Employee burnout has become a significant problem for many employers. It’s a drag on productivity and a key factor in surging resignations in many industries. While at first glance, burnout might not seem to be an area where learning leaders can help, upon digging a little deeper it’s easy to find ways that leaders at all levels—and learning leaders in particular—can contribute to alleviating or preventing burnout. Let’s explore some of those strategies; but first, let’s define burnout.

Understanding burnout

A great definition of burnout suggested by Lisa Werner, writing for DDI, is “the feeling of chronic, unrelenting stress accompanied by intense negative feelings such as hopelessness, exhaustion, and disillusionment. Motivation dries up and obstacles may feel insurmountable.”

A growing number of employees report experiencing burnout; in this group, women outnumber men. According to a McKinsey podcast, the burnout gap between women and men has almost doubled in the past year and, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report, 42% of women surveyed report feeling burned out.

This is despite—or partly because of—extremely high productivity among these same employees.

The McKinsey podcast points out that “productivity is at an all-time high”—with women providing essential leadership in the new leadership and work paradigm. “What we often see is that women are delivering the performance and business results but at a great personal toll.”

“One of the most fascinating findings this year was how women leaders are really stepping in, in this moment, to be the type of leaders that companies say they most need and most value. … Women senior leaders do more to help their employees navigate work-life challenges, relative to their male peers. Similarly, they spend that additional time helping manage workloads, and they’re 60% more likely to be focusing on emotional support,” the podcast said.

This effort to manage change and support employees at work is on top of tasks employees—again, primarily women—are called on to do outside of work, whether it’s caring for children or elders or keeping the home running: “Even though they make up more than half of the workforce, women continue to be responsible for most household tasks, including child care. With regular disruptions to schools and daycares, plus new job responsibilities as organizations seek efficiencies, many women are holding on by a thread, and a record number have left the workforce altogether,” Werner wrote.

Leaders can help avoid or alleviate burnout

Leaders across industries have identified workplace factors that contribute to burnout, such as unfair treatment, unclear or unmanageable workload and expectations, and poor communication. Factors specific to women, according to Werner, include exclusion, the gender pay gap, and greater likelihood of encountering hostile social interactions and harassment on the job.

Leaders have also worked to devise strategies for alleviating these factors and workers’ ensuing feelings of being overwhelmed.

McKinsey suggests starting with acknowledging the current situation and thinking about solutions, focusing on “professional progression” for women leaders and potential leaders. Leaders can also “start actually forming the work routines for a return to office, not waiting for the physical workspace but actually starting to live into it today.”

Awareness of the problem is not enough, of course. While 87% of leaders HBR surveyed agreed that supporting employee well-being was critical, few of them actively take steps to do so.

How leaders step up

The leaders who do the most to alleviate workers’ burnout tend to be women, HBR found: “Despite their own increasing levels of burnout, our research also indicates that women are much more likely than men to take action to fight it, for example by managing workloads of their teams, supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and simply checking in on how employees are doing.”

In addition, organizational leaders need to rethink processes and implement strategies, including talent management and development and manager support, that employees need to advance as well as to succeed in the current uncertain environment.

Werner advocates for prioritizing policies that advance DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—alongside policies that promote work-life balance, set realistic performance goals, and provide support and merit-based incentives.

Recognizing managers’ efforts is critical

Finally, the McKinsey podcast suggests, rewarding employees for the work they are doing. This pays off: Successful companies are “actually rewarding that extra work that women are doing in the workplace. When [women] show up as leaders who care for employees and their well-being—in the ways they disproportionately are holding the responsibility for DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion]—only 25 percent of companies reward that in their performance reviews. But that 25 percent of companies is disproportionately those companies that are out in front on DEI overall,” the podcast said.

HBR found similar impact. “We found, for example, that when managers actively managed the workload of their team, their staff were 32% less likely to be burned out and 33% less likely to leave.”

Where L&D joins the effort

Train and support managers

Management training—or the lack of it—comes up often in discussions of burnout. Developing and broadly implementing a management training curriculum that teaches and supports the skills that modern leaders need can have a deep impact.

Teaching managers and potential managers at all levels how to communicate more effectively, show empathy, support employees in a flexible, balanced work environment, and provide effective feedback about progress and expectations can alleviate burnout—while also increasing employee satisfaction and motivation and start building a pipeline of future manages and leaders.

Build supportive connections

Strong connections to colleagues—and to the company—can reduce feelings of burnout and improve employees’ motivation.

Loneliness at work contributes to burnout, according to Forbes; women and minorities might feel more isolated than others at work and thus feel the lack of connection more acutely. Learning leaders can start with efforts aimed at changing the culture and behavior at work to improve inclusivity and address the root causes for this disconnection.

Creating connection is more challenging in remote and hybrid work environments, but learning leaders have long used online training to encourage connections through collaborative or competitive games and activities.

Creating mentorship programs and other ways to build and nurture connection at work can alleviate burnout while also developing leaders and future leaders.

Network with learning leadership peers to learn more

Shifting learning culture or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb; learning leaders do not need to undertake this challenge alone. Share what works, and explore the strategies and skills required to navigate the needs of today’s ever-changing workplace with your learning leadership peers.

The Learning Guild’s Learning Leaders Alliance offers a vendor-neutral global community for learning leaders who want to stay ahead of the curve and for aspiring leaders seeking to build their skillsets. The Alliance Membership package includes access to monthly networking and learning opportunities, exclusive digital events, and content curated for today’s modern learning leaders.

Upcoming programs include sessions on peer coaching, building a leadership pipeline, and reducing microinequities in the workplace.