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Don’t burn out on burnout

Burnout has only become more of a problem for U.S. workers during the COVID-19. There are things people can do, but organizations have a role to play, particularly in the cultures they create and support.

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Don't burn out on burnout


Burnout is an issue for many workers. Depending on the profession, with physicians and health care workers being paramount, burnout hinders productivity and, worse, personal health.

The pandemic has only made the situation worse. According to an online study conducted in November 2020 by Harris Online for Spring Health, a mental health benefits company, burnout is reading epidemic proportions.

  • Work-related burnout affects 76% of US employees.
  • COVID-19 has contributed to that feeling of burnout for 57% of respondents, and politics has been a factor for one in three
  • Most men and women are feeling burnout at work, but women are more likely to report feelings of burnout (80% vs. 72%). Employed women under 45 are more likely to feel burned out than women ages 45-54 (87% versus 74%)
  • Working from home is more often a burnout factor for married people than unmarried (38% versus 24%).
  • Unmarried US employees are half as likely to be fully burned out compared to married people (6% and 12%, respectively).
  • Complete burnout is also more likely among employed parents with minor children than workers without children (12% and 7%, respectively)     .

In short, burnout is real and affects millions of people, and the Spring Health findings aren’t an anomaly. Other surveys have found high burnout among working parents and teachers, as well as pre-pandemic burnout worsening among clinicians.

Ameliorating burnout

Something must be done. “Employers need to be mindful of the pace of work demanded from their teams and the impact on the teams’ effectiveness,” said Dr. Millard Brown, senior vice president of medical affairs at Spring Health and a practicing psychiatrist by training, in an interview with me. “There are times when a hard push is necessary. Leaders need to balance the hard push times with other times to take a breath and catch up.”

Self-care for leaders sets the right example. “Leaders should actively encourage self-care by team members and lead by example,” Brown said. “Keep an eye out for employees who demonstrate a change in work engagement and proactively seek to understand and support any concerns.”

The problem with burnout is that it feeds on itself, particularly in crisis times, such as we are living in now. “Most of us likely need to spend more time with self-care, as we are often harder on ourselves than we are on those around us,” Brown said. “As burnout takes hold, we tend to neglect our self-care further.”

To stop the spiral into negativity, Brown advises: “Take inventory of how you are doing with sleep, nutrition, exercise and use of substances like alcohol, nicotine and others. Pick at least one area and schedule time throughout the week to develop and execute a plan to improve that area.”

Culture plays a role, too

Leaders also need to examine the cultures in which they lead. There are some cultures where executives pride themselves on their hard-charging, work killer hours. Such expectations are counterproductive.

“Teams with a strong shared purpose and goals can push hard towards those goals for a long time,” Brown says. “Eventually, exhaustion will set in, and the team’s effectiveness and efficiency will suffer.”

The trouble is that adverse effects are not always immediately evident. “Employee turnover can be higher than needed due to burnout from this type of culture, causing a further drag on team effectiveness,” says Brown. “I encourage leaders to see if there is a more sustainable path to finding the same results while continuing a strong focus and execution on the team goals. They may find they can keep talent longer and reduce turnover while achieving the same results.”

There are solutions. “Whether it’s offering more flexible work schedules for caretakers or rebalancing workloads that have been skewed by layoffs,” said Brown in a news release. “Employers have a lot of opportunities to support their team members without sacrificing larger organizational goals.”

Facing burnout

The challenge is to act promptly and proactively. “Once an employee reaches the complete burnout stage,” said Brown in the news release, “recovery can become a challenging and long-term process that significantly disrupts both the employee’s life and the organization’s efficacy.”

There should be no shame in burnout. “Do not judge me by my successes,” said Nelson Mandela. “Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” The ability to rise again is a form of resilience.

Getting back up again is not easy. It takes two forms of courage. One, to recognize that you are not as strong as you thought you are. Two, you are stronger than you think you are. This approach is not a mind game. Recognize we all have shortcomings, and by acknowledging them, you can forge a path forward.


John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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