We love work! Fostering well-being and engagement combats unsustainable workloads and prevents burnout.

How to Make Workloads Great Again

Unsustainably high workloads contribute significantly to work stress and burnout. According to a recent survey of over 4,000 employees by Champion Health (2023), workloads are the leading cause of workplace stress, surpassing other factors by more than double. Stress undermines well-being and engagement, setting off a cycle that can lead to burnout (refer to my earlier article in this series on preventing burnout).

What would it take to make workloads great again? Not great as in large — great as in good. How can we keep workloads sustainable, so they they support well-being, engagement, and productivity? How can we enable staff to not just survive work, but love it?

This article outlines four actionable steps that I believe are vital to this goal:

  1. Executive support: Rethink assumptions about productivity
  2. Cultural transformation: Replace Burnout Culture with Well-being Culture
  3. Environmental shift: Create the conditions for engagement
  4. Workload responsivity: Identify and correct excessive workloads quickly

The first three steps focus on cultivating well-being and engagement, setting the stage for the fourth. Now, let’s explore each of these steps individually.

Executive Support

Rethink assumptions about productivity.

Unsustainable workloads often stem from a drive to optimise productivity — specifically, short-term productivity. This approach can increase stress and undermine well-being and engagement, ultimately eroding long-term productivity. If excessive workloads are present in an organisation, it may indicate an implicit endorsement of this strategy by the executives or other stakeholders. It that’s the case, it will first need to change, or little else will.

As leaders, we must rethink assumptions, prioritise long-term productivity, and embrace well-being and engagement as means to to reach it. Recognising that well-being and engagement, not unsustainable workloads, drive long-term productivity and profitability is key. Only then will we commit to a new strategy and implement the significant changes that are required.

The good news is that investing in workplace well-being yields a substantial return (e.g. Deloitte, 2022; Luminate, 2021). Staff well-being and engagement will increase, slowly and incrementally, when leaders embrace them as strategic imperatives for long-term productivity. Formalising a strategy that prioritises well-being and engagement empowers leaders to make decisions aligned with this vision, paving the way for subsequent steps.

Cultural Transformation

Replace Burnout Culture with Well-being Culture.

Burnout Culture is fuelled in a workplace environment that makes unsustainable workload worth the risk of burnout. This culture grows in an environment that prioritises short-term productivity at the expense of long-term well-being. Within this environment, staff willingly and repeatedly prioritise immediate outputs, disregarding the impact on their long-term well-being.

Shame, stigma, and mask-wearing

Many leaders, entrenched in overwork, may not perceive the harm their work culture inflicts. Incentives introduced in the name of maximising engagement are instead maximising workload and turning staff into zombies, who come to work half-dead. People only accept it because they fear the repercussions of rejecting it.

“If you admit you’re at risk of burnout, you might get passed up for promotion,” explains Sally McGrath, a burnout recovery and prevention specialist. “It’s a culture that encourages people to put work ahead of their personal needs.” She highlights that this culture imposes shame and stigma on any that reject it. So instead, staff play the game and mask their struggle. Yet, as McGrath knows, “behind closed doors, they are crumbling.”

How to fix it

Fighting against Burnout Culture is like trying to stop a river with your bare hands. It requires replacement, not resistance. In game theory terms, we need to alter the payoffs to make burnout not worth the risk, so that staff play the game differently. How?

With executive support, we can replace Burnout Culture by deliberately changing what we value, focus on, and reward.

What if we celebrated vitality as much as sacrifice, enjoyment as much as accountability, and compassion more than competition? What if we rewarded the energy employees have instead of how much they lack because of overwork? What if we reported on the well-being of our teams and not only their performance?

What if we celebrated vitality as much as sacrifice, enjoyment as much as accountability, and compassion more than competition?

