Stamp Out Burnout on Your Teams

Everyone gets stressed from time to time. A little stress at work can even be a good thing. But burnout is another matter entirely. Burnout is stress on steroids. It has employees running for the exits and lays untold costs on organizations. In this post, Brantlee Underhill explains what we often get wrong about burnout and what we need to do to keep burnout at bay.

Written by Brantlee Underhill • 6 Jul 2023

Work burnout

I was perusing the Job Prospect Survey results the other day – PMI’s recent survey of U.S. students and young professionals – when I was pulled up short by this data point: 51 percent of young professionals report feeling burned out on the job.

That’s a big red flag for me because job burnout – as opposed to simple stress on the job – can have such negative consequences for both employee and employer.

According to a report by McKinsey Health Institute, employees experiencing burnout are six times more likely than their peers to say they plan to leave their job in three to six months. That, in turn, correlates with two-to-three-times higher rates of attrition, as well as a host of negative issues, including reduced employee commitment and engagement and higher rates of sick leave and absenteeism. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article estimates that 550 million U.S. work days and $190 billion in healthcare costs are lost each year to burnout.

What exactly is burnout and how does it differ from ordinary stress? The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” According to the World Health Organization, symptoms include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling negative towards one’s career
  • Feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Addressing burnout should be a top priority for organizations and project management teams everywhere. Many employers, in fact, attempt to do so by investing in mental health services for their employees.

For example, nine in ten organizations offer some form of wellness program, including benefits such as yoga, meditation app subscriptions, well-being days, and time management and productivity training. And four in five HR leaders across the globe say mental health and well-being are top priorities for their organizations.

But here’s the catch: while we tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, it’s really a symptom of systemic organizational issues and imbalances. As burnout expert Christina Malach puts it, “The burned-out worker might think they are the problem, but actually, they’re the canary in the coal mine. The bottom line on burnout is that it is a social phenomenon, not an individual weakness.”

Gallup data suggest that the causes of burnout include unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, and a lack of communication and support from a manager. And McKinsey says the greatest predictor of burnout is “toxic workplace behavior” – which it describes as unfair or demeaning treatment, non-inclusive behavior, sabotaging, cutthroat competition, abusive management and unethical behavior from leaders or coworkers.

The key to addressing burnout then isn’t in offering additional benefits or even in reducing the number of hours employees work. As the authors of the McKinsey study say, “you can’t ‘yoga’ your way out of these challenges.”

Rather, employers must rethink organizational systems and processes to address toxic workplace behavior and create more favorable job expectations and team working environments.

And they need to be brutally honest about the mental health and well-being of their employees. According to McKinsey, there’s a 22 percent gap between how employees and employers perceive these issues, i.e., employers consistently rate these workplace dimensions more favorably than employees.

So, what can you and your organization do to guard against burnout? Here are several suggestions drawn from Gallup’s Wellbeing at Work report and other burnout experts:

  • Be alert to signs of burnout on your teams. Watch for signs of toxic behavior among employees and monitor your people regularly for signs of fatigue, negativity, cynicism or reduced performance. Make burnout an explicit topic in your periodic check-ins with employees.
  • Remove abusive managers. Gallup data suggests that an employee’s direct manager plays an enormous role in creating an inclusive and psychologically safe work environment. Managers who fail to foster such an environment are a significant risk factor and have no place in our organizations.
  • Increase personal connections. Project management can be a lonely job – as Dave Garrett, Senior Advisor to the CEO, PMI, often says. All the more reason to enhance the quantity and quality of our personal connections – with co-workers and with the broader project management community. If necessary, tap into your local PMI chapter to find support, resources and a sympathetic ear, when needed.
  • Upskill managers to operate like coaches, not just bosses. In a recent blog post, David Altman of the Center for Creative Leadership put it this way: “The role of the leader is to create the conditions that make leadership from others happen.” Managers, he says, need to adjust their mindset and skill set to create an environment where people work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results.
  • Focus on the well-being of your employees. The COVID-19 crisis taught us the importance of taking a holistic view of employee well-being – one that encompasses both physical and mental health. You can help by offering benefits and incentives that allow your employees to exercise self-care, including resiliency training, wellness time, incentives to exercise, and more. 

The key in all this is to stop viewing employee burnout as a personal problem and to recognize the importance of systemic workplace solutions in addressing the issue. The upsides of keeping burnout at bay are significant. One survey found that employees who are not burnt out are 49 percent more engaged, feel 50 percent more psychological safety, feel 30 percent higher sense of belonging and feel 217 percent more supported by their organization. Those are outcomes worth fighting for. 

Brantlee Underhill headshot

Brantlee Underhill
Chief Community Officer and Interim Managing Director, North America | PMI

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