From Burnout to Resilience: A Guide for Leaders

Great leaders don't just manage burnout, they inspire resilience.

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1. What is burnout?

Burnout is a term that has gained widespread recognition, particularly within the corporate world, yet it remains somewhat elusive in its definition. A study published on JAMA found 142 unique definitions for burnout. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is classified as an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. While researchers agree on one common trait—exhaustion—it is important to note that burnout is not officially classified as a medical condition or mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

What burnout is not:

  • Burnout is not simply being tired: Everyone experiences fatigue from time to time, especially after long periods of intense work. However, burnout goes beyond mere tiredness. It is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
  • Burnout is not a lack of motivation: While burnout can lead to a decrease in motivation, it is not synonymous with it. A lack of motivation might stem from various factors such as boredom or misalignment with one’s role, whereas burnout is specifically related to chronic workplace stress
  • Burnout is not clinical depression: An excellent ScienceNews article suggests that burnout may be a mild form of depression. Although burnout shares some symptoms with depression, such as extreme fatigue and feelings of hopelessness, they must be addressed as distinct conditions. Depression affects various aspects of life and requires medical diagnosis and treatment. Burnout is generally related to one’s professional environment.
  • Burnout is not a sign of weakness: Experiencing burnout does not mean that an individual is weak or incapable. It is a response to prolonged exposure to stressors and often affects high achievers and dedicated employees.

The Origins and Popularization of Burnout

The concept of burnout was first introduced by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He used it to describe the effects of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions such as healthcare. Freudenberger observed that workers in these fields often experienced a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, leading to a decrease in job performance and personal well-being.

Over time, the term gained traction and began to be applied more broadly across various industries. The increasing demands of modern workplaces, characterized by long hours, high pressure, and rapid technological changes, have further amplified the relevance of burnout. Studies and surveys have repeatedly highlighted its prevalence, prompting organizations and researchers to seek effective strategies for prevention and recovery.

By understanding what burnout is and what it isn’t, we can better understand this complex phenomenon and develop targeted interventions to foster resilience and well-being within the workplace.

Why address burnout?

42%

of healthcare workers reported feeling burned out often or very often

77%

of employees reported experiencing burnout at their current job

2.6X

burnout employees are more likely to seek a new job

90%

employees report less burnout if their employer offers a wellness program

Ignoring burnout can lead to significant costs, including higher healthcare expenses, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and higher turnover rates. Addressing burnout proactively can enhance employee satisfaction, boost productivity, and improve overall organizational health.

Here are some compelling reasons supported by research and studies.

5 Reasons to reduce burnout

Increased Productivity and Profitability

Research by Gallup shows that high employee engagement, which includes addressing burnout, is directly linked to a 23% increase in profitability. Companies with engaged employees also see a 10% increase in customer ratings and an 18% increase in sales . Engaged employees are more present, productive, and attuned to the needs of customers, leading to these impressive gains.

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Reduced Healthcare Costs

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine highlighted that employees experiencing high levels of burnout have a 63% higher likelihood of taking sick days. By implementing effective stress management and wellness programs, organizations can significantly reduce these costs. Research by Goetzel et al. (2012) shows that companies investing in comprehensive wellness programs can see a return of $3 for every $1 invested.

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Lower Turnover Rates

Burnout is a major factor contributing to high employee turnover. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that workplace stress, including burnout, costs U.S. businesses approximately $500 billion annually in lost productivity and turnover. Addressing burnout through supportive leadership and resilience training can enhance job satisfaction and reduce turnover rates by up to 50%.

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Improved Mental Health

Research published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal shows that employees who participate in workplace mental health interventions experience a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. This, in turn, leads to improved job performance and overall well-being.

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Enhanced Employee Engagement

A study by Towers Watson found that companies with highly effective health and productivity programs have 11% higher revenue per employee and 1.8 fewer days absent per employee per year compared to companies with less effective programs. Addressing burnout contributes to creating a more engaged and committed workforce.

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Our take on burnout

Inspired by our founder Dr. Sven Hansen, we believe in defining burnout clearly and addressing it at its roots. Rather than treating symptoms, we focus on building resilient environments where well-being thrives.

Dr. Hansen explains: “Humans are self-healing systems. Under pressure, we can respond with growth and greater resilience. A meta-analysis showed that about half of people (77.3% in one study) experience post-traumatic growth after severe events.” While the term “burnout” has become widely used, it can sometimes obscure the specific issues individuals face in the workplace.

