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Burnout has been replaced by “quiet quitting” as the workplace preoccupation of the moment. Quiet quitting – a term used to describe doing as little as possible at work – is a choice made by the individual. But burnout is not a result of anyone’s choice. Those suffering are victims of circumstances, often sliding into the abyss because they are talented, motivated and productive. That’s why it’s a problem deserving of more attention.

Burnout is rising, according to Suzi McAlpine, author of Beyond Burnout. In a recent article, she cites six prime causes: Overwork, lack of control, isolation, values conflict between the individual and the organization, absence of fairness, and insufficient rewards. The pandemic exacerbated three of those markedly: lack of control, isolation and work overload.

Executive coach Melody Wilding narrows burnout down to three types we must be alert to:

  • Overload burnout: This is the most common, typically affecting highly dedicated employees who feel obligated to work at an unsustainable pace, driving themselves to physical and mental exhaustion. If it strikes you, she says it’s important to develop stronger emotion-regulation skills, including dealing with your negative self-talk. “For instance, you could reframe the belief that you need to work all the time to be successful to ‘enjoying my life helps me become more successful,’ ” she writes in Harvard Business Review. As well, you must separate your self-worth from your work. If overwork burnout happens to people you supervise, you must help them to prioritize if that is an issue, and force yourself to limit what you give them to a more reasonable amount.
  • Underchallenged burnout: This is the opposite of overload and occurs when people are bored and not stimulated by their job, perhaps feeling underappreciated. This could include some quiet quitters. To help, you have to find ways to whet their curiosity about aspects of work, show appreciation for what they do, offer learning opportunities, and allow them the freedom to craft their job so it creates more spark.
  • Neglect burnout: This results from feeling helpless in the face of challenges. Individuals aren’t given enough structure, direction or guidance and find it difficult to keep up with demands and expectations. One-on-one conversations can help address these issues. What can they eliminate from their to-do list? What can be delegated?

Ms. McAlpine warns that too many organizations are playing around the edges when it comes to well-being and burnout prevention. “Burnout won’t be fixed by yoga classes and a fruit bowl in the lunchroom. These should be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Unless organizations take a serious look at how they prioritize and organize work, all their other burnout initiatives will continue to be undermined,” she says.

But despite these challenges, progress is occurring. Here’s what she sees better organizations doing – read the list to see how yours is faring; and where it’s falling short, how you can pick up the slack as a supervisor:

  • They’re looking closely at the six root causes of burnout mentioned above. They’re asking which ones their employees are most at risk from and which are prominent already. That’s followed by strategic, actionable steps to address the problem.
  • They’re getting better at prioritizing work at an organizational and team levels. That means being realistic about workloads and when executives add something new, being willing to take something away or at least defer it. “They’re reducing the red tape and bureaucracy that litters most organizations – getting rid of the pebbles in people’s shoes,” she says.
  • They’re viewing fighting burnout as something not relegated to HR to deal with, but instead championed at the highest levels, by the chief executive officer and even the board of directors.
  • They’re looking at the ways flexibility could be applied more broadly throughout the organization. They’re also getting people to think of the “how” and “why” of their work, not just the “what.”
  • They’re improving leadership capability within the organization. “The research is unequivocal: There’s a direct link between poor leadership practices and increased rates of burnout. But conversely, skilled leadership across a company reduces burnout,” she says.
  • They’re thinking differently about how to build meaningful social connection within the organization, particularly when it comes to hybrid and remote situations.
  • They’re serious about building psychological safety and trust within their culture.

“Finally, they’re stamping out the stigma associated with not only burnout, but other mental distress in the workplace,” Ms. McAlpine says. “The best organizations make it safe for people to have conversations about mental well-being and to reach out for help.”

Cannonballs

  • Executive coach Liz Kislik hates the term quiet quitting: “I don’t know anybody in any generation who is actually anti-work. I know plenty of people who are against work that doesn’t serve their needs, isn’t fairly rewarded, goes unappreciated or is not stimulating – and yet people very often do this work anyway because they need the job, they feel obligated or it’s part of something larger that they care about.”
  • Ottawa consultant Shaun Belding tested providing workers with 16 hours of development training in three different formats to find which worked best: Two eight-hour modules, four four-hour classes and eight two-hour sessions. Sessions of two hours was best on a variety of metrics, including skill adoption. Anecdotal feedback since suggests 90-minute Zoom sessions are as effective as two-hour sessions.
  • Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces, says hotel desking for office workers, in which they have to find a spot every time they come to the office, violates the human desire for neighbourhood and a place of their own to nest. Sharing a specific desk with a colleague who works different days comes closer to providing them a home.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.