Having strategies to deal with employee burnout can improve retention and engagement rates within your company. So, what is burnout? And how can we and the organisations we respond to the growing demand among millennial employees for healthy sustainable work lives.

Employee Burnout – understanding the key factors is central to making a change.

Ben Searle is an organisational psychologist, senior lecturer at Macquarie University and host of the Mind on the Job Podcast. In a recent episode he unpacked the key ingredients of burnout with Michael Lighter, Professor of Industrial and Organisational Psychology from Deakin University.

Michael explains while certain risk factors of employee burnout are still being identified, a key factor is exhaustion. Research suggests exhaustion occurs in the presence of demanding or low reward tasks or and, usually, in the absence of work- related resources. When  someone is continually pushed to their limits over an extended period of time without adequate coping skills, resources or support, they can start to get discouraged and this can lead to exhaustion.


Michael also suggests it’s important to differentiate exhaustion from stress and tiredness. Stress can be short lived, tiredness can be different, for example you might love what you’re doing and be tired which doesn’t mean you’re burnt out. Traits such as feeling like every day is a big day, detachment or cynical can be tell- tale signs of burnout and it’s important we upskill managers on ourselves on the signs of burnout so we don’t misdiagnose someone as “just being negative or toxic”.

Inadequate recovery skills and time for recovery and lack of time for relationships can also contribute to exhaustion, as can factors like sleep deprivation and cognitive overload. FIFO workers, executives who frequently travel and working parents experiencing sleep deprivation may also be groups to consider carefully when it comes to burnout.

Micheal suggests another dynamic contributing to burnout is our sense of community or feeling or work has meaning. How we experience our colleagues can contribute to if we feel welcomed or like we are part of a community at work. Everyday interactions like if someone says hello to us or being acknowledged for our work can contribute to whether we feel community. Creating meaningful work is more than a great a mission statement and can have a vaccine like effect in your organisation when it comes to preventing burnout.

Creating meaning and community where we work?

An employee learning skills that matter to them, feeling a sense of contribution or developing a sense of agency can help them feel meaning at work. According to the 2019 Millennial survey from Deloitte, millennial workers value experiences, so learning experiences or facilitated gatherings that encourage us to share stories and learn new skills can help prevent burnout.

When it comes to creating a sense of community, Beth Hall Head of Cotton On University encourages employees and leaders to put relationships first in all communication. She recently shared an example of a training exercise where she asked participants to consider four perspectives before they communicated; us (the organisation), them (the people our communication might affect), we (team or people communicating) and I (ourselves). This contributed to improved collaboration and a sense of community in the team and is now an integral part of Cotton On’s communication style.

Reducing burnout; Quality of life at work and outside of work matters

Our lives outside of work and our awareness of topics like resilience, burnout and wellbeing can help employees and leaders use resources that help them cope and prioritise rest. Conversely, a CEO that isn’t encouraging their leadership team adequate time for recovery or leadership coaching may also be putting their entire organisation at risk of burnout. Eileen Burnett-Kant Group executive of Human resources at Orica recently spoke at the 2019 HR summit in Sydney and suggested sustainable leadership and wellbeing in her company was demonstrated at the top level. Orica’s CEO encourages everyone to bring their whole self to work and actively leads by example by bringing his dog to work and encouraging family time.

Managing burn out
Down time is an important part of managing burn out and creating well being.

There is no one size fits all strategy when it comes to dealing with employee burnout. We all come with our own beliefs and habits that play a part in personal wellbeing and it’s vital to consider this. Older generations may consider it weak to admit their struggling and whereas a younger generation might view accessing as simply a smart way to cope through a period of stress. It’s vital we host gatherings inside our organisations that can help us unpack our personal beliefs and help employee groups consider new perspectives and evidence based approaches.

Goals and our current obsession with objectives and key results (OKR) can contribute to employee burnout, and organisations need to consider trending cultural attributes like resilience and grit. Amelie Williams used to be a successful advertising executive, but after watching a short video on resilience she started to push herself harder and harder. Without the personal or professional resources to cope and driven by a belief that pushing herself harder was required for her role, she became exhausted and burnt out eventually leaving the role and profession.

Burnout and wellbeing at work? Where do we start.

It will come as no surprise that improving the wellbeing of employees can help reduce and prevent burnout. Diya Day is an organisational psychologist at the Department of Education & Training skilled  suggests improved wellbeing practices and training can prevent burnout, improve employee performance and lift engagement.

Diya suggest that it’s vital we unpack wellbeing in our organisation to address root causes when building or rebuilding an effective wellbeing strategy. And we need to explore how we can embed wellbeing practices at each stage of the employee life cycle; from onboarding, to training, performance development and engagement at both a personal and process level. For example, adding wellbeing practices training to your onboarding process or using onboarding as an opportunity to make it clear that employees have a responsibility to develop a sense of community while they are at the company. Utilising pulse surveys, wellbeing assessments and doing a gap analysis can help assess your current state of play and identify actual causes.

Managers and HR professionals are often underprepared to identify and understand mental health challenges and coach and counsel employees to receive the support and change they need. They struggle having these types of conversations. For example, with employees e.g. an employee who isn’t coping may go to their manager and share their feelings, only to be given HR phone number. Leaving the employee feeling shamed, judged and often more isolated.

Bill is a trainer and facilitator in mental health first aid and helps companies like Woolworths upskill managers to identify at risk employees and coach employees on how to handle and respond to these situations.

Starting can be different for everyone. Perhaps your first step is to consult with key stakeholders in your organisation for whom improved wellbeing of employees may have positive consequence. Or gather existing stakeholders and develop a business case utilising key data points like improved retention or your net promoter score. Perhaps a start for you is to influence your executive committee on all things mental health or maybe it’s some well overdue awareness training.

To make inroads fast consider contracting an executive coach trained or organisational psychologist to work with your executive co. Or post your brief on Change Republic , a start-up that makes finding, booking and reviewing solutions from executive coach, trainers and consultants online fast and cost effective.

Improved wellbeing and reducing burnout in our organisations is not just providing extra fruit for the morning tea platter and nor is it about employee benefits. It is a change that needs nurturing. If can feel like a big job but take heart in realising that we’re all just beginning, and progress is better than perfection.