With burnout rates astonishingly high, we have entered an era of what I call the Burnout Machine. This machine is what fuels unsustainable workloads — and they are unsustainable. In Europe, 46% of staff report “severe time pressure or overload of work” (Leclerc et al., 2022). This article focuses on how we, as leaders, can understand this machine, so that we can enable our organisations to escape it.
In a previous article, I delved into the Causes of Unsustainable Workloads. I pinpointed major forces pulling workloads toward unsustainable levels, including The Burnout Economy and Burnout Culture.
To make workloads sustainable, we must reduce and rebalance those forces in ways that work for all stakeholders: shareholders, leaders, and employees. The strategy must be good for productivity and profit, while addressing the massive human suffering caused by burnout. To uncover that strategy, we begin the Productivity Curve.
The Productivity Curve
Productivity is not constant; it varies in some way with workload. I refer to this variation as the Productivity Curve. The drive for higher productivity and profit moves workloads along the curve to the peak, like a climber reaching the summit of a mountain. The Productivity Curve’s form governs the adjustment of workloads to attain optimum productivity.
Several influences shape the Productivity Curve. Here, we’ll explore three of them: basic production, engagement, well-being. Their influences on productivity are coarsely illustrated below. Additionally, we’ll look at how burnout risk impacts the Productivity Curve.
With Basic Production, the more of the task we do, the more value we produce. It’s a linear relationship, capped only by what people can physically achieve. It’s about working harder, not smarter, and prioritising efficiency over innovation.
This scenario corresponds to many industries with high burnout. In manufacturing, it’s about producing more physical products for given staff costs. In healthcare, treating more patients within set staffing and work hours means higher productivity. The Basic Production curve arguably applies even in schools, where accommodating more students with existing staffing equates to higher productivity.
Engagement and Flow
The second influence is engagement. Beyond typical measures like vigour, commitment, and absorption, engagement relates to discretionary behaviours that enhance productivity. These behaviours, such as collaboration, innovation, communication, and problem solving, make work smarter and more efficient. Gallup’s (2023) research reveals that high-engagement organisations enjoy a remarkable 23% higher profitability.
Crucially, engagement is linked to frequent experiences of psychological flow, a concept studied for over two decades (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Research shows that individuals in flow perform at elevated levels (e.g. Bakker & van Woerkom, 2017; Harris et al, 2021). To experience flow, the challenge level much match with one’s skills and resources.
Flow and performance have a inverted-U relationship with workload-induced challenge levels (Peifer et al., 2014; Nakamura et al., 2019). This relationship can even be measured at the neurochemical level (e.g. Sapolsky, 2015). Insufficient challenge breeds boredom, although proactive staff may find ways to stay productive. Excessive challenge leads to stress, negatively impacting both performance and discretionary behaviours.
Most leaders aim to foster their team’s well-being, recognising the significance of maintaining a balance between positive and negative emotions. Similar to engagement, this balance shifts in an inverted-U relationship with work demands.
At low levels of workload, stress is minimal, allowing for relaxation, humour, and socialisation, which generate positive emotions. Moderate workloads promote meaning, purpose, appreciation, and team belonging in addition, further enhancing positive emotion. However, as workloads become unsustainable, well-being declines, and emotions like anxiety or frustration starting to dominate.
Similar to engagement, the balance of these emotions influences productivity. Growing research supports the happy-productive worker hypothesis (e.g. Isham et al, 2021). Positive emotions help to broaden thinking and build cognitive and social resources (e.g. Fredrickson & Branigan, 2013), which enable us to work smarter and more effectively.
As workloads escalate to very high levels, the risk of burning out sharply increases. Burned-out individuals often endure a sustained loss in productivity for several months. Consequently, elevated burnout risk impedes the achievement of productivity and, on average, diminishes it.
The Consequences of the Productivity Curve
For a given blend of influences on productivity, organisational profit will peak at a specific level of average workload. If the workloads are too low, individuals won’t be maximising their potential. Conversely, if they are too high, stress and burnout will erode productivity. The shape of the Productivity Curve determines the optimum workload.
Using reasonable assumptions and mathematical modelling, I calculated the average workload levels that optimised organisational profit for three scenarios. They each incorporated a different blend of influences on the Productivity Curve:
- Basic production
- Basic production + engagement
- Basic production + engagement + well-being
The way burnout risk reduced productivity remained the same for all three cases. Bear in mind that simple models must simplify greatly, and this model aimed only to identify the consequences of these different Productivity Curves for profit and burnout.
