Is Burnout a Personal or Cultural Issue? A Different Perspective

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Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
May 10, 2022

In the past two weeks, a remarkable number of leaders have asked me, “So many of my people are complaining about burnout. What can I do to help them?” I appreciate this question because it acknowledges that there is an organizational and cultural role in employees’ experience of burnout. 

Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress (my emphasis) or frustration.”

This definition leads to all kinds of recommendations for what an individual can do about burnout. Here are just some of the popular suggestions:

  • Get more sleep
  • Eat well
  • Increase your activity/exercise
  • Track your stress
  • Start journaling 
  • Be assertive
  • Learn stress-management techniques
  • Improve your work-life balance
  • Do more things you enjoy
  • Be more mindful

This is just a partial list of all the recommendations that can be found on how to deal with burnout. But they put the burden squarely on the individual rather than looking at the organization and the culture in which employees experience burnout. But burnout is not only an individual issue. It is also a culture issue.

An Organizational Approach to Reducing Burnout

Many leaders in organizations may not experience a great sense of control over the exigencies they face on a day-to-day basis. This is often experienced as stress. If leaders feel that way, it’s likely that employees feel similarly, with some kind of multiplier of that stress.  

There is no single variable or factor that explains the wide variety of stresses that can lead to burnout we see in the workforce. From the popular recommendations offered above, you can see how burnout is often perceived as an individual issue – a problem for the employee, not a particular concern for the employer.

For many people suffering from burnout, a good part of their stress comes from experiences at work that have given them beliefs like “no one has my back.” These beliefs create feelings of risk or insecurity for employees. They expend inordinate amounts of time, energy and effort to protect themselves — from possible mistakes, from showing vulnerability, from asking for help, from taking the types of risks that lead to creative solutions for the organization. These are all things that are experienced individually but that impact the entire organization. This is why a critical part of finding solutions to burnout lies in the organizational culture. And there is one organizational factor that contributes greatly to the experience of burnout: trust.

How Trust Reduces Burnout

While leaders may not be able to control factors outside the organization (the pandemic, logistics, supply chain, acquisition of raw materials, etc.), there are internal factors that leaders can influence to reduce burnout. When they understand that employees are stressed because they feel no one has their back, leaders can begin incorporating behaviors that lead to trust.

Trust is a very well-studied phenomenon in psychology. This is the formula for trust that comes from psychologist Aneil Mishra in “Organizational Responses to Crisis: The Centrality of Trust,” a chapter in “Trust in Organizations, Frontiers of Theory and Research,” by Roderick Kramer and Tom Tyler.

Trust is equal to experience over risk. Risk represents the amount of risk or vulnerability leaders ask of their employees. Experience isn’t random. It comes from four everyday behaviors:

  1. Reliability. Do you have the right metrics in place? Are you using rewards that are meaningful to employees? Do you show integrity by doing the things you say you’re going to do?
  2. Openness. Are you transparent and authentic? Do your people know what’s important to you? Do you interact in a genuine way with them?
  3. Competence. Do your people have the skillsets they need to succeed? Can they grow their skillsets in your organization? Competence is also a two-way street. Are you perceived as a competent leader?
  4. Concern. Do you take a genuine interest in your people? Do they take a genuine interest in each other?

Given this formula, I can say unequivocally that company cultures focused only on reliability and competence tend to have more burnout, higher turnover and lower performance.  Organizational cultures that support and display all four behaviors (reliability, openness, competence and concern) have less burnout, lower turnover and higher performance.  

Why? Because in a culture where “no one has my back,” stress increases as work increases because employees feel at risk, as if they are on an island. Employees spend an inordinate amount of time doing what they must to do their jobs and nothing more.

In a culture where employees experience openness and concern (in addition to reliability and competence), they feel the trust that can only come from a connection to each other and the organization. As a result, they feel less stress and burnout and are willing to take risks and go out of their way, which benefits them, their teams and the organization as a whole.

This is how improving trust in your organization can reduce burnout. Given the formula for trust, what can you do to begin to improve trust, and reduce burnout, in your organization?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note

Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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