Attention all HR practitioners!  Post-pandemic, you are now in the ideal position to create “the new normal” without burnout! 

Exciting?  Yes.  Challenging?  Definitely.  An easy fix?  Not so fast…

Creating an environment that is NOT conducive to burning out employees requires a fundamental, transformational change in the way that your organization operates. 

The question is:  do you have what it takes to be the catalyst for this brave undertaking? 

The Covid pandemic shone a glaring light on how employees feel about their jobs, their employers, and their futures.  HR is ideally positioned to be the liaison between employee needs and organizational goals. 

Yet far too often treat HR continues to be viewed as the bastard child (or at least the distant cousin) in organizational strategy.  This arises from the mistaken belief that employees are easy to find and easy to keep. 

But as the pandemic has shown us, this assumption about what employees want and need in order to stay with the organization has changed.  Radically. 

As organizations struggle to find qualified job candidates to fill the open positions, they are also challenged with retention issues once these new hires come on board.  The demands of candidates coupled with the newly vocal demands of their workforce create turbulence and stress for HR. 

In talking to many business leaders, “ghosting” by job candidates and new employees is a common occurrence.

As “business as usual” is replaced with an as yet unknown “new normal,” certain themes emerge among business and HR leaders: 

  • How do we build employee engagement
  • What can we do to find the best candidates to fill open positions? 
  • What are the best ways to reduce turnover and retain our top performers
  • Why don’t employees take advantage of the training and development opportunities that we provide? 
  • How can we better manage organizational change

While frontline managers and supervisors directly interact with employees, it’s the HR department that sets the necessary strategy, policies, and practices to enable achievement of organizational goals.  And it’s the HR department that is often the first to hear from disgruntled employees. 

The workforce is your organization’s only non-duplicatable competitive advantage that cannot be reverse engineered or directly copied elsewhere.  Yet for some reason (that is completely unfathomable to me), the C-suite tends to disregard the vital role that HR plays in the post-Covid new economy. 

Instead, HR remains as the administrative gatekeeper of the status quo, staffed by “make nice” people pleasers who file paperwork and make those pesky “problem employees” go away.

I firmly believe that this is NOT the role that HR was meant to play in the modern organization! 

HR is ideally situated as the liaison at the critical juncture between organizational strategy and the people whose actions will ultimately lead to the attainment or forfeiture of those goals. 

Burnout’s Impact on the Organization

So, where does “burnout” fit in with HR’s current and ideal roles?  And should HR focus its attention on the level of burnout within the organization? 

I believe (and research suggests) that burnout may the fundamental workplace phenomenon influencing whether or not the company will achieve its goals.

Way back in 2011 when I created my research-based Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), I found that burned out workers ultimately resign from their jobs and sometimes change careers altogether due to their belief that the organizational stressors contributing to job burnout was industry-wide.  In other words, relief from the devastating emotional and physical stress of burnout could only be achieved by leaving. 

And many of those employees who left were some of the companies’ star performers. 

Burnout, therefore, was not an individual’s maladaptive response to stress, but was strongly correlated with the processes, policies, procedures, and leadership practices that created the organizational cultures in which they worked. 

With all modesty, I think I was on to something – and it is another reason why HR practitioners need to take a serious look at workplace burnout: 

In May 2019, the World Health Organization identified burnout as a workplace phenomenon that occurs when “chronic workplace stress…has not been successfully managed.”

Think about it this way:  if it is the workplace itself – the conditions of employment, practices, and relationships – that is the source of the burnout phenomenon, then it becomes the employer’s responsibility to mitigate these factors in order to avoid burning out its workforce. 

Taken a step further, I also spotted in my research that there was a strong connection between burnout and PTSD.  I even speculated in my TEDx Talk that eventually burnout could be considered a de facto disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  This would legally require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to help burned out workers do their jobs despite being burned out. 

The May 2019 World Health Organization’s reclassification of burnout seems to support this trend. 

However, at this point, burnout is not a medical diagnosis per se (at least not according to the recent International Classification of Disease), this reclassification of burnout from a work-life issue to a workplace-related phenomenon is cause for HR professionals to take notice – because HR is that liaison between the employee and the organization. 