The Surprising Findings
The different Productivity Curve shapes proved to be remarkably consequential, as illustrated in the infographic below. The trends were relatively robust to different model assumptions. They underscore the significance of well-being and engagement for burnout prevention as well as profit.
With a Productivity Curve shaped solely by Basic Production as well as burnout risk, optimal profit occurred with a remarkable 50% risk of burnout. This occurred despite each burnout costing the organisation the equivalent of 50% of the employee’s annual salary, with the ability to replace only half of the lost productive hours. Lower overhead costs and higher replacement rates resulted in even higher burnout rates at optimal profit.
Despite incurring substantial burnout costs, these workloads maximised organisational profit for the Basic Production case. This was because workload had a universal impact on productivity for all staff , whereas burnout affected only some staff. Reducing the workload mitigated these costly burnouts but also lowered the productivity of non-burned-out staff. Below the optimal workload, the effect of reduced productivity dominated burnout costs, while the opposite held true above it.
Introducing the influence of engagement into the Productivity Curve halved the rate of burnout, though it remained high. Further refinement by incorporating the impact of well-being reduced burnout rates to 14%, a substantial improvement compared to the scenario influenced solely by Basic Production.
We can understand the results by looking at the figures below. Productivity combines with burnout risk and other factors to yield profit, and the different Productivity Curves change where the optimum profit occurs.
Incorporating engagement and well-being effects not only decreased burnout but also elevated profits by 50%. Although the nominal workload decreased significantly, the productivity of non-burned out staff only experienced a slight dip, thanks to the positive impact of high engagement and well-being. Yet, instead of facing a scenario where 50% of the staff burned out, incurring substantial costs, burnout rates dropped to only 14%.
Costs to Largely Prevent Burnout
With low engagement and low well-being, bringing burnout risk down to 5% would entail more than a 50% reduction in profit. This reduction is impractical for an organisation navigating a competitive marketplace.
However, with high engagement and well-being, the organisation could achieve a 5% burnout rate with only an 8% reduction in profit. While still a significant impact, it becomes feasible because the resulting profit level remains well above that of the Basic Production scenario. This positions the organisation to outcompete those with lower levels of engagement and well-being.
Practical Realities of Optimising Productivity
In reality, leaders are usually in the dark about the contours of their organisation’s Productivity Curve. The dynamics of how productivity varies with workload, well-being, and engagement remain largely obscured. Consequently, leaders must make educated guesses and engage in trial-and-error to maximise productivity. Their decision-making depends on what they believe will most effectively enhance productivity or fulfil their responsibilities, considering their often limited timeframes and challenging constraints.
If leaders believe that well-being and engagement contribute little to productivity, their decision-making will shift workloads toward the high optimum of the Basic Production curve. This belief could stem from current low levels of well-being and engagement, perhaps due to the pandemic, which limits their impact. Alternatively, they might not recognise the present or future value these factors bring. Regardless, this implicit assumption will guide decision-making toward unsustainably high workloads.
The role of circumstances is equally crucial. Leaders often face pressure to achieve short-term productivity gains, and escalating workloads often seems a quicker solution than enhancing well-being and engagement. Additionally, the substantial changes required to significantly impact well-being and engagement may be beyond their immediate control. Hence, even if leaders acknowledge the value of well-being and engagement, they might opt to increase workloads “just until we meet this deadline.”
External circumstances can also compel leaders into difficult decisions. Team members leaving or falling ill, as witness during the pandemic, can burden remaining staff with additional workloads to fulfil organisational commitments. Leaders are often held accountable for meeting these commitments but not for their team members’ workloads or well-being. Consequently, leaders might have little choice but to increase workloads, even if the understaffing issue takes a long time to resolve.
The Vicious Cycle of the Burnout Machine
Workloads exert a direct influence on well-being and engagement, but their influence is mainly in one direction. Lower workloads alone are never enough to ensure high well-being and engagement. However, once they surpass sustainable levels, excessive workloads can crush well-being and engagement as the chronic stress they elicit hits home.