As a culture, let’s discourage the use of the word “burnout” and focus more clearly on identifying the real causes of the symptoms people experience. By doing so, we can develop more effective and targeted solutions.
Using the Resilience Institute framework, we can better understand and address the various states of stress and disengagement that contribute to what we commonly refer to as burnout:

Overload and Overwhelm
Instead of labeling someone as “burnt out,” it’s more helpful to identify if they are experiencing overload or overwhelm. This can happen when the demands of the job exceed an individual’s capacity to manage them effectively. Signs of overload include chronic stress, difficulty keeping up with tasks, and constant feelings of pressure.

Disengagement and Lack of Motivation
Sometimes, what is perceived as burnout is actually a state of disengagement or lack of motivation. This occurs when employees no longer find meaning or satisfaction in their work. Identifying disengagement helps us address underlying issues such as misalignment with job roles, lack of recognition, or insufficient growth opportunities.

Avoid — Flight Mode
In flight mode, individuals avoid difficult conversations and challenging situations, often leading to procrastination and withdrawal. Recognizing flight mode allows leaders to provide support in building confidence and developing conflict resolution skills.

Defend — Fight Mode
Fight mode is characterized by frustration, impatience, and increased conflict with colleagues. Individuals in this state might be reactive and combative. Addressing fight mode involves helping employees manage their stress responses and develop better emotional regulation techniques.

Collapse — Freeze Mode
When someone is in a collapse or freeze mode, they might feel immobilized, helpless, and unable to take action. This state often results from prolonged stress and can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. Identifying freeze mode is crucial for providing appropriate interventions, such as rest, relaxation, and supportive conversations.

A More Constructive Approach
By integrating a more sophisticated and clear methodology, we remove the emphasis from the vague concept of burnout. Instead, we focus on specific, actionable insights that can lead to effective interventions. Humans are not machines or candles that simply burn out; we are regenerative systems capable of rejuvenation with simple lifestyle and psychological adjustments.

Let’s encourage a shift in our language and approach. By clearly differentiating between overload, overwhelm, physical fatigue, lack of motivation, and the fight, flight, freeze responses, we can more accurately address the root causes of stress and disengagement. This, in turn, allows for more effective solutions and supports a healthier, more resilient workforce.

Key takeaway

Understanding burnout at a granular level allows for proactive measures that prevent burnout, fostering a healthier, more productive workforce.

2. Perspective: Who is to blame for burnout?

By Brad Hook

As a partner at the Resilience Institute, I’ve engaged with many companies where burnout is considered to be a pressing issue. Leaders are eager to support their teams with resilience training and other well-being initiatives.

However, a common theme that emerges in these conversations is the question of blame: Who is responsible for burnout? Is it the individual, the leader, or the system?

The individual

Many people experiencing burnout point to the system, saying that it’s the structure and demands of the workplace that need to change. While there is truth to this, it’s important to recognize that individuals also play a critical role in managing their own stress and well-being. Personal habits, coping mechanisms, and lifestyle choices significantly impact one’s resilience. Thus, individuals need to take responsibility for their self-care, setting boundaries, and utilizing available resources to manage stress effectively.

The leader

Leaders have a substantial influence on their teams’ well-being. They set the tone for workplace culture, manage workloads, and provide support. Ineffective leadership can contribute to an environment where burnout thrives, through unrealistic expectations, lack of recognition, or insufficient support.

Leaders need to be proactive in promoting a healthy work-life balance, offering resources for stress management, and creating an open, communicative environment where employees feel valued and heard.

The system

At a systemic level, organizational structures and policies can either mitigate or exacerbate the risk of burnout. Systems that prioritize productivity over well-being, lack flexibility, or fail to support employee development contribute significantly to burnout.

Organizations need to evaluate their practices, from workload distribution to career development opportunities, and ensure they foster a supportive and sustainable work environment.

A collective responsibility

My hypothesis is that addressing burnout requires a collective effort. It’s not about placing blame on one party but recognizing that everyone has a role to play:

Individuals need to be empowered to take charge of their own well-being and use the resources available to them.

Leaders need to create supportive environments, manage workloads effectively, and lead by example in promoting work-life balance.

Organizations need to implement systemic changes that prioritize employee well-being, flexibility, and development.

By working together, we can create a more resilient workplace where burnout is not just managed but proactively prevented. It’s through this shared responsibility that we can foster a culture of well-being, enabling individuals and organizations to thrive.

