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How to support staff and change systems to reduce burnout in your organisation

15 November 2023

News and media


Australian workplaces avoided the ‘great resignation’ that hit the USA but are suffering from increasing levels of burnout in the post-pandemic era.

Experts say that organisations need to support employees work/life alignment and look at their structures to reduce stress and create a stronger sense of purpose. These issues are particularly important for the public sector, as it seeks to retain employees and build high-performing teams.

A study conducted by The Future of Work Lab at the University of Melbourne, published in the 2023 State of the Future of Work Report, revealed some alarming results about The Great Burnout experienced by Australians – primarily aged between 25 and 55 – due to the pandemic.

It found that 50 per cent of workers in those age groups were exhausted in their job, with about 40 per cent reporting feeling less motivated about their work than pre-pandemic.

In 2022, the NSW Public Service found that 38% of employees felt burned out at work, with the figure rising to 48% of frontline workers. It has produced a set of resources aimed at reducing burnout with a focus on giving employees the time and support they need to do their job well, on top of access to wellbeing resources.

Burnout is defined as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Experts make the point that burnout is the direct result of structures at work. This makes it more than just an employee problem; it’s an organisational problem that requires an organisational solution.

Despite this many of the proposed solutions focus on individual self-care and wellbeing – encouraging or subsidising employees to exercise, meditate or use wellness technology – rather than workplace change.

The Future of Work Lab’s Leah Ruppanner spoke at a free ANZSOG Public Leadership Masterclass session earlier this year on the importance of organisations promoting work/life alignment and recognising the mental loads their staff carried.

Professor Ruppanner said that in early 2023, employees were more exhausted and less motivated than in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Australia didn’t experience a great resignation, like the USA did, but it did go through a Great Burnout,” she said.

She said that her research had shown that, post COVID-19 people are expecting work to ‘look different’ and that the idea of having work and life in balance was ‘challenging and elusive’.

According to Christina Maslach of the University of California, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, the kinds of chronic job stressors that cause burnout emerge from several kinds of ‘mismatches’. These mismatches reflect a bad fit between the job and basic human needs, such as competence, belongingness and psychological safety.

Such mismatches can occur in six core areas that apply to all people, regardless of their job:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

In their book, The Burnout Challenge, they argue that workers experiencing burnout is an early warning of more general issues within an organisation – akin to a canary in a coal mine – that should prompt action from managers.

They say: “The most direct route to identifying mismatches is to ask people (anonymously) about their experiences and suggestions for how to make improvements. Administering a survey starts a conversation with employees. Their responses are their proposals for consideration by leadership. What are the chronic job stressors, and how might these be modified or eliminated?

“Sometimes the message is straightforward, such as “the workload is just too much.” But often the message is more nuanced. In some organizations the workload may be challenging, but there may be greater concern about the amount of autonomy employees have over what they do (a control mismatch). In other settings, people have indicated they could handle the workload if team members could work together in a more respectful and cooperative way (a community mismatch).

Other research by Rob Cross, Karen Dillon and Martin Reeves, finds that it is not the increase in workloads as such, but the collaborative demands of the work that causes burnout.

They say the frequency of the collaborations that people have to engage into complete work have risen over the past decade and a half. This leads to a rise in “micro stress” — small moments of stress from interactions with colleagues that feel routine but lead to increase in stress that propagates through networks and relationships.

They identify four overlooked collective strategies that leaders can implement for reducing micro stress.

Reducing structural complexity: Many teams are underperforming today due to priority overload where too many uncoordinated asks are coming into the teams from disconnected stakeholders and failures of coordination and prioritization at high levels in the organisation. One way to fix that is to have explicit processes to remove excessive complexity. Most companies have many ways of introducing new complexity, but no systematic continuous effort to remove it.

Changing workflows: organisations have moved into agile, network-centric structures executing through teams that are formed and disbanded at increasingly rapid pace. Forming and reforming project teams requires increasing coordination, often relying on the heroics of individual employees to get work done. But that is not a sustainable strategy — and triggers endless opportunities for burnout.

Reducing teams: One of the unintended consequences of organisations relying on teams that are assembled for projects is that teams have less time to build the kind of trust that is essential for efficient collaboration. And that happens repeatedly because many organisations require employees to contribute to five or six team efforts (in addition to their primary team).

Building a sense of purpose: Organisations have become adept at working efficiently with the help of technologies. But when work revolves around technology use, it can become transactional, missing the opportunity to make sure that employees understand how their work contributes to that purpose.

Understanding employees mental load

Professor Ruppanner said that concepts of work/life balance ignored the fact that work and other responsibilities often increased at the same time, and that employees were more interested in work/life alignment.

“They want their work and their lives to be equally valued by employers. They don’t want to have to hide the fact that they have things going on outside their work,” she said.

“Many workers are looking for new ways of working. So, how do you effectively support diverse teams when work, life and family responsibilities are constantly changing?”

“How do we help organisations to support a burnt-out workforce, in a way that supports the needs of diverse team (i.e. by understanding the mental load of your team members)

“Mental load is the emotional thinking work required to successfully align work, family and life. It’s not just list making, and it can’t be outsourced because of its emotional layer – the stress, guilt, worry and anxiety that is attached to it.”

“You don’t bring your laundry, or your dirty dishes to work, but you are bringing your mental load to work”

She said employers needed to start thinking about their employees’ mental load as a resource which could be exhausted unless employees were supported.

“There is no universal permanent solution, it’s about tailoring resources to unique mental loads of employees, bearing in mind that mental load changes and spikes over time. At the moment there is a big mismatch between what is on offer, and what they need.”