Preventing Employee Burnout: Company-Wide Well-Being Starts at the Top

March 26, 2024


Melinta Case Study


Want to create a sustainable company culture that prioritizes work-life balance? Put on your own oxygen mask first. 

Burnout is far too common among today’s workforce, and leadership is not immune. A 2022 report from Deloitte found that approximately 70% of high-level executives have considered quitting to improve their emotional well-being. That’s the same, if not more, than is reported by employees at other levels.

Burnout is not a new phenomenon, but between the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and massive waves of recent layoffs, employees company-wide are understaffed and overworked. As an executive or manager, you cannot take care of your team’s well-being if you, yourself, are not mentally and emotionally fit to lead. 

The bad news: burnout has risen in recent years. The good news: company leaders can — and should — take steps to prevent burnout for themselves and their employees. Understanding the causes and symptoms of burnout will make it easier to identify burnout and take the necessary steps to beat burnout before it impacts your health, personal life, and business.

What is Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome that results from prolonged mental, physical, and/or emotional stress in the workplace. It is characterized by: 

  1. Feeling depleted and/or exhausted.
  2. Increased negativity, cynicism, and/or mental distance from one’s job. 
  3. Decreased efficacy. 

Burnout has also been included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Professionally, burnout can lead to employee turnover, workplace accidents, missed opportunities, and lost revenue. There are negative personal consequences as well.

Causes of Workplace Burnout

Work-related burnout happens when you’re consistently overwhelmed and/or feeling drained at work. Some of the most common causes of burnout in employees are:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Unmanageable/unrealistic workloads
  • Unclear expectations
  • Unreasonable deadlines
  • Perceived lack of control 
  • Lack of communication and support from management
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Inadequate or non-existent support systems 

A Gallup report showed that employees who experience burnout are 2.6 times more likely to leave their job. The same report suggested that the quality of a manager was the most important factor in burnout — i.e. the more a manager acts as an advocate for their employees, the less likely that employees experienced burnout.

What Causes Burnout in Executives?

The irony of executive burnout is that many managers are experiencing burnout as a result of so many employees feeling burnt out. In addition to the above causes of employee burnout, leaders can experience burnout as a result of: 

  • Long-term stress
  • Job uncertainty
  • Long hours
  • Failed efforts to produce expected results
  • Pandemic fatigue
  • High employee turnover

Unique to leadership is the additional pressure to balance: 

  • Changes to remote/hybrid/onsite work policies
  • Responsibility for employee’s well-being and growth
  • Sole responsible for consequential decisions
  • Answering questions about company change and uncertainties
  • Multi-tasking/lack of time  
  • Feelings of isolation that come with “being at the top”
  • Leading people and company through crises 

It’s easy to see why managers surveyed by Gallup were found to be 50% more likely than their employees to agree they have too much on their plate and reported worse work-life balance. Company leaders have the responsibilities of their own deliverables, deadlines, and performance goals — on top of overseeing and developing their team. 

The same poll showed managers are less likely to know what’s expected of them and 67% more likely to agree they have a lot of daily disruptions. Being constantly pulled in multiple directions without adequate time to do your own work or check in with team members is a recipe for burnout from executives on down. With so many competing priorities, many of the causes of burnout have become accepted as commonplace:

  • Chronic stress
  • Too many/weighty responsibilities
  • Working long hours
  • Unreachable standards
  • Expectations to hide emotions in order to appear as strong
  • Expectations to solve complicated, and sometimes conflicting, problems simultaneously
  • Expectations to be available at all times
  • Unhealthy “sacrifice” for others

Leaders shoulder a lot of the responsibility for company outcomes, as well as the constant mental load of day-to-day operations, problem-solving, and management. By giving so much energy to these causes, they are often left depleted when it comes to making time for themselves. Harvard Business Review found that, as a result, executives and managers were left feeling inadequate, isolated, and concerned for their health.

On top of these daily demands, leaders are also watching their employees leave. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 41 million Americans quit their job in 2023. Now, executives are expected to do more with less. 

Check out Velocity’s webinar, From Fatigue to Flourish: Extinguishing Burnout, to hear from President Dan Silvert and Partner Brooke Page-Thompson on common misconceptions of burnout, internal and external causes of workplace stress, how to avoid “climbing the ladder,” and more! Watch here.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

The difference between stress and burnout is that burnout manifests as exhaustion so deep it isn’t remedied with rest or time off. By the time you’re burnt out, your body can no longer produce enough energy to mentally, physically, and emotionally work through problems.  Other telltale signs of burnout include:

  • Constant fatigue/exhaustion (emotional and physical)
  • Lack of creativity/innovation
  • Cynicism or negative attitude
  • Feelings of disillusionment
  • Detachment/resistance to work
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Reduced productivity/taking longer to complete tasks
  • Absenteeism or punctuality issues
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Irritability
  • Changes in appetite

Look for these signs and symptoms in yourself and others around you in the workplace from the C-Suite on down. Spotting signs early can help with faster recovery from — and prevention of — burnout.

Effects of Burnout

Oftentimes people don’t realize they’re dealing with burnout until it’s too late and it has already taken a toll. If left unchecked, the effects of burnout can have a ripple effect throughout the organization. Burnt-out leaders become indecisive, apprehensive, and withdrawn. This pessimism and uncertainty can lead to poor choices, missed deadlines, lack of communication, and as a result, lower employee morale, job satisfaction, and performance. 

Burnout can also be self-perpetuating. If employee morale and performance is lowered, they are more likely to experience burnout themselves. And the more burnt out employees feel, the more likely they are to take time off or even quit. As discussed previously, leadership then has to step in, which leads to their burnout. This may continue to escalate until it causes executives to quit. 

How to Prevent Burnout

Gallup’s analysis found that the quality of your work experience (what you do during working hours) has more of an impact on burnout than the amount of days or hours worked. Happier work beats burnout. 

Building a company-wide culture that values well-being and promotes sustainable productivity starts at the top. To help prevent burnout for yourself and your employees, executives must:

  • Set an example for empathy, kindness, and respect
  • Increase access to mental health resources
  • Implement mental health initiatives/wellness programs
  • Engage your employees
  • Create a supportive culture with open communication
  • Design an employee experience that nurtures development
  • Set and communicate realistic goals and expectations
  • Offer flexible work arrangements
  • Train and educate employees and managers about burnout
  • Encourage employees to bring up feelings of burnout
  • Don’t be afraid of speaking up when YOU feel burnt out

Leaders at all levels also need clear expectations to help prioritize their workload and plan. Take note of tasks that are not aligned with their goals and responsibilities, and restructure as needed to align responsibilities with strengths. Freedom from busywork creates more time for focusing on their team and most important tasks. Managers need to be encouraged in their own professional development and given help setting goals, with a plan for giving and receiving regular feedback. Other ways to prevent executive burnout include:

  • Delegating more/rotating responsibilities
  • Regularly reviewing and making adjustments to workloads and expectations
  • Setting boundaries
  • Setting time limits
  • Exploring interests outside of work
  • Offering training and mentoring opportunities 
  • Receiving recognition
  • Having a clear purpose
  • Having outlets to provide feedback
  • Building a support network of peers
  • Asking for help
  • Prioritizing health (especially exercise and sleep)

Just like burnout can have negative ripple effects, encouraging well-being that begins with executives can have a positive impact on the rest of your workforce — ultimately improving overall productivity and reducing employee turnover. Without intervention, organizations risk losing top talent to burnout. Working to improve well-being company-wide is investing in your most valuable resource: your employees.