Burnout is a reflection of a culture that's strained beyond its limits, where the heat of stress and overwork touches everyone, leading to a domino effect of disengagement, dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, departure from the company.

3. Leadership's role

Leadership in tackling burnout hinges on fostering connection, showing empathy, and setting an example through personal well-being. This approach is supported by psychological research, emphasizing the impact of social support and a positive work environment on reducing stress and enhancing job satisfaction. Leaders who actively engage in discussions about stress, listen to their teams, and seek collaborative solutions promote a culture of well-being.

Physchological safety, a concept highlighted by Amy Edmondson, further illustrates the importance of creating an environment where team members feel able to express themselves without fear, fostering innovation and resilience.

Adapting leadership styles to prioritize mental health and work-life balance not only bolsters team resilience but also aligns with the evolving needs of the modern workforce, embodying a leadership philosophy that values empathy and proactive support. 

The following sections of this article focus on changing perception about burnout and implementing steps, that will prevent burnout spreading in your organization.

INSIGHT

Six signs of burnout that you shouldn't ignore

1. Productivity dips

When the spark of creativity dims and output dwindles, it's not just about resources or deadlines. It’s a signal, a cry for help from a team that's running on empty.

2. Absenteeism rises

More than numbers on a report, each unplanned absence is a personal story, a chapter in someone’s struggle with the overwhelming demands of work and life.

3. Engagement fades

Engagement isn't just participation; it's the heart and soul of what brings work to life. When enthusiasm wanes, it's as if the organization's heartbeat slows, signaling a need for revival and rejuvenation.

4. Staff turnover increases

People don't leave jobs; they leave cultures that don't support them. A spike in turnover is a mirror reflecting a culture in distress, a habitat that's become inhospitable.

5. Health suffers

Behind every sick day, there's a person fighting a battle. An uptick in health issues among your team isn't just a wellness statistic; it's a testament to the toll that stress and burnout are taking on them, physically and mentally.

6. Interactions sour

The quality of our interactions is a mirror of our culture. Negativity, conflicts, and empathy fatigue often point to deeper issues of burnout and stress.

How to have a conversation about burnout

As a leader, recognizing and addressing burnout in your team is crucial, but it can be challenging to navigate these conversations appropriately. While you’re not a psychologist, your role is to support and guide your employees within clear boundaries. Here are some practical steps and questions to help you effectively discuss burnout with your team members:

Starting the Conversation

1. Create a safe environment: Ensure the conversation takes place in a private, comfortable setting where the employee feels safe and respected. This helps build trust and openness.
2. Be empathetic and non-judgmental: Approach the discussion with empathy and without judgment. Let your team member know that your goal is to support them, not to evaluate or criticize their performance.

Questions to ask

1. How are you feeling about your workload and current projects? This question helps gauge their stress levels and workload management.
2. Are there any specific challenges or stressors you’re currently facing at work? Identifying specific issues can help in finding targeted solutions.
3. How do you feel about your work-life balance? Understanding their work-life balance can reveal if they are struggling to manage their time effectively.
4. What resources or support do you feel could help you manage your stress better? This shows that you are willing to provide assistance and find solutions together.
5. Have you had the chance to use any of our well-being resources, like the Resilience Institute’s resilience assessment? Encouraging the use of available resources can be very beneficial.

Actions to take

1. Listen actively: Pay close attention to what your team member is saying. Acknowledge their feelings and show that you understand their concerns.
2. Provide resources: Recommend resources such as the Resilience Institute’s resilience assessment. This can help employees gain insights into their resilience levels and identify areas for improvement.
3. Set clear boundaries: While it’s important to be supportive, remember to maintain clear boundaries. Avoid giving psychological advice and instead, guide them towards professional resources if needed.
4. Follow up: Schedule follow-up meetings to check in on their progress and ensure they feel supported over time. This shows ongoing commitment to their well-being.
5. Encourage professional help: If an employee’s burnout seems severe, encourage them to seek help from a mental health professional. Provide information about any available employee assistance programs (EAPs).

