Senior Researcher, Neuroscientist, Korn Ferry Institute
3 neuroscience-based strategies to combat employee burnout
For better or for worse, our work and home environments have been permanently altered. And with this change, organizations, leaders, and employees alike need to look for new norms in a new normal.
In this evolved, post-pandemic world, where flexible workplaces are in higher demand, many people are faced with an increase of stressors. In fact, our post-pandemic workplace has become a hotbed of burnout—one of the leading causes of the Great Resignation, according to research.
Burnout is a result of excess stress, combined with a lack of quality coping tools to help manage that stress. It isn’t just when you feel tired or bored or unmotivated—burnout happens when you feel the negative physical and psychological outcomes of this stress overload. “Burnout fundamentally changes how we show up to work and what we are able to achieve there,” says Amelia Haynes, associate researcher with the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm.
Workplace stress impacts businesses through low employee engagement, absenteeism, loss of productivity, employee turnover and rising expenses. And the numbers tell the same story: the economic impact of burnout is $300 billion of US spending on healthcare, according to a recent study. What’s more, research shows that 40% of turnover is due to employee burnout; the average cost of replacement for these workers is 120% to 200% of their original salary.
When workplace stress impacts a business’s performance, understanding what contributes to workers’ stress is essential—not only for people and leaders, but for entire organizations as well. In its latest report, The rise of the “Great Burnout,” the Korn Ferry Institute explores those structural, personal, managerial, and social factors influencing burnout. The report then offers three neuroscience-based strategies to combat burnout and its impact on both employees and businesses as a whole. “Neuroscience research helps us understand how our bodies and our brains can show resiliency towards stress and burnout,” says Rengin Firat, Korn Ferry Institute’s senior researcher and neuroscientist.
Burnout has three distinct components: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. The pandemic—and its aftermath—created a context in which many people experienced increases in all three of these facets, explains Ashita Goswami, an analytics consultant with the Korn Ferry Institute.
The rise of remote work led to more isolation among colleagues. The lack of face time in the office has caused friction within interpersonal relationships. Social tensions, war, and violence have threatened everyone’s sense of safety and security. And the buildup of emotions, coupled with a lack of healthy coping strategies, have increased stress exponentially.
Addressing employee burnout begins with stress management. To prevent a “Great Burnout,” organizations can follow these three actionable, neuroscience-based strategies:
Emotional exhaustion includes the increase of negative feelings, such as worry and stress. Helping employees process and regulate their emotional experiences in ways that do not overload their mental and emotional capacities can strengthen the connectivity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, reducing the likelihood of emotional hijacking—when our emotional processes take over our normal rational processing.
What’s more, the complex relationship between hormones and our brain processing can either counter or cause chronic exposure to stress. Positive relationships, connectedness, and trust in the workplace, as well as motivation for work, are underlined by naturally occurring hormones like serotonin and oxytocin. But negative relationships, disconnectedness, and distrust can produce the hormone cortisol, generating the emotional exhaustion component of the burnout experience.
Cynicism causes negative feelings and disengagement in the workplace, creating a lack of empathy within the workplace. Increasing oxytocin through empathetic and supportive relationships is an effective way to combat depersonalization and cynicism in the workplace. In other words, empathy may be the cure to cynicism. But to foster empathy, and produce that oxytocin, organizations must prevent detachment from the workplace by positioning their environment as safe and supportive.
Organizations can help develop their employees’ capacity to help others handle their emotions. Studies show that employees who receive empathy fare better against burnout: feelings of empathy toward others are related to increased levels of oxytocin and activation in brain regions corresponding to social emotions. And it goes both ways: receiving empathy also decreases stress and cynicism.
To prevent burnout, help employees implement learning strategies that encourage them to be more aware of and regulate their own thought patterns.
In other words, companies can help employees do more “thinking about thinking.” And by fostering this thought awareness—also known as metacognition—organizations can empower employees to improve self-efficacy. Helping employees build and maintain metacognitive skills like monitoring and evaluating information, planning, and focusing on a task allows them to reach desirable outcomes for themselves and the company.
After all, research shows that rewards increase dopamine levels, which not only predict immediate work motivation, but also the willingness to allocate time and effort into future outcomes that are not immediately rewarded.
Our bodies and brains often respond in fast and automatic ways to stressors, as well as adopt new ways to counter the chronic loads of life’s burdens. Identifying neuroscience-based strategies can help counter—or avoid completely—the burnout caused by these stressors. In turn, this can have an important impact on improving workplace relations, management skills, and reducing negative emotions and stress in the workplace.