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Burnout is preventable if systemically approached

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

An excellent article by Jennifer Moss in HBR on burnout including scientific evidence that corporate quick-fix wellness does not have significant effect on employees' health, absenteeism prevention, job performance, and health care spending.

As stated by the WHO, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. But in many countries and organizations it is being approached from the wrong angle. It focuses on what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies - and I would add, with the broader economic system. We cannot expect individuals to struggle alone in the storm of stress and forget the broader context that can have supportive but also destructive influence. As the well-known saying goes, "when the flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower".

It is absolutely possible to prevent burnout in a sustainable way if approach it systemically: work on organizational hygiene, whereas leadership is one of the hygiene factors as Dr. Hogan wrote, and organizational processes along with further holistic workplace health prevention interventions.

The root causes of burnout are not solely within the individual, like physiological symptoms and individual differences, that often build the main focus of organizational preventive interventions. Burnout can be effectively prevented if leadership starts with themselves and draws on systemic workplace health prevention and company culture that directly affect employee health. One of the intuitively simple but not so self-understood examples mentioned by Jennifer Moss is so called "management by wandering around", or measuring the pulse of the organization by mingling with people - you learn much more from having a regular and spontaneous coffee with your employees than from formal employee surveys, provided you have built an appropriate welcoming and transparent culture for that.

Companies without systems (instead of just quick-fixes) to support their employees' well-being have higher turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs. Employee well-being predicts employer outcome related to the cost of health care, productivity and turnover, according to the evidence in a study published in a Population Health Management journal. The responsibility for managing burnout is rightly, although hesitantly, shifting away from the individual and towards the organization. Burnout can and should be prevented.

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