The following are 4 tell-tale signs that burnout might be impacting individual or organizational performance: 

  1. PRODUCTIVITY is decreased by lateness, absenteeism, and presenteeism.  There is a strong element of exhaustion in the burnout experience.  Workers are, therefore, more likely to be late for work, take unscheduled “sanity days” to try to recuperate from their fatigue, or even abandon their jobs without notice.  But organizations continue to be plagued by presenteeism (a phenomenon in which employees might be physically at work, but their minds, hearts, and creativity are somewhere else).  This leads to mediocre performance at best or non-performance at worst. 
  2. PERFORMANCE is decreased by poor morale and team conflict.  It’s no surprise that burnout affects an employee’s ability to proactively work with others and serve clients.  Interpersonal communication is highly compromised because burned out workers tend to be angry, irritable, combative, and even paranoid in their relationships with others.  When burnout affects a large percentage of the workforce (a corporate burnout), the corporate culture is diminished because trust and a sense of organizational belonging have been compromised. 
  3. “EMPLOYER OF CHOICE” STATUS is threatened by recruiting and retention challenges.  Let’s face it:  people talk to each other.  And one of the most talked about experiences is what it’s like at work.  Whether the conversations are internal (between coworkers, colleagues, and peers) or external (with family, friends, or though social media), there is a good probability that the “skeletons” in your workplace practices will be revealed – especially if they create a high stress environment.  And frustrated and angry employees will tell others – often a lot of other people.  Potential job candidates will search your company on websites such as Glassdoor to help them better understand what it’s really like to work at your company.  If the posts and gossip reveal a high stress work environment, then your recruiting and retention strategies will be compromised.  In the worst case scenario, you can go from being known as an “employer of choice” to an “employer to avoid.” 
  4. INNOVATION is limited by exhaustion and change resistance.  One dimension of burnout is cynicism.  So burned out employees will withhold their ideas and opinions that could improve the work environment or the products and services provided to customers.  In addition, they tend to be more resistant to changes in their work environment.  In the modern marketplace, innovation and the ability to pivot rapidly are critical to success.  AI is great – but it has its limitations.  Innovation still requires that unique human spark that transforms data into usable insights that can be used to move the company forward.  Burned out workers are in survival mode and will take the path of least resistance until they can eventually move on to another employer.  But until then, apathy and resistance often characterize their actions. 

How HR Can Take Action to Spot and Prevent Burnout

Burnout has become ubiquitous and is the dirty little secret in many companies.  Burned out workers engage in active denial well along their downward spiral and are often shunned by coworkers if they admit that they are feeling “stressed out.” 

If an employee is experiencing a workplace issue, they are generally told to contact HR. 

  • How responsive are you to their concerns? 
  • Are you able to “read between the lines?” 
  • Do you even consider if burnout might be at the heart of their problems? 

When a worker succumbs to the negative űber stress of burnout, their entire well-being is compromised:  physically, psychologically, emotionally, and even spiritually.  Not only is their work-life balance compromised, but also their ability to effectively solve problems, make decisions, and interact with various organizational stakeholders. 

In other words, a burned out worker will simply be psychologically and physically unable to do what is necessary in order to move the organization toward its goals.

Yet burnout continues to exist – and increasingly on an unprecedented scale: 

  • A 2018 Gallup study found that 23% of workers experience workplace burnout very often or always – “only” 44% admitted to feeling burned out sometimes.  That’s 67% (two-thirds!) of your workers who will at some point be burned out. 
  • A recent Deloitte survey found that 77% of workers have experienced burnout in their current job – with more than half admitting to more than one occurrence.  Based on my proprietary B-DOC Model, this may indicate a high rate of residual burnout – the boomerang effect arising during the 2-year recovery period
  • $125-190 billion of healthcare spending is attributable to job burnout.  Consider how these escalating healthcare costs could be contained by making changes to the workplace that reduce chronic stress for workers. 
  • A common miscaption is that passion for the job will avoid burnout – it doesn’t.  Since over achievers and perfectionists may be more susceptible to job burnout, rewarding long work hours and deprivation of a personal life only encourages a burnout-producing culture. 

Burnout is in epidemic proportions in workplaces around the world.  Workers are increasingly asked to do more with less and to do it quicker.  This is a recipe for losing your star performers to burnout – workers that can be difficult (if not impossible) to replace. 

As an HR professional, I urge you to consider the role that burnout might be playing in not only an individual workers’ performance but also to the performance and results experienced by the organization as a whole by asking these questions: 

  • What is the average number of hours needed to completed the assigned tasks, duties, and responsibilities of the job?  If it’s over 60 hours per week, then schedule adjustments might be needed. 
  • Are organizational leaders exhibiting fairness, equitability, and compassion in their interactions with others?  If not, then consider that they might also be burned out? 
  • Is communication open and two-way – or are employees “talked at” rather than “talked with?”  Communication can be enhanced through well-managed town hall meetings or focus groups conducted without judgment or fear of reprisal.  In other words, LISTEN! 
  • Are your benefits and perks desirable to your employees?  Far too often, best practices are transferred from other organizations without consideration as to whether they complement your organization’s culture.  Have you actually asked your employees what they want and listened with a focus on the underlying issue that they want resolved? 
  • Finally, do YOU like working in your organization?  What you are feeling might also be experienced by others, too. 

Taking the initiative in spotting and prevent workplace burnout can be a key differentiator that transforms your workplace.  Done right, addressing the burnout challenge might be the pivot point that allows HR to finally become a strategic business. 

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.