Addressing Employee Burnout: Where Orgs Go Wrong, and a “Relationships First” Alternative

On the surface, burnout is a business-to-employee relationship problem, worthy of traditional business ops and “HR-accountable” solutions (salary increases, extra benefits/PTO, skills trainings, time management policies, etc.), which is, to a point, understandable.

Burnout easily translates to turnover and lost productivity, raking up a $322 billion (and counting) bill for businesses across the globe. Not to mention, attrition (whether associated with burnout or not) is a bad look for organizations looking to compete in a cutthroat market for talent acquisition.

It’s no wonder – since businesses bear burnout’s effects as threats to their bottom line – that they would address the situation accordingly: with traditional investments thought to “keep employees happy,” such as raises, more PTO, and “perks” like discount tickets or gym memberships. The problem is, it has become clear that these things only serve as mere bandaids for a much larger problem.

In reality, burnout can’t be fixed in the budget, because its cause isn’t (solely) economic. It stems from an internal culture problem, influenced by relationship barriers that pervade every rung of the corporate ladder.

Attrition does not hinge on an individual’s potential, productivity, or allegiance to the company, but on how these considerations are influenced, supported, and communicated to help employees feel rooted to and supported by a community.

The Problem with “Perks” in a Vacuum

Before we get into how and why organizations can leverage relational connectivity (especially at the IC:manager level) to combat burnout, it is important to understand what exactly burnout is, and why popular efforts to alleviate its symptoms are not effective for uprooting the cause.

The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Important to consider: if burnout is earmarked by symptoms that correlate with feelings of depersonalization and shortcoming, what evidence is there to suggest that arguably impersonal gestures – like “wellness stipends” and skills training – would be an effective response?

In reality, these “perks” tend to deflect responsibility for “solving” burnout back on to the individual – to cope with in isolation, although on the company’s budget. And as Suzanne Lucas was clever to explain to Inc…you can’t wiggle your way out of exhaustion with a candy bar.”

Another common argument around why and how employees burn out is overwork. Therefore: lessening or more closely monitoring workloads is the most logical “fix.” This idea is also worth a deeper dive, as there is definitely a case to make for “lightening the load,” particularly at American companies.

U.S. employees consistently outrank other nations in hourly commitment to their jobs, and that’s not a stat worth bragging about. As a capitalist nation, our culture prioritizes productivity over mental wellbeing, and it is increasingly criticized at the forefront of popular media.

Still, while the four-day workweek and other IC-level task management trends are gaining traction, it might help to look at burnout as a separate (although related) “action item” from overwork.


A “sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity” (re: the Mayo Clinic’s views on job burnout) do not imply working too much, but rather: working in a direction that does not feel true to one’s potential or values. 

Not all “work” is equally energy-consuming, and this is largely due to the motivation behind the work.

Research stemming from the 1980s to today identifies six main reasons why people work: play, purpose, potential (all of which improve performance), and emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia – which tend to degrade performance.

Meaning: the highest performing organizations would reasonably hope to:

  1. Lessen economic and emotional stressors as much as possible, and

  2. Work to ensure their employees find joy and satisfaction from their work.

Leadership tends to conflate salary increases and PTO with recognition and motivation (i.e., fuel). However, the research is clear: money doesn’t motivate, and the “energy boost” from time off will quickly fade if employees continue to return to an isolating work environment. If anything, a promotion or extra benefits may only raise expectations for the employee to churn out “better” work: once again increasing emotional stressors.

A more appropriate remedy to burnout: fulfillment. What are employees passionate about, what are their strengths, and how can leaders make sure those things are prioritized in the way people are positioned within and contributing to the company?

This is a matter dependent on the strength of the company culture. Are communication channels strong enough across the organization to support these kinds of conversations? Further: is mobility possible within the current structure of the company, enough to support real action following these conversations?

“Company Culture”

Although it is a topic of intense concern for organizations struggling with attrition (and/or productivity, innovation, etc.), “company culture” has become much more of a buzzword – typically weaponized to win RTO vs. WFH debates – than a signifier of a strategically unified workforce.

Worst case (though not uncommon) scenario: company values are preached from the top-down, managers are left with the responsibility of cultivating a team (often isolated from other verticals), and periodically the whole gang gets together for a “bonding event.”

On the surface, this stratification of initiative is a laughable, though not lethal, byproduct of the corporate structure. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated how these disconnects can easily pull an organization apart.

As employees watched leadership make snap decisions under the pressures of the remote work transformation, social justice unrest, and unending health crises, a “values gap” widened, and focus on individual development – let alone individual fulfillment – slipped to the back of mind in lieu of sheer economic survival. In other words, employees and their orgs grew apart and untrusting of one another.

