Leaders are the Cause of — and Solution to — Burnout

Leaders are the Cause of — and Solution to — Burnout

By | March 21, 2024

Why are we still struggling to address burnout in the workplace?

Over the past few years, organizations have spent astounding amounts of money combating burnout. Last year, the corporate wellness market was valued at $61 billion. That number is expected to rise to $85 billion by 2030. Yet, it’s clear that these programs are missing the mark. 60% of employees, 64% of managers, and 75% of the C-suite are seriously considering quitting for a job that would better support their well-being.

That’s because while corporate wellness programs tend to focus on treating the symptoms of burnout (which is still a worthy expense), they often fail to treat the underlying cause: leaders and the cultures they create.

75% of my clients have been showing signs of burnout for months. Our nervous systems have not evolved fast enough to meet the demands of today’s modern organizations. We also have not figured out how to solve for true whole human support — because productivity and results rule.”

Allie Wilkinson | AIIR Boston

Leaders and their Organizations Have Been Struggling with Burnout for Years. It’s Getting Worse, Not Better

Burnout is a perennial problem, one that existed long before the pandemic and that will persist in the future. For instance, Gallup polling from as far back as 2018 showed that more than two-thirds of workers were burned out. But, the uncertainty of the past few years has taken an incredible toll on leaders and their employees.

More than half of workers report that they experience significant stress on a daily basis. Studies show nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress.

  • 26% report lack of interest, motivation, or energy
  • 19% report lack of effort at work
  • 36% report cognitive weariness
  • 32% report emotional exhaustion
  • 44% report physical fatigue


And, the further up in the organization you go, the more pronounced these problems become. Studies consistently show managers report more stress and burnout, worse work-life balance, and worse physical health than members of their teams.

Now, 80% of surveyed global senior risk professionals predict burnout will have a significant impact on businesses in the next year. But only 41% of them feel that organizations are equipped to deal with it.

Burnout Starts — and Could End — With Leaders

In moments of uncertainty, most leaders’ instinct is to double down on their time spent working. That means spending more time at work and less time on their personal health, relationships, and hobbies.

But, we know that humans aren’t designed to function at maximum capacity 24/7. When leaders push themselves past the point of exhaustion, it reduces creativity, working memory, and capacity for problem-solving and leads to worse business outcomes.

The most damaging effect of overwork is its effect on a company’s culture. Leaders play a pivotal role in shaping an organization’s culture. When leaders prioritize productivity over their own wellbeing, they encourage a work environment where long hours, excessive workloads, and the blurring of personal and professional boundaries become the norm.

Faced with pervasive burnout that threatens workplace productivity at every level, it’s up to leaders to cool things down. And, because culture trickles down from the top of the organization, leaders must address their own mental health and wellbeing first.

Leaders Must Start by Taking Care of Themselves

Leaders with unhealthy work habits cannot create organizations with healthy work habits. So, first, leaders need to take care of themselves. Self-care can feel self-indulgent, but it is actually an essential tool for achieving and maintaining peak performance in high-stress or uncertain environments.

Start by taking time off.

Time off should be viewed as mandatory. Taking time to completely disconnect can lead to fresh insights and renewed enthusiasm for work. Bill Gates has famously taken a “think week” every year since 2005 to completely disconnect from work and spend time in nature, sleeping, and reading to recharge his energy and creative capacity.

But, we know that most leaders (and their employees) take far less than their allotted time off. 46% of employees in the US take less time off than their company offers. Many of them don’t want to burden their co-workers with extra work. Some fear they will miss out on career advancement opportunities or possibly lose their jobs if they take time off.

By setting an example, leaders can reduce the stigma around taking care of themselves.

Forcing employees to take care of themselves is infantilizing. They’re adults. But leaders can create a permission structure and culture of self-care at their organizations. When leaders practice self-care, the rest of the organization is more likely to follow.

Next, Leaders Must Take Care of Their Employees

There is something powerful about a leader checking in with his or her team. Some of the most successful leaders we have coached over the years set aside time to check in with individual employees. They offer gratitude for their work, ask them about the challenges they’re experiencing, and ask them how they can help.

Establishing these practices is beneficial in three ways: First, these one-on-one interactions allow leaders to identify areas where their team members need additional resources. Half of employees say their offices are understaffed, and a 2022 study showed the average employee has been logging 8.5 extra hours of work per week as a result.

Overwork is especially pronounced among middle managers, who have 51% more responsibilities than they can effectively handle.

Second, it’s an opportunity to set clear expectations for individuals and the group. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the individual context that may affect employees’ ability to deliver on expectations.

Of course, work has to get done. But leaders can be flexible about how and when that work gets done. Dr. Ann Masten, a psychologist and expert on resilience, pointed out in an interview with the American Psychological Association that often it’s not a lack of resilience, but arbitrary deadlines and unreasonable expectations that drag down productivity and employee morale.

Finally, it offers employees a private and safe space to share their challenges. That creates trust, which is a powerful antidote to burnout. Employees at high-trust workplaces report 74% less stress, 106% more energy, and 40% less burnout than their peers.

A Small Step Toward Solving an Unsolvable Problem

Burnout is a persistent, and expensive problem. The American Institute of Stress estimates job stress already costs U.S. businesses more than $300 billion per year in losses due to absenteeism, diminished productivity, and accidents.

While there isn’t much leaders can do about the economic and political uncertainty or the unprecedented, unrelenting pace of change that is causing much of this stress, they can take steps to correct the cultures of overwork and burnout that they have created.

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