4 Things Leaders Can Do to Combat Burnout

Burnout is a big problem. But it’s only in recent times that we’re coming to realise just HOW big.

A recent Gallup study found that 23 percent of nearly 7,500 full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. These statistics climb even higher when you look at certain sectors and professions, like medicine.

Job burnout is estimated to account for an eye watering $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year. It’s been attributed to some pretty scary health issues too – type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol and even death for those under the age of 45.

The financial cost to organisations of burnout in turnover, absenteeism and reduced productivity are well documented – and would give any CEO a headache.

And the World Health Organisation? They’ve just classed it as an official occupational phenomenon.

That’s a big deal.

But as we begin to get to grips with the impact of burnout in the workplace, it’s not just enough to know it exists. And it’s not enough to put the onus predominantly on the individual, when it comes to tackling this bigger than Ben Hur problem.

The relationship between leadership behaviour and the people they lead (and their associated burnout) is increasingly the focus of attention from the scientific community.

And with good reason.More than a few studies have shown a link between unskilled or poor leadership practices and increased rates of burnout. No surprises there, huh?

But let’s not despair. There are several things that you can do as a leader to address burnout in those you lead – and in some cases, yourself. By focusing on the following four leadership practices, you’ve got a great chance to kick burnout to the curb.

1. Know what burnout looks like

Burnout can be sneaky, because it’s, well, a slow burn. This means it can creep up on people. But two of the most prominent researchers in the field of burnout, Maslach and Leiter, have identified three main things to watch out for: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a perceived lack of personal accomplishment. If you start to see any of these three things emerge in someone you lead, especially if it’s a mix of the three, then it’s time to perk up and take notice.

2. Make it ok for people to admit when they’re suffering from burnout

Stigma around mental distress is alive and well in organisations, although we are making baby steps in the right direction. Burnout can affect anyone, including your highest performing and engaged employees. You can destigmatize burnout merely by talking about it more often. Even share your own story, if you’ve suffered from burnout previously.

Don’t make it career limiting when people admit they’re struggling with burnout. The best leaders focus on how their people are, wellbeing wise, as well as what they’re doing.

3. Fight isolation and focus on connection

One of the best antidotes to burnout is social connection. Isolation, whether it’s perceived or real, is a contributing factor to burnout, driven in part by the increased pace of change, technology and disruption experienced in organisations. Create opportunities to build regular connection within your team. Do this in a way that fits in with your team culture and structure.

4. Prioritize and organize workloads

A big contributor to burnout is overwork and having to do your job, without the corresponding resources to do it. And organisations generally try to do too much, all at once, and with not enough resources. Being an executive coach, this is something I get a front row seat to. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Get clear on team priorities and keep them to a minimum. Communicate those top 2-3 priorities until you’re all on the same page. And then focus on ensuring your team has the right resources to achieve what you’re asking them to do. If resources are an issue, you could readjust your goals or get creative, just like Adam Morgan and Mark Barden show us, in the book A Beautiful Constraint.

So by all means, equip your people with resilience strategies. Knock them out with that yoga class onsite. Send them on a time management course. Do all these things which may help combat burnout.

But don’t underestimate the impact that you and your personal leadership practices will have on whether burnout features in your team.

Suzi McAlpine is a kiwi executive coach, speaker and author of award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She has been a leader and senior executive herself, including having been a Director of a high growth recruitment firm and Executive Search Consultant and Practice Leader for a division of global consulting firm, Korn Ferry.


Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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