Want to break the burnout cycle? Focus on well-being, researchers say

As much as burnout remains an issue in corporate spaces, it’s never truly addressed at the organizational level, McLean & Co. said. Researchers rolled out a collection of research Wednesday to back up this assessment of the workplace landscape — along with guides to help HR and managers get a handle on the factors that lead to burnout.

There’s an “infinite cycle” of workers experiencing, “semi-recovering” and re-experiencing burnout, according to Kelly Berte, director of HR Research & Advisory at McLean. “To escape this loop, the responsibility of addressing burnout must shift from the employees to the organization,” Berte said in a statement.

Burnout can be addressed, per the research, when HR and company leadership secure psychological safety at work.

It may come as no surprise that about half of U.S. adults in the workforce are suffering from burnout, as an October 2023 report from Aflac suggested. In that workplace mental health trends report, only about half of respondents said they felt like their employer cared about them — a stat that underscores the importance of leadership taking the reins on issues like work-related stress or exhaustion.

Organizational burnout comes from several key causes, McLean researchers emphasized. Burnout can stem not only from heavy workloads and strained manager-worker or inter-worker relationships, but also a lack of role clarity and a lack of worker autonomy. 

Likewise, researchers said a lack of fairness and equity at an organization — value misalignment between an employee and their workplace, McLean researchers said — can cause work-related burnout. To create a future within minimal burnout, the organization said it will be crucial to champion psychological safety; the resource guides highlight ways to do so, which, succinctly, is to “prevent harm” and “promote health.”

A McLean researcher previously emphasized the importance of taking a multi-pronged approach to preventing workplace harm and promoting worker health, suggesting HR professionals focus on: 

  • Organizational norms — the behavior that is generally acceptable at a workplace.
  • Leadership — the values and actions by which the C-suite accomplishes its goals and motivates others.
  • “Artifacts” — the concrete policies and processes that provide the framework for psychological safety.

Noting that there is no “quick fix,” Grace Ewles, the firm’s manager of HR Research & Advisory Services, said in a statement that such initiatives require ongoing effort, commitment from key stakeholders and strong alignment between the organization’s norms, leadership behaviors, and day-to-day processes.

Others have questioned whether employee experience will remain a hot topic in the HR space, but ensuring psychological well-being among workers can be the mental health hack that improves the business in a broad sense. “At the organizational level, root causes can be properly addressed and approaches that support employee health and well-being effectively put into practice,” Berte said.