Psychologists have studied burnout for half a century. That's a good thing, right? Maybe not. Psychologists tend to view the world through a clinical lens. Therefore, most of the research and recommendations on burnout have focused strictly on the individual and what they can do to cope with burnout (see Workplace Burnout (Part 2): Strategies for the Individual). But how much of burnout is a product of the individual's poor coping skills? We would argue very little. We have seen throughout the literature that employee outcomes (e.g., well-being, productivity) are largely affected by their environment. Said differently, the right leadership style has the power to prevent burnout.
If a leader was interested in protecting her workforce against burnout, where would she start? Researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have the answer. They have identified six key domains of workplace burnout that, if addressed appropriately, can significantly impact the well-being of employees.
Contrary to what some may think, people like to work. That is, they want to feel a sense of accomplishment, whether completing a difficult task, feeling like they are contributing to a greater cause, or learning a new skill. However, when job demands exceed human limits, it can lead to exhaustion and a lack of feeling accomplished. When workers are spread too thin, they cannot dedicate sufficient time to individual tasks, resulting in diminished work quality and even shame about performing poorly.
Leaders need to evaluate the workload they place on their employees. They should consider ascribing to the "do less but obsess" motto coined by management researcher Morten Hansen. Hansen set out to discover what separated top performers from their average counterparts and found seven workplace behaviors that differentiated the two groups. The behavior that accounted for the most significant difference in performance was that top performers only focused on a handful of priorities but poured their full attention into them; hence the term, "do less but obsess." Leaders who limit their employees' work to only top priorities may kill two birds with one stone- they could prevent burnout while also improving their employees' performance. Win-win, right? It's also important to note that crises or urgent deadlines are inevitable in many workplaces. When these arise, the solution is to provide adequate recovery time for employees. Researchers have found when sufficient recovery time is afforded, these high-stress environments don't lead to burnout.
According to researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, human beings have three basic psychological needs- autonomy, mastery (to acquire competence), and relatedness (a sense of belonging). In the workplace, autonomy reigns supreme, as work environments that are more autonomy-promoting are those that yield better outcomes. When employees feel like they have no control over their work, they are more likely to experience burnout. This can be exacerbated by either role conflict or role ambiguity. Role conflict refers to an employee having multiple authorities with conflicting demands. When an employee is pulled in separate directions by two bosses, it can quickly lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, which contributes to the emotional exhaustion component of burnout. Role ambiguity – the absence of direction at work – can be just as dangerous. When employees lack guidance, they don't know where to spend their time and thus feel like their role lacks purpose.
Leaders who promote autonomy in the workplace acknowledge their employees' perspectives instead of the "my way or the highway" approach. They also offer choices when possible and encourage initiation (see Leader's Toolbox: How to Lead Effectively). These behaviors communicate trust, often increasing employee loyalty and motivation and decreasing burnout. To avoid role conflict and ambiguity, leaders should clarify their intent when providing guidance and deconflict with any shared authorities to ensure their employees are fully aware of their role and its left and right limits.
Although many employees claim they don't need recognition, that isn't true for 99.9% of them. People want to feel like they are value-added to an organization. A lack of recognition for work accomplished communicates a devaluing of the work and the worker. Employees who feel under-appreciated may believe their work doesn't matter or develop cynicism towards others. Both of which can contribute to burnout.
Rewarding positive behaviors is the most basic of conditioning principles. When you want to increase a behavior, you reward it. Most people think of bonuses when they think of rewards, but there are other, sometimes larger, carrots than money. Social rewards such as recognizing an employee’s performance in front of colleagues can boost their social status. Having a reputation as someone who is reliable or competent is coveted by almost everyone. Rewards can be intrinsic as well- that is, when the work itself is rewarding. For example, if you know an employee loves to work on a particular project, you can allow them more time to work on it as a reward for their performance. Consistent recognition and warranted rewards will make employees feel appreciated and valued, thus warding off the effects of burnout.
We are social creatures. We seek comfort, connection, and validation from others, particularly those within our social circles, like our co-workers. However, social inadequacies in the workplace, such as conflict, lack of support, interpersonal distance, or an inability to work together as a team, can lead to burnout quickly. Chronic and unresolved conflict is most destructive to workplace morale. When employees feel like their workplace lacks safety, they are less likely to take risks and more likely to be guarded towards others. This lack of belonging will make anyone consider looking for employment elsewhere. Further, when employees view their supervisors as unsupportive, they are significantly more likely to report higher levels of emotional exhaustion.
Organizations with lively, attentive, and responsive communities are least likely to experience burned-out employees. Leaders of such organizations encourage honest communication and transparency. They discourage individual competition and instead create an environment where collaboration is the goal. Intelligent risk-taking is supported, failures are viewed as learning opportunities, and toxicity is stamped out.
Life isn't fair, sure, but organizations should be. Fairness in the workplace communicates respect and confirms a person's worth. When disputes don't allow both parties a voice or when evaluations or promotions are handled inappropriately, it can be perceived as unfair. When employees perceive their workplace as unfair, they are far more likely to experience burnout. In fact, employees who perceive their supervisors as being fair are less susceptible to burnout and more accepting of major organizational changes.
Leaders who want to be viewed as fair should consider being as transparent as possible with their employees. Employees who understand why decisions are made are less likely to interpret those decisions as nefarious. Fair leaders give everyone a voice in a group discussion or while resolving an individual conflict. They allow ample time for all parties to explain their side before making a final decision.
Participating in something you believe in can be one of the greatest sources of motivation. The reverse is true as well. If someone's values conflict with the work of the organization, it can take a toll on their psyche. The technical term for this is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes instances in which someone's beliefs and behaviors don't match. It's a state of psychological discomfort (hence, the name "dissonance"). The greater the gap between individual and organizational values, the greater the cognitive dissonance. And, cognitive dissonance is related to all three components of burnout.
Leaders must spend time getting to know their employees and vice-versa. For example, when an employee has a value conflict with a role, it could be that they misunderstand the purpose behind the role, or perhaps they are simply a poor fit for the position. Either way, managers who spend time coaching their employees are familiar with those employees' goals and values and are thus better able to place them in assignments best suited for them.
Burnout is not good for anyone. Burned-out employees cause both individuals and organizations to suffer. However, organizational leaders can play a significant role in preventing burnout in the workplace. Leaders who keep workloads reasonable, reward employees for good performance, and allow them to feel a sense of control over their work have employees who are less emotionally exhausted. Moreover, leaders who promote fairness, noble values, and enforce a positive culture in the workplace have employees who are less cynical and feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Workplaces like these see the greatest outcomes in employee well-being and work quality, which is something everyone can get behind.