Burnout is now so widespread that there should be few companies who haven’t yet discussed how best to support their employees to avoid it. But what exactly does it mean? And what should companies be doing about it?

The formal definition of burnout from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • 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.

While some might say that employees should toughen up and solider on, the leaders most likely to retain their top talent are the ones who recognise that the causes of burnout lie in systemic issues that need to be addressed at an organisational level. In other words, burnout shouldn’t be seen as a personal problem to be fixed by wellness solutions.

Research included in a McKinsey Health Institute article published in May 2022, found that employers should focus more on preventing the circumstances that cause burnout rather than offering remedies to try to prevent it, such as gym memberships and meditation apps.

The research also found that toxic workplace behaviour was the biggest predictor of burnout symptoms and of employees’ intention to leave an organisation. Toxic behaviour is defined as “interpersonal behaviour that leads to employees feeling unvalued, belittled or unsafe.” [This includes “unfair or demeaning treatment, non-inclusive behaviour, sabotaging, cutthroat competition, abusive management and unethical behaviour.”]

While training people to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of such behaviour can be a buffer against its impact, the research warns that more adaptable employees are less also less likely to tolerate toxic behaviours: “Therefore relying on improving employee adaptability without addressing broader workplace factors puts employers at an even higher risk of losing some of its most resilient, adaptable employees.”

So, what should organisations do to tackle burnout at this more systemic level? The key questions that the McKinsey team suggest organisations should ask themselves are:

Do we treat employee mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority?

The senior team should publicly acknowledge issues and listen to employee needs, something which the McKinsey team say doesn’t happen enough. Organisations should create a measure of burnout and give it equal importance to other key measures such as customer satisfaction and financial metrics.

Do we effectively address toxic behaviours?

As the research says, this isn’t easy to do. The organisations that succeed though, have leaders who are aware of the impact of their own behaviour on others; make treatment of others an integral part of assessing performance; and psychological safety is seen as important. [Effective leaders know not only that toxic behaviour leads to toxic teams but also that showing vulnerability and compassion fuels more compassionate teams].

Do we create inclusive work environments?

More diverse companies outperform their less diverse competitors. And inclusion doesn’t happen by accident. The report points to an inclusion model with 17 practices which include appreciating employees’ non-work responsibilities and equal access to the information, opportunities and relationships that help people to get on.

Do we enable individual growth?

The report refers to evidence that individual growth including learning and development programmes help to combat burnout and retain employees. Reskilling people and offering them sideways moves within the organisation, leads to improvement not only in their experience of work but also in the organisation’s financial results.

Do we promote sustainable work?

This is about more than managing workload – it includes giving employees “a sense of control and predictability, flexibility and time for recovery” in how they do their work. The report’s authors suggest adopting a “test and learn” mindset to how people do their work. In a post pandemic world, organisations that fail to provide flexibility, simply won’t attract talent.

Are we holding leaders accountable?

The report says that among other things, organisations that are doing this well “set clear expectations for managers to lead in a way that is supports employee mental health and well-being” and that they “offer training to help managers to identify and proactively ask about and listen to employees’ mental health and wellbeing needs”.

Are we effectively tackling stigma?

The writers define stigma as shame, prejudice or discrimination towards people with mental health conditions which then makes people afraid to seek help. To help “shift the perception of signs of burnout or other mental health needs as being indicative of a moral failing” organisations need to stop “rewarding overwork at the expense of rest and renewal.” Senior leaders who speak about their own struggles also helps to create psychological safety.

Do our resources serve employee needs?

This final question is about asking whether the mental health and wellbeing resources available are on a par with physical health resources. Despite an increase in mental health services, research shows that employees still find it challenging to access them.


Answering these questions honestly might be tough but should start to help any organisation to ensure that the systemic issues that lead to burnout are tackled. And that any lingering perception of burnout as being due to weakness is turned around. Even the most adaptable and hard working employees have their limits.

You can read the full McKinsey report here