As excessive workloads suppress well-being and engagement, the belief that they contribute little to productivity is reinforced. While leaders may recognise the potential for higher productivity with long-term improvement in well-being and engagement, the uphill journey from a lower baseline seems even more daunting. Consequently, leaders are more inclined to assume that the Productivity Curve resembles Basic Production and focus on optimising short-term productivity.
These dynamics make leaders even more likely to make decisions that maintain workloads at unsustainably high levels, creating a self-reinforcing system. This cycle is what I term the Burnout Machine.
Trapped in the cycle of the Burnout Machine, dissatisfaction abounds. Missed deadlines become more frequent, diminishing their significance, and leaders face heightened pressure. Cynicism and disengagement surge, contributing to the prevalence of “quiet quitting,” a phenomenon currently affecting almost six in ten employees (Gallup, 2023). In this situation, easing workloads would certainly reduce productivity in the immediate term, as staff will take time to recover. Keeping workloads high optimises short-term productivity, even as it takes a heavy toll on well-being and engagement and causes high rates of burnout. Without changes from the top, breaking free of this cycle seems challenging.
Why Conventional Approaches Fall Short
The Burnout Machine is powerful, but it operates covertly, often rendering the efforts leaders take to prevent burnout ineffective. Common approaches are like treating the symptoms, instead of curing the disease.
One instinctive strategy is workload reduction, doing battle against the formidable grip of the Burnout Machine. Unfortunately, making significant progress against the need to optimise productivity is challenging. Moreover, with low well-being and low engagement, the necessary reduction in workloads to prevent burnout is so drastic that it could jeopardise the organisation’s survival, making it an impractical solution.
Another prevalent strategy involves training staff in productivity skills, such as time management. The model suggests that, if this training works, it scales both workloads and productivity, but does little to reshape the Productivity Curve. As staff become adept at sustaining greater productivity and greater workloads to match, the optimal workload increases accordingly. Over time, the Burnout Machine will raise workloads to this new optimal level, resulting in a similar burnout rate.
Another common approach involves training staff in stress management. Mindfulness is one approach with a particularly compelling evidence-base (e.g. Vonderlin et al., 2020). According to the model, such interventions could reduce burnout rates by around 30% if they could shift the burnout risk profile by a full standard deviation. Unfortunately, as subjects often self-select into research studies, the effects of organisational initiatives are often far more modest and short-lasting (e.g. Vanhove et al., 2015). Many staff will not be interested, some may be practicing the techniques already, while others may start but gradually discontinue the techniques. Often, relatively few staff will enjoy substantial and sustained changes, limiting the organisational impact of this approach.
Navigating the Path Forward
As leaders, the most effective approach to keeping workloads sustainable is to dismantle and replace the Burnout Machine itself. To do this, we must step away from allowing short-term productivity to dictate decisions and transform our beliefs about productivity. Rather than pursuing short-term and short-sighted productivity gains that turn teams into zombies, we must shift to playing the long-term game, fostering teams that thrive both emotionally and functionally. Rather than optimising short-term productivity and perpetuating the cycle of the Burnout Machine, we must shift to optimising well-being and engagement.
To truly prevent burnout, our efforts must transcend superficial measures like fruit bowls and yoga classes. Implementing substantive, long-term changes in policies, KPIs, and practices to actively support well-being and engagement is imperative. Simultaneously, we must enable leaders to ease burdensome workloads as well-being and engagement grow. Both approaches must be seamlessly integrated; otherwise, excessive workloads will hinder growth in well-being and engagement, while low well-being and engagement would make significantly lower workloads economically unviable.
With unwavering top-level support and commitment to the long-term vision, this systemic approach has the potential to dismantle the Burnout Machine and usher in its positive counterpart. High well-being and engagement make sustainable workloads more valuable for all stakeholders than unsustainable ones. In this scenario, optimising short-term productivity means keeping workloads sustainable, because there is too much to lose by subjecting employees to excessive stress.
The consequences of the status quo are evident in the enormity of human suffering caused by burnout. Each individual who burns out suffers greatly. We can surely change the status quo, and we must.
What do you think? Does this resonate with your experience? Now that you’ve read the article, please leave a quick comment to let me know.
The next article in this series will outline some actionable steps to execute the path forward I’ve outlined here. I’m curious about what this path might look like in your organisation, so feel free to reach out to discuss it.
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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