Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jacqueline BrasseyErica CoeMartin DewhurstKana Enomoto, Barbara Jeffery, Renata Giarola, and Brad Herbig for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Employers have invested unprecedented resources in employee mental health and well-being. With burnout at all-time highs, leaders wonder if they can make a difference. Our research suggests they can.

COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated long-standing corporate challenges to employee health and well-being, and in particular employee mental health. This has resulted in reports of rapidly rising rates of burnout around the world (see sidebar “What is burnout?”). Many employers have responded by investing more into mental health and well-being than ever before. Across the globe, four in five HR leaders report that mental health and well-being is a top priority for their organization. Many companies offer a host of wellness benefits such as yoga, meditation app subscriptions, well-being days, and trainings on time management and productivity. In fact, it is estimated that nine in ten organizations around the world offer some form of wellness program.

As laudable as these efforts are, we have found that many employers focus on individual-level interventions that remediate symptoms, rather than resolve the causes of employee burnout. Employing these types of interventions may lead employers to overestimate the impact of their wellness programs and benefits and to underestimate the critical role of the workplace in reducing burnout and supporting employee mental health and well-being.

Research shows that, when asked about aspects of their jobs that undermine their mental health and well-being, employees frequently cite the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy, and lack of social support. Those are not challenges likely to be reversed with wellness programs. In fact, decades of research suggest that interventions targeting only individuals are far less likely to have a sustainable impact on employee health than systemic solutions, including organizational-level interventions.

Since many employers aren’t employing a systemic approach, many have weaker improvements in burnout and employee mental health and well-being than they would expect, given their investments.

Organizations pay a high price for failure to address workplace factors that strongly correlate with burnout, such as toxic behavior. A growing body of evidence, including our research in this report, sheds light on how burnout and its correlates may lead to costly organizational issues such as attrition. Unprecedented levels of employee turnover—a global phenomenon we describe as the Great Attrition—make these costs more visible. Hidden costs to employers also include absenteeism, lower engagement, and decreased productivity.

In this article, we discuss findings of a recent McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) (see sidebar “The McKinsey Health Institute: Join us!”) global survey that sheds light on frequently overlooked workplace factors underlying employee mental health and well-being in organizations around the world. We conclude by teeing up eight questions for reflection along with recommendations on how organizations can address employee mental-health and well-being challenges by taking a systemic approach focused on changing the causes rather than the symptoms of poor outcomes. While there is no well-established playbook, we suggest employers can and should respond through interventions focused on prevention rather than remediation.

We are seeing persistent burnout challenges around the world

To better understand the disconnection between employer efforts and rising employee mental-health and well-being challenges (something we have observed since the start of the pandemic), between February and April 2022 we conducted a global survey of nearly 15,000 employees and 1,000 HR decision makers in 15 countries.

The workplace dimensions assessed in our survey included toxic workplace behavior, sustainable work, inclusivity and belonging, supportive growth environment, freedom from stigma, organizational commitment, leadership accountability, and access to resources. Those dimensions were analyzed against four work-related outcomes—intent to leave, work engagement, job satisfaction, and organization advocacy—as well as four employee mental-health outcomes—symptoms of anxiety, burnout, depression, and distress. Individual adaptability was also assessed.

Our survey pointed to a persistent disconnection between how employees and employers perceive mental health and well-being in organizations. We see an average 22 percent gap between employer and employee perceptions—with employers consistently rating workplace dimensions associated with mental health and well-being more favorably than employees.

In this report—the first of a broader series on employee mental health from the McKinsey Health Institute—we will focus on burnout, its workplace correlates, and implications for leaders. On average, one in four employees surveyed report experiencing burnout symptoms. These high rates were observed around the world and among various demographics (Exhibit 1), and are consistent with global trends.

So, what is behind pervasive burnout challenges worldwide? Our research suggests that employers are overlooking the role of the workplace in burnout and underinvesting in systemic solutions.

Employers tend to overlook the role of the workplace in driving employee mental health and well-being, engagement, and performance

In all 15 countries and across all dimensions assessed, toxic workplace behavior was the biggest predictor of burnout symptoms and intent to leave by a large margin24 —predicting more than 60 percent of the total global variance. For positive outcomes (including work engagement, job satisfaction, and organization advocacy), the impact of factors assessed was more distributed—with inclusivity and belonging, supportive growth environment, sustainable work, and freedom from stigma predicting most outcomes (Exhibit 2).

In all 15 countries and across all dimensions assessed, toxic workplace behavior had the biggest impact predicting burnout symptoms and intent to leave by a large margin.

The danger of toxic workplace behavior—and its impact on burnout and attrition

Across the 15 countries in the survey, toxic workplace behavior is the single largest predictor of negative employee outcomes, including burnout symptoms (see sidebar “What is toxic workplace behavior?”). One in four employees report experiencing high rates of toxic behavior at work. At a global level, high rates were observed across countries, demographic groups—including gender, organizational tenure, age, virtual/in-person work, manager and nonmanager roles—and industries.

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Jacqueline Brassey is a director of research science in McKinsey’s Luxemburg office, Erica Coe is a partner in the Atlanta office, Martin Dewhurst is a senior partner in the London office, Kana Enomoto is a senior expert in the Washington, DC, office, and Barbara Jeffery is a partner in the London office; they are all leaders with McKinsey Health Institute (MHI). Renata Giarola, in the Southern California office, and Brad Herbig, in the Philadelphia office, are consultants with MHI.

The authors wish to thank Yueyang Chen, Elena Chit, Aaron de Smet, Soheil Eshghi, Lars Hartenstein, Tom Latkovic, David Mendelsohn, Roxy Merkand, Isidora Mitic, Bill Schaninger, Wilmar Schaufeli, Jeris Stueland, Berend Terluin, Karen van Dam, and Marieke van Hoffen for their contributions to this article.

This article was edited by Allan Gold, a senior editorial advisor in Washington, DC, and Elizabeth Newman, an executive editor in the Chicago office.


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