Burnout isn’t a personal problem—it’s a company problem

There’s no way around it: you can only work so much until you burn out. Perhaps due to the business mantra of “infinite growth,” organizations often expect that employees will work at their maximum capacity. Forever. However, high performance is not a static state—it’s cyclical, requiring alternating seasons of rest.
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We recently had the pleasure of hosting Lindsay Lagreid, an employee engagement expert at Uplevel to teach us all about burnout. Here’s what we learned…

Burnout is pervasive enough that, in 2019, the World Health Organization recognized it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” All jobs have stress. Not all jobs have successful stress management.

While burnout can be complex, the first step is simple. “Name it to tame it.” We can promote change simply by learning the language to describe the support you need and why you need it. We’ll dive into what burnout looks like on the individual and organizational level, as well as how to recover.

There is a silver lining. Experts say “you can’t burn out if you’re not on fire.” Burnout happens because you care. The alternative is apathy. How can companies recognize and prevent employee burnout?

HOW BURNOUT IMPACTS THE INDIVIDUAL

Burnout can often feel like, one day, a person’s workload gets so high that a switch flips. Last week, you were stressed, but this week, you just can’t focus. In reality, burnout happens in three stages:

  • Exhaustion: First, a person reaches exhaustion. This is not just sleep debt, but a deep, even spiritual, level of depletion—while simultaneously needing to perform or meet a deadline.
  • Cynicism: Next, people often create distance from the source of exhaustion in an act of self-protection. One might start to refer to the organization as “them” instead of “us.”
  • Inefficacy: The third stage is a slippery slope toward quitting. People simply detach. Thoughts like “they need to fix their problems” and “that’s not my job” join the mix, ultimately leading to “I’ll just unplug and leave.”

HOW BURNOUT IMPACTS THE COMPANY

The truth is, burnout looks and feels like a personal problem, but it’s actually an organizational problem. People are often responding to the demands made by their employers. It’s not like companies are making intentional choices to push their teams to the limit; most aim for healthy workloads. Here are three ways that organizations unintentionally impact burnout:

  • Frequent exceptions to the rule. When managers pile new projects onto the full plates of their engineers, they often say things like “I wouldn’t normally ask, but this is urgent” or “I know it’s a lot, but we’ll get a break after this is done.” No matter how true it feels, this kind of rule-bending slowly builds up toward overwhelmed bandwidth.
  • Fixing, not preventing. Leadership teams often take a “fix it” approach to burnout. The conversation sounds like “how do we deal with this?” as opposed to “how can we talk about this with our teams?” Real change happens upstream.
  • Expecting an “Always On” mentality. We simply cannot (and should not!) respond to every push notification over the weekend. It may seem like that would help Monday’s productivity, but being “always on” eventually leads to being “not on.” That disengagement (and eventual turnover) costs the company much more than simply allowing a person to take a mental health day.

HOW INDIVIDUALS CAN RESPOND AND RECOVER

As an individual, you can “name it” and bring these observations to your next 1:1. Reflect on what you need: What energizes you? Depletes you? What do you need to feel recognized? How is your role—and how are you, personally—connected to the mission? Then, reflect on your mindset. Shifting the thought process from “I have so much work to do” to “we have a problem to solve together” can bring a sense of purpose to your workload.

When it comes to recovery, individuals benefit from three distinct types:

  • Detachment: Take a genuine break. Have you ever planned a vacation, only to stress up until the moment you leave the office and answer “urgent” emails from the Airbnb? Detachment requires true separation from the source of stress. This could also be as achievable as logging off early this Friday and setting your phone to Do Not Disturb mode.
  • Relaxation: Do a leisurely, low-effort activity, like playing cards or cooking a meal. Engage your brain just enough to forget about work, but not so much that you’re challenged.
  • Mastery: When work is draining, it can feel revitalizing to reconnect with your other skills. A fantastic way to recover is to do something you’re great at. Bake your famous sourdough bread, work on your macrame, or get gaming.

HOW COMPANIES CAN RESPOND AND RECOVER

At the company level, burnout response relies on a high level of reciprocal trust. It matters if employees can trust the company to care for them—and if employees feel trusted by their company. The age of remote work has reinforced the notion that employers need to trust their employees. The next step is true integration, at both a micro and macro level, to support a healthier working culture.

Incorporate recovery into your regular working schedule:

  • Detachment: Respect an uncompromising definition of “out of office.” When employees are on vacation, or simply enjoying a Saturday, resist sending emails or otherwise interrupting much-needed recovery time.
  • Relaxation: Proactively respond to stressors at work. Encourage employees to block the 30 minutes after their next big meeting so they have protected time to relax.
  • Mastery: Engage the skills that don’t get used in the everyday. Energize the team with a just-for-fun brainstorm or a passion project dev day.

CONCLUSION

When talking about burnout, we learned a metaphor for team dynamics. A working team is like a boat: some people are actively rowing, some are sitting around with oars aimlessly in hand, and others are actively poking holes. The more burned out a person becomes, the less they row, and the more likely they are to sit at the back of the boat, poking holes. We support a healthy crew by empowering engineers to speak up and get help. Employee autonomy and a culture of trust can make all the difference.

Want data to protect your team? Uplevel created a new “Always On” feature to recognize out-of-hours communication, heavy bandwidth, and other burnout risks.