Running on Empty: Why Employee Burnout Remains a Major Challenge for Most Businesses

rusted pick up truck without tires, broken down

As leaders scramble to close staffing gaps and prevent rising resignations, burnout continues to be among the top reasons employees are languishing in their roles or leaving them.

Although attention to burnout and wellbeing has intensified since the start of the pandemic, it was a major problem many companies were trying to tackle long before the lockdown.

While many organizations continue to invest in significant resources to alleviate burnout – like mental health resources and wellness stipends – employees report they’re falling short because executives fail to fix root causes.

From an employee in the medical field: “It’s not about giving us free meditation apps and thinking burnout is magically solved. You’re missing the point.”

The truth employees want their leaders to hear is that the main factors contributing to the massive drain on their energy are three aspects of the employee experience that leaders can control:

A lack of recovery time

“I’m never able to be ‘off-off,’” shared and IT analyst who is covering his own work plus the responsibilities of several vacant roles.

He’s unable to fully escape from phone calls, alerts, and instant messages – not even on the weekends when he’s trying to watch his son’s soccer games.

He’s not alone.

As a result, employees are unable to rest, concentrate, plan, or make meaningful progress on projects. It contributes to feelings of anxiety that seem to hum constantly in the back of their brains. And they’re getting even more concerned because it’s been like this since 2020 and there’s no sign of a rescue on the way.

Frustrating systems and processes

“Expecting us to use broken processes is like giving a busy mechanic a new tool that isn’t working yet but expecting him to fix the car and get the new tool to work properly,” explained an employee from the energy sector. 

Ineffective Internal processes and systems hold them back from getting things done quickly or easily while their to-do lists grow at ridiculous rates.

It leaves them feeling unsupported and – in some cases – hopeless. Many of them want to do excellent work and make meaningful contributions, but inhibiting infrastructure makes it impossible.

Near-constant worry about the fate of their jobs

“The market is changing, but we’re not. I just want to know there’s a plan for remaining relevant in the future,” shared an employee who works in sales.

As leaders construct fresh business strategies for the post-pandemic era, many employees are still wondering what the organization’s future direction will be and how leaders plan to get it done.

The ongoing distress takes its toll on employees’ energy stores while the inability to recover prevents them from recharging. Even among highly engaged team members, this often leads to mistakes, irritability, health problems, and a lack of productivity – the signs of an employee experiencing burnout. 

To keep team members energized, senior leaders can help in 5 ways.

1 – Establish a compelling vision and business strategy.

Without a solid plan – and a team of senior leaders who are completely aligned to it – organizations struggle with a lack of results, accountability, and efficiency.

Use your strategy to relentlessly prioritize so employees can focus their effort on the things that matter most and reduce the stress from confusion and internal competition for resources.

This means being realistic about what can be reasonably accomplished and recognizing your true capacity threshold. It doesn’t mean we can’t stretch people to do more than they thought possible, but it does mean we have to stop expecting it so often and to such a high degree.

2 – Fix broken systems and processes.

They’re frustrating, ineffective, and lead to slow downs and workarounds that cause bigger issues down the line.

And you might be in the dark about it.

Some leaders fail to fix broken processes because they don’t know they’re broken. The answers often lie in formal employee experience research like surveys and focus groups and feedback found in listening sessions, hackathons, town hall questions, and casual conversations you have with people who are closer to the work.

Other leaders put off process improvement when the task feels overwhelming or time-consuming, so tackle one at a time and enlist the help of your employees who are directly impacted. Many of them are eager to help, and they know from experience that things typically get worse when leaders try to fix something without involving end users.

3 – Develop a strong staffing and resourcing strategy.

In the long term, it’s impossible to perform at high levels without the resources to do it. But this is more than just filling empty roles. Today’s resourcing requires a strategically built and consistently cultivated employer brand that is irresistible to the specific type of people who will thrive in your culture and love the work you do.

And when you define your employer brand and your resourcing strategy, be sure to notify your employees. They need to know a solid remedy plan is on the way so they don’t lose hope thinking the days of constant energy drain are here to stay.

4 – Normalize guilt-free time away.

Show your employees it’s not just OK to be off – it’s applauded.

Cover their work in their absence, encourage them to leave laptops at home when they go on vacation, and delay the delivery of your emails until they return.

In the past, hustle culture glamorized misery and overwork as signs of loyalty. Today, we recognize that view was debilitating for long-term productivity, yet many employees are still concerned that there will be some type of punishment or criticism for enjoying time off.

5 – Convey reassurance and reliability.

Be mindful of situations that could cause employees to worry that their reputations, status, or jobs might be in danger. As you interact with employees, be sure they know you’re looking out for them and that you have their best interests in mind.

Be intentional about creating an emotionally healthy work environment where employees feel connected, protected, and appreciated. Fear activates the nervous system’s threat response, and that burns through energy rapidly. If they’re spending time and energy worrying that they can’t trust you, they’re unable to contribute fully.

And here’s a bonus – one more powerful strategy that’s often overlooked:

6 – Create opportunities for fun.

Positive emotions are energy multipliers, so find opportunities to bring laughter and joy into the work experience.

Examples to inspire you:

  • Change up assignments or routines in ways team members will enjoy.
  • Keep an inside joke going during team meetings and group chats.
  • Surprise them with a creative brainstorm, scavenger hunt, breakout experience, or escape room activity when they arrive for a routine meeting.

Energy is critical for long-term productivity and high performance.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. And neither does full energy recovery. But, as you integrate these strategies into your decisions and interactions, momentum can accelerate quickly.

Remember to protect your own energy levels too.

Navigating the long-term uncertainty of a pandemic and the perfect storm of resource shortages and rapid market shifts has created one of the most demanding leadership experiences of our generation. Be sure to take care of yourself so you can take care of your people.

Trying to drive fast and far on an empty tank won’t work at work.

Jessica Walter MS, APR, is an author and advisor who uses behavioral science to help leaders solve their most complex challenges by teaching them an energizing and emotionally healthy style of leadership.

Photo by Laker


Published by Jessica Walter, MS, APR

Speaker, Consultant, and Certified Leadership Coach

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