their work or have influence over decisions about their work. For example, while many employees in American organizations are classified as full-time exempt employees, who are paid for their output, they can sometimes be managed as though they are paid by the hour. That would be an example of restricted job control.

Some jobs do require repetitive action and regimented processes for completion, as in the manufacturing space. Even in that case, however, there are almost certainly opportunities for feedback and control. In almost all cases, managers decide how much control employees have over their work. The collective behaviors of managers in an organization combine to form the organization’s management system—the people policies, procedures, and behaviors used to achieve the goals of the organization.

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When the management system is designed to primarily serve managers and not the employees, more restrictive forms of management can prevail, limiting job control, stifling creativity, and inducing more stress. Conversely, employee-centric management—an approach based on the individual employee—encourages job control through skill building, growth opportunities, and trust.

3. Lack of an effective performance management system

“If you’re doing a good job, it’s quiet. If you’re not doing a good job, it’s not quiet. We only get feedback in crisis.”

A performance management system goes beyond the annual performance review. Performance management systems are a set of internal tools and procedures that help align organizational outcomes with employee performance. Organizations set (or forget) performance management systems, not employees.

These systems consist of clearly articulated job descriptions, where roles and expectations are spelled out; if not, employees have to invest extra energy to figure out what their contribution should be in the organization. Every employee also needs ways to give and receive feedback regularly throughout the year, as well as a system for rewards and recognition of performance that can have a positive impact on their well-being, the opposite effect of burnout.

In most organizations, the decisions that drive burnout are accepted as fact, best practices, or norms. That’s what’s sneaky about structure—it can have a huge impact without ever being critically analyzed. While individual-level coping mechanisms can perhaps extend the bandwidth of employees ever so slightly, they cannot address the systemic forces that often drive employee burnout. And, let’s be honest, resiliency shouldn’t have to be a permanent professional strategy.

So what should we do?

If you’re an individual employee reading this, then my advice is always to, yes, try to take care of yourself—and if your organization isn’t addressing the issues driving burnout, then it may be time to look for other employment opportunities.

If you’re an organizational leader who has the authority to change the pattern of employee stress in your organization, then commit to taking and catalyzing action internally. We can no longer view employee stress as an individual issue or indicative of someone’s capacity to “cut it.”; that is not a view supported by research. Yes, individual personality factors and personal support resources can make burnout more likely—but that cannot explain the epidemic of employee stress we are currently experiencing, which ranges from 42% to 79% depending on the source.

The bottom line is this: Before you blame yourself or an employee for burning out, first take a hard look at workload, job control, and the performance management system. It’s likely the structure is broken, not the people—and if you don’t fix the structure, you can burn out even more of your people.

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