How Empathic Leaders Motivate Their Teams and Protect Them From Burnout

As marketers, we preached the value of disruption for years. We told brands that if they didn’t want to get lost in a shuffle with undifferentiated competitors, they needed to take bold steps, shake up their industry, and embrace change.

Well, as it turns out, the old adage is true, you can get too much of a good thing. When the pandemic hit, the entire globe faced disruption the likes of which eclipsed anything in living memory.

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

By April of 2020, an unimaginable 81-percent of businesses around the world had either fully or partially closed. Individuals and organizations alike were forced to pivot, reshuffle their lives, adapt to new hardships, and become fast experts at unfamiliar workflows. And they did.

Zoom rocketed to new heights on the stock market as its active user base jumped from 10 million to 200 million almost overnight. Remote work, despite the initial hiccups and transition pains, has turned out to be a saving grace of the pandemic.

Our digital tools and connected lives helped bridge the gap and ensure business continuity for a great number of companies.

But at what cost?

What is Burnout?

Burnout as a concept originated in the 1970s to describe the psychological toll of extended stress in the workplace. In 2019, the World Health Organization formally included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases. They defined it as: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

That last part, “…not been successfully managed,” is worth paying attention to because it reminds us that burnout isn’t inevitable, unavoidable, or untreatable. With mindfulness, empathy, and few strategic tools and interventions, the effects of burnout can be alleviated and the causes mitigated.

Occupational health and efficiency researchers have studied burnout extensively and identified six key factors that contribute to diminished morale and productivity. According to social psychologist Christina Maslach, they are:

  1. Excessive Workload
  2. Lack of Control and Autonomy
  3. Incommensurate Rewards
  4. Lack of Community Support
  5. Unfairness
  6. Mismatched Values

Despite these well understood contributing causes, too many organizations try to put a Band-Aid on burnout by merely treating the symptoms rather than the root issues. There is no doubt a place for stress reduction and health and wellness initiatives in the workplace, such as:

  • Yoga Classes
  • Meditation Suites
  • Fitness Trackers
  • Gym Memberships

There is abundant evidence that these interventions do in fact help, but until organizations address the real problem, the sign up sheet for the afternoon yoga break will just keep getting longer and more filled with frazzled workers desperate for relief.

How Are Employees and Organizations Affected?

Harvard Business Review recently completed a large survey in collaboration with YMCA WorkWell, a workplace health and wellness research program, that examined the state of burnout at the end of 2020.

1,500 respondents from 46 countries, sixty-seven-percent of which said they were at or above the supervisor level, were asked how well they were responding to the challenges and stresses of their work life. The results were not encouraging:

  • 62% said they were struggling to manage their workload
  • 85% said their wellbeing had declined
  • 55% said they didn’t feel they were able to balance their home and work life
  • 89% said their work life was getting worse, not better

Loneliness is also a big predictor of burnout. We all need support systems around us to help carry the load when things are at their toughest.

“Until organizations address the root problem, the sign up sheet for the afternoon yoga break will just keep getting longer and more filled with frazzled workers desperate for relief.”

Millennials were found to have among the highest rates of burnout, because, researchers posited, they generally had less autonomy and seniority, were more likely to feel financially stressed by student loans, and because they reported high levels of loneliness.

Preventative Measures

So, given the importance of avoiding burnout, the question then is: how exactly do organizational leaders achieve that goal?

Here are five practical steps that can make a huge impact on employee well being:


Employees are finding the challenge of juggling their work and personal lives more hectic than ever before, especially those with young kids. With limited access to daycare and many schools having gone remote, they are forced to be parents, teachers, and employees simultaneously.

Loosening up company restrictions as to where and when they get their work done goes a very long way in not only removing some of the stress in their lives, but enhancing productivity.


Something as simple as letting subordinates know which projects are critical and which can be put on the back burner helps them manage their workloads with less anxiety and put their focus where it needs to be.


The first days of Zoom were chaotic as millions had to learn a new videoconferencing app for the first time. The first weeks were fun and exciting and marked by Zoom happy hours and other virtual get togethers.

Months into the pandemic, Zoom fatigue has set in, as has a growing distaste for endless meetings of any sort. Yet, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings taking place at businesses is up 13-percent in the pandemic.

Encourage teams to use email or chat rooms instead of a physical or virtual meeting when possible, or choose audio only meetings instead of video, and only require attendance from people who absolutely need to be there.


HBR’s workplace survey found that a sense of purpose in the workplace was inversely correlated to burnout. Of individuals reporting a strong sense of purpose, 25-percent said they hadn’t experienced any burnout at all.

Every organization has core values, a mission, and vision for getting there. Don’t let them be mere words on page, demonstrate them with action and imbue your workplace with the meaning behind your mission.


There was a time in corporate America where talking about mental health issues was taboo. That stigma has mostly fallen away, but in many places, employees are still reluctant to reveal their personal issues at work, either to colleagues or managers for fear of a negative response.

HBR reported that fully half of their respondents felt that way, and of those that did, 65-percent said they experience burnout “often or always.” Instead of sweeping mental health under the rug, tackle it head on, advocate for treatment, and encourage employees to let others know when they are struggling.

Peer-to-peer outreach, access to counselors, and even a simple check-in from managers to see how their people are doing all signal a culture that protects and supports everyone — and where employees can feel comfortable exposing their vulnerabilities to get help.

Beating Burnout Requires Cultural Change

Much has been written about the cultural components of burnout. Hard work, diligence, and long hours are honorable and worthy of positive recognition, but, when taken too far, it can turn into the glorification of overwork. And that is despite consistent evidence that job performance stops improving significantly after the 55 hour-per-week mark.

In 2017, Uber employees shared on social media that working until 2AM was not uncommon at the company. The disclosure led to an online backlash and a needed discussion of the responsibility of the company to care for its employees.

“The number of meetings taking place at businesses is up 13-percent in the pandemic.”

“If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?” asked one anonymous Uber engineer. Naturally, that is an extreme example, but it illustrates the slippery slope of burnout and the downstream consequences for the individuals and the companies they work for.

In many ways, the pandemic merely accelerated and exacerbated a preexisting trend.

Remote workers found themselves suddenly on-call in ways they hadn’t before. “Everything seems like a rush. There’s more pressure to produce, and no one respects time boundaries, said a respondent to HBR’s survey. “Emails start at 5:30 AM and don’t end until 10 PM, because they know you have nowhere else to go.”

The error of that approach is clear and getting clearer. But so are the tools, techniques, and shifts in attitude that can undo the damage and foster a healthier, happier, more productive, and most importantly, more sustainable work environment.

This is our responsibility as leaders, example-setters, and simply as people who care about our colleagues.