4. Practical Tips to Combat Burnout

For individuals

  • Prioritize Self-Care: Ensure you are taking time for regular physical activity, healthy eating, and adequate sleep. These are fundamental to maintaining your overall well-being.
  • Set Boundaries: Clearly define your work hours and stick to them. Avoid taking on more than you can handle and learn to say no when necessary.
  • Develop Stress Management Techniques: Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises can help manage stress levels and improve mental clarity.
  • Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or professional counselors if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes just talking about your feelings can alleviate stress.
  • Pursue Hobbies and Interests: Engage in activities outside of work that bring you joy and relaxation. This helps to create a balanced life and reduce stress.

For leaders

  • Promote a Healthy Work-Life Balance: Encourage employees to take regular breaks, use their vacation days, and disconnect from work outside of office hours.
  • Foster Open Communication: Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their challenges and concerns. Regular check-ins and an open-door policy can help.
  • Provide Supportive Resources: Offer access to wellness programs, mental health resources, and stress management workshops. Ensure employees know these resources are available.
  • Recognize and Reward Efforts: Acknowledge hard work and achievements. Recognition can go a long way in boosting morale and reducing feelings of burnout.
  • Manage Workloads Effectively: Ensure that workloads are reasonable and that employees are not consistently overburdened. Help them prioritize tasks and delegate when necessary.

Systemic tips for companies

  • Create a Positive Workplace Culture: Cultivate an environment that values collaboration, respect, and employee well-being. This includes setting a tone of mutual support and respect.
  • Implement Flexible Work Arrangements: Offer options such as remote work, flexible hours, and job sharing to help employees manage their work-life balance more effectively.
  • Invest in Employee Development: Provide opportunities for professional growth and development. This can include training programs, mentorship, and career advancement paths.
  • Conduct Regular Assessments: Regularly evaluate employee satisfaction and stress levels through surveys and feedback sessions. Use this data to make informed changes to policies and practices.
  • Promote Workload Management: Develop systems that help distribute work evenly and prevent chronic overwork. This can include resource management tools and regular workload reviews.


‍By approaching burnout from these three angles, we can create a more supportive and resilient workplace environment that benefits everyone involved.

Success Stories

How companies have beaten burnout

Google’s Comprehensive Well-Being Programs

Google is well-known for its employee-centric culture and extensive well-being programs. The company offers a variety of resources aimed at reducing burnout, including on-site wellness and mindfulness programs, access to mental health professionals, and generous leave policies. Their “Search Inside Yourself” program, which combines mindfulness and emotional intelligence training, has been particularly effective in helping employees manage stress and improve their mental well-being.

Salesforce’s Ohana Culture

Salesforce emphasizes a supportive and inclusive culture known as “Ohana,” which means family in Hawaiian. This approach focuses on community support and employee well-being. The company offers flexible working arrangements, mental health days, and comprehensive wellness programs. They also have dedicated teams to monitor and support employee health, ensuring that the work environment remains positive and supportive.

Deloitte’s WorkWell Program

Deloitte has implemented the WorkWell program to address employee burnout and promote well-being. This program includes initiatives like mental health awareness training, resilience-building workshops, and physical fitness activities. Deloitte also offers flexible working conditions and encourages employees to take regular breaks and vacations to recharge.

Microsoft’s Emphasis on Work-Life Balance

Microsoft has taken significant steps to promote work-life balance and reduce burnout among its employees. The company offers flexible work schedules, generous parental leave policies, and support for remote work. Additionally, Microsoft promotes a culture of open communication where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health and well-being. Their “MyAnalytics” tool helps employees track their work habits and encourages them to set boundaries to avoid overworking.

Zoom’s Wellness Initiatives

Zoom Video Communications, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, recognized the risk of burnout among its employees due to increased workloads and remote work challenges. The company introduced “Zoom Free Fridays” to help employees disconnect and recharge. They also provided resources for mental health support and encouraged regular check-ins between managers and their teams to ensure employees felt supported and heard.

Buffer’s Transparency and Remote Work Culture

Buffer, a social media management company, has built a culture of transparency and remote work flexibility, which has significantly contributed to reducing burnout. They offer unlimited vacation days, encourage employees to take time off when needed, and provide resources for mental health support. Buffer’s transparent communication about workloads and company performance helps employees feel more secure and less stressed.

NEXT STEPS FOR LEADERS

6. From insight to action with Resilience Assessment

Imagine being able to understand burnout risk at your organization before it becomes a reality. With our fifth-generation Resilience Assessment, you can. With real-time insights into your team's well-being, you'll be equipped to foster a culture of care and high performance. Our new “Lenses” feature enables you to view data from the lens of:  

Resilience
Engagement
Burnout
Well-being

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