Once primarily associated with millennial professionals, burnout has risen among most age groups – its prevalence worsened by increased workplace demands, and anxieties around the pandemic and its aftermath, political turmoil, and economic instability.
In March 2021, Indeed wrote that burnout was at record highs, with 52% of the 1,500 workers surveyed reporting that they were experiencing burnout in 2021, which is 9% higher than what respondents reported in Indeed’s pre-COVID 2020 survey. The true number may be even greater when we consider that burned-out employees may not respond to burnout surveys (they’re exhausted, after all) or they may have already left the workforce entirely.
Employee engagement – how present, invigorated, and in tune you are with your work – has long been understood as the yin to burnout’s yang. Talking about one without the other only paints half the picture.
And when engagement is brought up to address burnout, it is frequently understood as a simple solution: “Start creating a more engaging workplace,” the idea goes, and burnout will be cured.
But burnout and engagement are forces that work together, oppose, or even feed off each other. Too much, or too little, engagement can lead to the same outcome: burnout’s chronic accumulation of stress, exhaustion, and cynicism. Leadership action and communication are essential to sustaining the balance between high levels of engagement and practices that replenish energy and attention. Together, these combat burnout.
Engagement and burnout exist in tension
Since it was originally described, burnout and engagement have been understood as related forces. One of the most popular means of measuring burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which has three key dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. It was developed by psychologist Christina Maslach, who has been studying burnout since the 1970s. In 1993, she defined burnout as a “psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.”
Maslach’s model of employee engagement, on the other hand, has its own dimensions, which oppose those in the burnout inventory. These include vigor (having high energy at work), dedication (feeling pride and meaning), and absorption (being able to enter a flow state in your role in order to be highly effective).
In other words, burnout and engagement work like a yin and yang, where:
- Burnout’s three dimensions are exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness.
- Engagement’s three dimensions are vigor, dedication, and absorption.
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that burnout is not a medical condition. Rather, the WHO defines it as an “occupational phenomenon” where “chronic workplace stress [has] not been successfully managed.” In other words, burnout is a collection of symptoms that speaks to a deep fracture in our values and organizational stress management abilities. In some cases, it’s not about having too much work but rather about having a lack of meaningful work. For some, it is the futility of being ineffective or the inability to be effective, resulting from a lack of resources, time, training, or strategy. And for others, finding meaning and being effective are not the issues (as for those who work in medical, nonprofit, first responder or activism roles), but giving up too much energy is.
This means that the “cure” to burnout isn’t a medical one. Medication and taking a long weekend are temporary solutions that fail to address the root cause: an unbalanced level of engagement, whether that is too much or too little.
Leaders must provide tangible solutions to rebalance engagement and, equally important, ensure they communicate them well. In our change communication practice, we advise that leaders must address their team’s sense of the unknown by fostering belonging, safety, and trust.
Being on the verge of burnout is a specific kind of “unknown,” a tunnel that employees may not see the end of. Through inspiring communication, leaders have a chance to intervene before burnout can define their team’s experience. By rebalancing the dimensions of engagement and burnout, leaders have the unique opportunity to craft a clear vision for a better tomorrow.
Communication strategies for leaders
Leaders can use communication to rebalance the opposing forces of burnout and engagement in each of the major dimensions.
- Vigor: Have a dialogue about the physical, cognitive, and emotional demands of the job and clearly communicate the skills required. Outline the training opportunities to improve those skills and how to share job knowledge within and between teams. Support employee wellness initiatives and communicate what is being done to implement or improve them. Support an organizational culture that applauds engaged behavior while encouraging periods of rest and recuperation.
- Dedication: Inspire employees by connecting their efforts to the purpose of the organization and to their impact on customer lives. Clarify how their performance delivers on the strategy of the company, the functioning of the team, and their own growth and development. Provide consistent feedback and a sense of progress. Share the lived values of the organization in the work and through involvement in the communities where you operate.
- Absorption: Make it easier for employees to experience the feeling of “time flying” when they work. Focus on employee capability and confidence in their knowledge. Let them know they are trusted to make the right decisions. Equip supervisors to provide team and role-specific feedback so that employees can fine-tune their performance and feel valued in their roles. Proactively communicate change and new expectations so individuals are not surprised by shifting work conditions that break their sense of flow.
With these models of engagement and burnout, we have a clearer ability to understand why communication is so critical to sustaining engagement in the workforce.