Workplace wellbeing

6 Ways to mitigate burnout in the workplace

The scientific reasons we experience burnout at work and actionable strategies to mitigate them.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

January 18, 2023

Updated on 

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Burnout silently undermines all of the great work our organizations are trying to accomplish. Burnout often leads to disengaged employees, who cost their employers 34% of their annual salary as a result. And the actual cost can be even greater when considering hard-to-measure costs like the loss of productivity, turnover, and top talent avoiding roles with high burnout rates. 

And the pandemic only exacerbated the challenges, leading to new records of burnt-out employees. It goes without saying that the individuals on our teams were dealing with heightened levels of anxiety and uncertainty and needed support in many ways.

The kind of support employees received varied across different organizations. Some viewed burnout as a personal problem. Each employee could manage themselves with the proper productivity hacks and mindfulness practices. But that wasn’t enough; our teams needed more than that. Burnout isn’t a personal problem—it’s an organizational challenge, and leaders are waking up to their responsibility to respond to it. 

In this article, we’ll outline six ways to reduce burnout in your organization.

Burnout and how to solve it - white paper

What Is Burnout?

The term “burnout” originated in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger coined the term to refer to medical professionals who over-worked themselves in the service of helping others. He saw them as “exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.” 

An "occupational phenomenon" 

Today, those same feelings of exhaustion can be present in any profession. Ambitious professionals, celebrities, overworked labourers, and homemakers can all experience burnout. For that reason, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its definition, changing it from a “stress syndrome” to a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO also included burnout in their International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a globally recognized diagnostic tool for the medical community. 

The WHO’s definition of burnout highlights that they classified it as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. The classification was a turning point in asserting organizations’ responsibility to address burnout among their employees.

Symptoms of burnout

The Mayo Clinic suggests several questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re experiencing burnout: 

  1. Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  2. Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  3. Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  4. Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  5. Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  6. Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  7. Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  8. Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  9. Have your sleep habits changed?
  10. Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

Answering yes to several of these questions may indicate that you’re experiencing burnout. Burnout is more pronounced than tiredness at work. It’s prolonged. And the effects of burnout don’t just remain at work. It spills over into other areas of your life and health. 

Causes of Burnout

Since Herbert Freudenberger’s work in the 70s, there’s been a lot more research into the causes of burnout. The viewpoints on specific causes vary, but they all include common themes. Let’s compare two studies into the causes of burnout. The first is Gallup, a global analytics firm recognized for its insight into employee engagement. The second is Christina Maslach, a social psychologist seen as the foremost expert on burnout. She developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a gold standard for measuring burnout.

Research into causes of burnout compared show several similarities

A survey of 7,500 full-time employees
Christina Maslach
Six leading causes from her research.
Unmanageable workload Unsustainable workload
Unfair treatment at work Lack of fairness
Lack of role clarity Perceived lack of control
Lack of communication and support from their manager Lack of a supportive community
Unreasonable time pressure Mismatched values and skills
Insufficient rewards for effort

Researchers agree that workload, fairness, control, clarity, support, and community play a pivotal role in burnout. Another insight is that all of the causes listed except one (mismatched values and skills) are external pressures, meaning pressures from our workplaces. The research clarifies that burnout is an organizational issue, and they play a significant role in mitigating or reinforcing it.

Burnout Is An Organizational–Not Individual–Problem

In the past, employers viewed burnout as a personal problem that employees could solve with various self-help strategies. The view was that employees could take care of themselves by leveraging productivity hacks to get their work done faster and adopting mindfulness practices to remain calm when managing an unreasonable workload. The problem was not their work but themselves.

Although it’s beneficial to build strategies to remain productive and focused, they don’t address the root causes outlined by Gallup and Christina Maslach. Their research recognizes burnout for what it really is: a product of our workplace culture. 

The HBR article, Employee Burnout Is a Problem with the Company, Not the Person Eric Garton, a Bain & Company partner and author, says that the organization is to blame for burnt-out teams. In his research for his book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, he looked inside companies with high burnout rates and saw three common themes:

  1. Excessive collaboration. Garton saw that there were too many decision-makers. He noted endless rounds of meetings and conference calls to ensure that every stakeholder was heard and aligned. Additionally, the “always-on” workplace culture leads to senior executives receiving 200 or more emails per day and employees context-switching so much between tasks that productivity plummets and stress spikes. Further, research from Gallup shows burnout increases significantly as employees work more than 50 hours a week.
  2. Weak time management disciplines. In the companies he studied, Garton saw that employees were left on their own to figure out how to reduce their stress and burnout. He found that most executives have an opportunity to liberate at least 20% of their employees’ time by bringing greater discipline to time management. One way they could do this was by giving employees more autonomy. He found it as one of the greatest sources of organizational energy.
  3. A tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. In one company Garton investigated, managers lost one day of their week to emails and two days a week to meetings. For highly talented managers, they’ll lose even more time to collaboration as their overwork earns them more responsibility and an even larger workload. It was the equivalent of hockey coaches keeping their best line on the ice all game.

Here’s the rub: If you’re a leader, burnout is your problem. You have the responsibility to champion a culture that doesn’t see burnout as a badge of honour. Instead, your organization needs to recognize burnout as a plight to your company’s productivity and well-being. With that said, let’s look at actionable ways to mitigate burnout.

Mitigating Burnout In Your Organization With Mentorship

It’s likely that in every organization, there is some form of mentorship taking place. A leader will take a promising employee under their wing to help them realize their potential. These employees stand to benefit from their mentor’s advice, guidance and professional network. A formal mentoring program can make mentorship more equitable—every employee has the opportunity to be mentored. 

Consider these statistics:

  • 71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs
  • 90% of workers who have a career mentor say they’re happy in their job.  
  • 25% of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate
  • Mentees are promoted 5 times more often than those without mentors 
  • Mentors are 6 times more likely to be promoted
  • 89% of those with mentors believe their colleagues value their work, compared with 75% who do not have mentors
  • 87% of mentors and mentees feel empowered by their mentoring relationships and have developed greater confidence

The numbers are compelling. Organizations that want thriving teams need mentorship. The result of an organization that invests in mentorship is a workforce that:

  • Finds their work more rewarding
  • Empowers employees to drive their careers forward
  • Is more transparent
  • Gives employees the confidence to overcome challenges
  • Has a meaningful sense of community
  • Shares their values

All of these outcomes significantly contribute to less burnout among employees. There’s so much upside to starting a mentorship program. There are many structures workplace mentoring programs can take. There is:

  • 1-on-1 mentorship between leaders and more junior employees (high potential programs, leadership development, succession planning).
  • Peer mentorship between employees at similar career stages (new hire buddy programs, connecting remote teams).
  • Group mentoring where a senior leader mentors several mentees (new manager training, onboarding, employee resource groups).

The goals behind mentoring programs can also vary. At Together, we see mentoring programs designed to:

What’s Next?

To continue learning about mentorship, check out our other white papers, blogs, and webinars, where we explore the benefits and applications of mentorship. And if you’re ready to learn more about starting your own mentorship program, get in touch with us.

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