Burnout Through Increased Workloads

Burnout isn’t something that just happens overnight. It’s a slow erosion of coping skills and one’s ability to adapt to the daily chronic stress that finally overwhelms. So, perhaps this is a good time to remind those of us in leadership positions what preventing burnout isn’t.

One of my least favorite suggestions for reducing burnout is telling people, “Just say no.” It’s not as if most employees have the luxury of telling their boss or their clients, “Sorry. No can do.” It’s chalk full of bias, privilege, and worse, victim blaming. Unfortunately, we still see this as the standard advice for reducing overwork.Work, when it feels great and we’re engaged and energized, can bring us significant joy. It is part of what increases our satisfaction by giving our lives meaning and a sense of accomplishment. But, with so many people claiming to be disengaged and unhappy in their jobs, work has taken on a reductionist reputation, much to the benefit of TV sitcoms and humorists.

Though it may seem that combating burnout is an overwhelming and Herculean task, it can be easier than you might think—as long as we have the right tools. And ready or not, we can’t ignore the urgency; we are in a burnout epidemic.

The legacy of overwork has been a problem for millennia. According to Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist, evidence shows that those who dragged and laid the 2.5-ton granite blocks making up the pyramids were condemned to an early grave, and they died with deformed bones and broken limbs. Workers died, on average, between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, compared to between fifty and sixty for members of the nobility. Hawass said, in a New Scientist article, “They literally worked themselves to death.”

Employers are encouraged to design jobs that enhance and motivate employees’ basic objectives for their role. Herzberg’s theory emphasizes the value of recognition and rewards systems as a key ingredient to both meeting needs and enhancing motivation. We’ll cover these later. Herzberg also argues that both motivation and hygiene are equally important. By preventing dissatisfaction, we reduce opportunities for burnout. However, that doesn’t mean it will generate a positive attitude or motivation to work. We must ensure good hygiene—this is a given—but to increase motivation, the work should feel purposeful, passion-driven, and engaging.

Although the concept of occupational burnout originated in the 1970s, the medical community has long argued about how to define it. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), describing it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by three dimensions:

The WHO definition is important because it acknowledges that burnout is more than just an employee problem; it’s an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.

In my experience, good leaders know that burnout is an issue, and companies do their best to offer services and perks to help employees lower their stress and improve their well-being. But let’s be honest: these attempts, however well intentioned, aren’t working. Self-care has been the prevention strategy du jour for decades. And yet burnout is on the rise. Why? Because we’re ignoring the systemic and institutional factors that are the real causes of burnout.

If you want to address the burnout problem, the first step is repeating and internalizing this mantra: burnout is about your organization, not your people. Yoga, vacation time, wellness tech, and meditation apps can help people feel optimized, healthier. But when it comes to preventing burnout, suggesting that these tools are the cure is dangerous. What does this mean? It means that, for starters, we can no longer suggest wellness strategies that place ownership on individuals for preventing and managing their own burnout. Instead, we need to look at ourselves as leaders, at the role our organizations play.