What Can Workers and Employers Actually Do About Burnout?

A woman at an office looking frustrated at her computer.
Burnout is becoming a big problem.

Everyone experiences an off day at work here or there, but if you find yourself overwhelmed, indifferent to projects that normally excite you, unable to focus on the smallest task (and yet you know it’s not just time to change jobs), you’re likely experiencing burnout. The Harvard Business Review estimates that close to 50 percent of people across all different sectors are often or always exhausted due to work—a 32 percent increase from two decades ago. Chronic worker burnout has serious implications, not only for our emotional and physical lives but also for productivity. This is why a recent MEL article on how to talk to your boss about burnout is incredibly important. Up until recently, burnout has largely been perceived as an individual’s inability to hack it, but with half the workforce reporting burnout, it’s now a problem that supervisors need to learn how to handle adequately.

MEL contributor Tierney Finster spoke to “a few bosses, entrepreneurs and business experts about their own experiences with burnout and how to come across as an asset, not a liability, while coming out to your company as burnt out.” This roster of experts gave general—and good!—advice on why you shouldn’t worry about being entitled and how pausing isn’t quitting. Or on how to live a Marie Kondo, minimalist neatnik lifestyle “on steroids” to avoid burnout. And while one of the points of counsel is to come to these discussions with concrete solutions, the article falls short in neglecting to offer specific ones to ask for. Scaling back is the goal, but how are we supposed to get there? It’s easy to imagine walking into a meeting with your boss, telling them you’re feeling exhausted and burned out and receiving a (hopefully) sympathetic, “OK, what now?”

Short-term solutions like a week’s vacation might feel like a remedy, and that’s likely what your boss will offer if they offer anything at all. But once you return from sunny beaches or a relaxed staycation, you’ll be right back where you started and tasked with digging out your crowded inbox. And individual solutions do nothing to help your colleague who might be feeling the same exhaustion you are. Burnout is different from workplace issues like lack of diversity and work-life balance, because it accumulates over a period of time and there’s really no obvious solution for everyone. Instead, there are two paths—the organizational or individual path—both of which require a series of choices that have to be made continually.

One of the better solutions out there for the individual path is having an ongoing conversation with your boss about crafting your job. “It involves reshaping your job to fit you better (it’s like Spanx for work!)” writes Fast Company’s Paula Davis-Laack. Job crafting will be nowhere near as easy as slipping on a pair of Spanx, as it’ll involve continually altering the tasks you handle and rethinking how you relate to your colleagues. Are you really okay with staying until 6:30 every day? Does working with Chadathy, a noted workaholic, stress you out? Does that project that you really love require lots of overtime? In other words, there’s a lot of introspection and trial and error required with the strategy, which isn’t the quick fix for burnout that most employees or bosses want. It also requires a patient and supportive manager, of course.

This is true of the organizational path as well, which involves identifying and addressing commonly shared workplace grievances that lead to burnout, including low pay and inadequate resources. The organizational approach demands an organization that actually cares about you—but if it doesn’t organically, there are ways to pitch burnout as a company loss, especially now that high rates of turnover are being attributed to burnout. With half of America’s workers reporting chronic exhaustion, it’s clear that something needs to be done—at least if we don’t want a society full of overworked, tired zombies cosplaying as humans.