Structural support for well-being

We cannot achieve this by simply asking staff to change their behaviour in the same environment. We must change the environment so that staff chose to behave differently. The work environment is shaped through the policies, processes, KPIs, and structures that embed organisational values, so they are what must change. Embedding well-being in decision-making at all levels gives substance to what might otherwise be rhetoric and box-ticking.

For example, well-being could be formally validated as an important factor in decision-making, integrated into organisational procedures. This change would give leaders freedom and opportunity to consider not only whether their team can achieve ambitious deadlines by sacrificing quality of life, but whether they should. Moreover, it empowers them to confidently decline unsustainable workloads without jeopardizing their status or career.

Environmental Shift

Create the conditions for engagement.

The opposite of a burnout-prone work environment is not nothing; it is one that facilitates high engagement (see Cole et al., 2012; Bakker & Oerlemans, 2012; Taris et al., 2017). While mitigating excessive workloads and other stressors is important, mitigation does not create engagement.

Engagement itself helps to protect staff from future burnout (e.g. Maricutoiu et al., 2017). As discussed in a previous article, establishing both high engagement and high well-being makes sustainable workloads more profitable than unsustainable ones. Sustainable workloads are then optimal for both short-term and long-term profit, which helps to keep them sustainable.

The opposite of a burnout-prone work environment is not nothing; it is one that facilitates high engagement.

Dr. Gavin Slemp, associate professor at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Wellbeing Science, highlights that greater engagement also makes work more enjoyable. The positive emotions arising from engagement are powerful antidotes to the physiological effects of stress (Fredrickson et al., 2000), which combats burnout. As Dr. Slemp says: “It is much more difficult to be burned out if we’re experiencing our work as enjoyable and engaging, even if we’re actually working longer hours.”

The research suggests three particularly impactful strategies for fostering engagement: using strengths more, supporting autonomy, and clarity and feedback.

Use strengths more

Our personality strengths, such as curiosity, kindness, or analytical thinking, reflect our values and intrinsic motivations. The more we use our strongest personality strengths at work, the more positive experiences we have (Rust et al., 2010). These positive experiences help to counteract stress and increase engagement. Providing training on using strengths more can be effective (e.g. Bakker & Wingerden, 2020).

Another effective method to increase strength use involves job crafting — empowering individuals to customise their roles according to their unique mix of strengths. This entails adjusting tasks, changing interpersonal interactions, and finding more meaningful perspectives on assigned responsibilities (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). Incorporating motivating job characteristics through job crafting not only heightens engagement but also reduces burnout (Lichtenthaler & Fischbach, 2019). Additionally, it fosters a better balance between the challenges of the job and the individual’s skills and resources.

Support autonomy

Fostering autonomy means easing specific demands and granting employees greater freedom in how they approach their work. This changes the type of motivation they have for their tasks, helping them become a source of engagement.

Dr. Slemp underscores the importance of autonomy support for minimising burnout: “We consistently find that the more autonomy support employees experience, the less likely they are to experience burnout.” His research shows that staff with more autonomy are more satisfied, proactive, cooperative, and committed. Autonomy contributes to higher well-being as well as greater productivity (e.g. Slemp et al., 2018).

Clarity and feedback

To catalyse psychological flow and engagement, autonomy needs to be combined with task clarity and feedback. Flow requires not only a balance of challenge to skill, or demands to resources. It also needs clear immediate goals and rapid performance feedback (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

Leaders can focus their support and development initiatives on meeting these conditions for flow. Assist staff in breaking down complex tasks into manageable phases and further into smaller, clearly defined micro-tasks. Encourage discussions about this simple process within the team to foster acceptance, skill development, and consistent practice. Tackle role ambiguity — job crafting helps here again (e.g. Shin et al., 2020). Foster a culture in which staff active seek and value clarity.