As things now stand, SHRM reports that nearly half of all employees feel lacking in appreciation for their work. What’s worse, they add: “this lack of appreciation may disrupt employees’ sense of value to the organization and thus their impression of the culture.”

But for the organizations whose employees were already aligned and actively supporting one another, even in the face of these same struggles, talent remained engaged.

Researchers at MIT Sloan found that “companies with a reputation for a healthy culture […] experienced lower-than-average turnover during the first six months of the Great Resignation,” in some cases marked by a 2% vs. 30% gap in attrition rates against competitors.

And just to be clear…a “healthy company culture” isn’t the product of happy hours and team yoga sessions; it is the mark of strong alignment across the organization. I.e., you know what I want, it supports what you want, therefore our values are *mutual (*not to be confused with “identical”).

In other words, employees are not just working alongside one another, but are engaged in professional relationships – communicating freely and productively around individual and collective goals.

So the question remains: where to start, and who is responsible for leading these conversations?

The Blame Game

After HR, the first finger pointed often goes to people managers. And when talking about team building (although in a somewhat untraditional sense), this designation isn’t far from justified.

No doubt: the manager/IC relationship is the glue that holds an organization together.

A Gallup workplace report found that “the manager or team leader alone accounts for 70% of the variance in team engagement,” and it’s not hard to understand why, besides the old “people quit bosses, not jobs” line.

Much of the burnout problem boils down to mobility. Employees who don’t feel they have control over their careers – in terms of attaining promotions, pivoting roles, maximizing their life/work balance, etc. – are the first to tire and resign in search of a “better fit.” But often, the “better” (or even “best” fit) is right ahead of them within their current organization; it’s just a matter of enlisting the right advocate to help them navigate the unwritten rules of corporate.

(For lesser represented populations, for whom biases present additional hurdles to workplace relationships and career mobility, this need for advocacy is multiplied 10x.)

First up to bat should reasonably be the employee’s supervisor, but despite managers holding immense responsibility for engaging and advancing talent, very few are actually trained to do so.

And here is the kicker…

Even the managers who are adept at cultivating employee engagement are burning out themselves, exasperated by lack of buy-in from the top and an overwhelmed team of individual contributors. Furthermore, if the “company culture” isn’t authentic, they are likely grappling with feelings of isolation just the same as the rest of their colleagues.

Bottom line: even the best managers’ efforts can prove futile if 1) they are not backed by the organization as a whole, and 2) if individual contributors don’t know how to communicate what they need or want to thrive.

So where do we go from here, when every level of “the ladder” has its own unique burnout vectors, and bonus: a polarizing political climate wedges additional roadblocks for company-wide values alignment?

Starting the Conversation

A first step to building (or healing) any relationship is to focus on how each party communicates with one another. And though instrumental to these conversations, the onus cannot be entirely on managers to fill in an organization’s communication gaps.

Managers need training (sponsored from the top-down) on how to engage with employees, and managers and ICs need training on how to best advocate for those “higher-level,” burnout-busting motivators: i.e., the things that will fulfill them, not just placate them enough to delay quitting.

Meaning: companies can’t just train the manager, or just train the IC, or even just train a leadership board to develop a stronger company culture. They have to train and support the entire organization, or else the sheer weight of “solving burnout” becomes a vector for burnout in and of itself.

That is what a unified organization looks like, and that is also the key to retention: training humans to achieve their human potential, not just training employees for the “hard skills” to do their jobs.

This is why The Forem – a scalable, year-round learning program — addresses employee engagement and development from the one, failsafe, common goal across the corporate landscape: to find fulfillment and advance one’s career.

Case in point: the entirety of the corporate ladder needs to feel like they are “in the game,” or burnout is bound to plague those sitting on the sidelines. And when the sideline players drop out, even those who were owning the court are going to feel exhaustion kick in…and then even the coaches (*ahem* managers) have no choice but to walk off.

There are countless things (some controllable, some not) that contribute to burnout, but the one thing you can do as an industry leader is to make a unanimous investment – at all levels of the organization – to help employees feel fulfilled by their work and supported by their colleagues.

Easier said than done… but the good news is that there is a solution to help.

If you’re interested in bringing career training to your entire organization, talk to someone on The Forem’s team and find out more about Level Up.

We teach the skills each individual needs to achieve fulfillment from their work and to connect their personal accomplishments to business impact, primarily by empowering employees to communicate effectively and to nurture their professional relationships. These skills, when deployed at all steps of the corporate ladder, comprise a crucial armor against burnout.