Regarding feedback, it often relates to so many small tasks in general that it relates to none of them in particular. To promote flow, it’s helpful to provide frequent and specific feedback tied to particular micro-tasks. Comments like “That diagram was really clear” or “I don’t understand what you mean by this sentence” are examples of such feedback. This micro-feedback nurtures flow, enhances performance, and contributes to well-being. As a bonus, this micro-feedback sets the groundwork for macro-feedback, which informs larger development goals.

Workload Responsivity

Identify and correct excessive workloads quickly.

Finally, we need what I call Workload Responsivity — the ability to identify and rectify excessive workloads promptly. In the dynamic and unpredictable landscape of today’s business environment, workloads can shift rapidly. Even within teams that typically maintain sustainable workloads, individuals may occasionally find themselves burdened with excess tasks.

To avert a progression toward burnout, leaders must establish an environment where excessive workloads are quickly recognised and addressed — this is workload responsivity. Let’s look at three key components.

Build awareness

Cultivating workload responsivity begins with heightened awareness. Both leaders and team members must recognise early signals that someone is under excessive stress. These signals may manifest physically, such as tiredness or headaches. Emotionally, there may be a shift towards unpleasant feelings or an absence of positive ones. Emotional signs can also include feeling more like our emotions are ‘on top’ of us, rather than visa-versa. Behavioural changes, like decreased positive interactions and increased displays of harshness, intolerance, or withdrawal, can also indicate unsustainable workloads.

Employee voice

Mere awareness is insufficient; organisations must ensure that team members voice their concerns about excessive pressures. Simply instructing them to do so won’t cut it. Leaders must change the environment to make speaking up more preferable than silently suffering.

Leaders who consistently demonstrate support through help, empathy, compassion, and kindness foster a culture of psychological safety (e.g. Frazier et al., 2017; Newman et al., 2017). They invest in building high-quality relationships with each team member, depositing into the “relational bank” so that when team members express, “this workload is overwhelming,” they feel secure that their account won’t run dry. This psychological safety is the key to unlocking authentic and meaningful communication, enabling the swift correction of unsustainable workloads.


Understanding the thoughts and emotions of individuals is fundamental to demonstrating help, empathy, and kindness. Compassionate and perceptive inquiry into workloads is vital for those who may hesitate to speak up about excessive demands. Individuals may not even realise there is an imbalance without such prompting, since even an unchanged workload can become too high if life circumstances change.

The context in which these conversations occur is pivotal. Don’t ask about their workloads while holding a clipboard and marking off responses. Instead, establish a clear psychological contract with staff that includes a commitment to regular, informal conversations aimed at preventing excessive workloads — for the benefit of everyone involved. Alongside valuing well-being above working excessively, leaders can set an authentic and honest example so that team members know they can the same.


We can make workloads great again. Here’s the roadmap to doing that:

  1. Gain executive support to prioritise long-term productivity through well-being and engagement over short-term productivity.
  2. Replace Burnout Culture with Well-being Culture, putting in place structures, policies, and practices that encourage staff to make choices that favour well-being and sustainable workloads.
  3. Foster the conditions for engagement, so that productivity can be higher at sustainable workloads than unsustainable ones.
  4. Develop workload responsivity to swiftly identify and rectify situations that may otherwise go unnoticed.

This journey addresses workload, which is only one of the four major factors at play in burnout. Upcoming articles will delve into the other facets, beginning with the impact of interpersonal interactions on burnout. Like burnout, there are also other factors involved in cultivating staff well-being and engagement. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like help in navigating those to develop an impactful plan for your situation.

Many thanks to Sally McGrath for contributing her insights from years of experience in helping people recover and prevent burnout.

Thanks also to Dr. Gavin Slemp for contributing his expertise on motivation and autonomy to this article.

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Drawing on over a decade of research into the science of how individuals, leaders, and teams work best, Reuben is a trusted advisor and partner for navigating complex challenges. His articles distil complex ideas and present practical insights, so you don't have to do the research yourself. With an authentic approach and genuine empathy for his clients, Reuben is a valuable asset to any organisation.

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