Beating burnout: The science of employee well-being

The answer to creating an effective well-being program lies in a science-backed approach that focuses on developing the right conditions at work so organizations can succeed in helping their people flourish.

Let’s start with two hard truths: The first is simple — employees are struggling. Second, if we don’t prioritize their well-being, businesses are unlikely to survive. 

The pressures of the pandemic mixed with high demands, talk of recession and The Great Resignation exacerbated an already pressing need for employee well-being. Sixty-three percent of senior HR leaders rated employee well-being and mental health as top priorities.

Instead of working late on a Friday or cutting the weekend short to get ahead on a project, people are “quiet quitting” or doing the bare minimum to get by to protect themselves from burnout. This latest trend is having an unintentional effect of putting that work on their colleagues — further magnifying burnout for the team and others. With quiet quitters making up at least half of the U.S. workforce, companies are getting the message with an estimated 50-billion-dollar investment into well-being in the U.S. alone.

But it’s not only the increase in burnout making well-being more significant. When it comes to recruitment, today’s talent pool is looking for more than just a job. They’re looking for a culture that is meaningful, inclusive, flexible and supports health and well-being.

However, the programs organizations are putting into place to help are missing ample opportunities to have a real impact. As a result, employees are opting out of the solutions created to help them get better. The answer to creating an effective well-being program lies in a science-backed approach that focuses on developing the right conditions at work so organizations can succeed in helping their people flourish.  

Beating burnout

We must remember that the mind isn’t separate from the body. When people are stressed and burned out, it ripples into other areas of our lives. As a result, they’re at a higher risk of mental and physical health issues leading to increased disengagement, absenteeism, presenteeism and turnover. Part of beating burnout is being able to recognize the signs. 

It’s been ingrained in us that the harder your work, the better you’ll perform — so as a result, we tend to do whatever it takes to meet those demands. However, not asking for help for fear of being viewed as lazy or “pushing through” can harm well-being and performance because it makes us view taking breaks and asking for help in problematic ways when breaks and support are part of the solution. 

We’ve all boasted about “thriving under pressure,” but people who are incredibly passionate about their work may be most at risk of unsustainable work habits. We call this fragile thriving. They discount the signs that their well-being is starting to suffer, which in turn results in poorer performance.

Overall, this vicious cycle has unintended consequences for organizational culture.

Self-care isn’t the solution 

Now that we’re more aware of the importance of well-being, many organizations are trying to make changes to get a handle on it. Our research shows organizations are putting resources into well-being programs that focus more on how to reverse burnout outside the office versus finding ways to apply a more holistic way of beating burnout at work. You see this with meditation apps and paid yoga classes. But, at best, these are band-aids covering up the real problem. 

Most of these well-being activities fall outside of work, and those who need it most don’t benefit. A landmark study found that nearly 80 percent of employees who signed up for a well-being program dropped out within six months. They’re simply not working.

But there are ways to drive performance while protecting and promoting well-being simultaneously – and it starts with knowing and understanding the five drivers of well-being at work.  

The 5 drivers  

Organizations have been missing an opportunity to make real change by operating at the periphery instead of at the core of work. To get to the root cause, we need to address ill-being. Ill-being encompasses a variety of states and experiences when we are struggling to cope in a way that is interfering with work and life. When companies can recognize where and how their employees are struggling and focus on creating the right conditions at work, they’ll succeed more in shifting to and supporting well-being daily. Psychologists have identified the factors required to generate sustainable, healthy forms of motivation at work, which are, in turn, linked to higher well-being. We have synthesized several theories to bring you the five drivers of well-being at work: certainty, competence, autonomy, belonging and purpose. 

  • Certainty is about being able to predict the world around you, understanding what is expected of you, feeling that you can anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances. When we lack information or feel insecure, uncertainty leads to paralysis, emotional exhaustion and burnout. Providing employees with a baseline of certainty about their role, organizational outlook and what’s in the pipeline over the coming months is fundamental to securing their well-being.
  • Competence is about having what it takes to accomplish tasks effectively now, as well as taking opportunities to learn more. Feeling competent at work reduces the risk of burnout and drives increased effort at work. To improve employees’ sense of competence, employers can focus on positive reinforcement, offering multiple opportunities to gain new skills and, critically, framing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow in competence.

Certainty and competence are the bedrock for enhancing well-being. Getting these right should be every organization’s priority. When it comes to workplace well-being, at minimum, people need to know what they’re doing and how to do it well. 

When faced with shifting demands, we may need to draw on other resources, which is where autonomy and belonging come in:

  • Autonomy is having the freedom to decide how to get your work done and acknowledging that this will look different for everyone. The sense of freedom that comes with having more choices is an intrinsic motivator, boosting loyalty, commitment and engagement, and is a more powerful motivator than offering extrinsic incentives such as more money.
  • Belonging is about forming and maintaining positive relationships. It’s about feeling valued and supported to help recover from and rise to challenges, individually and collectively. Fostering belonging at work, especially post-pandemic and working from home, can help promote a sense of community and boost engagement and performance.
  • Purpose provides reason. It’s about having a sense that your actions are meaningful and valuable. When we see why our work matters, we’re more engaged. Employees can see how their work connects to important life goals (e.g., building financial security for family) or personal values (e.g., helping others). Research shows when people can articulate the value of their work to themselves and others, both their sense of purpose and their performance increase.

By focusing on creating the right conditions for well-being at work, we can reach more people and positively impact everything else. 

Recover, reinforce, reignite

Adopt a solution that embeds itself into the flow of work to improve how things are done versus an extra task to add to already busy schedules. Well-being at work, or as we call it at MindGym, Wellworking, involves three strategies, each targeting a different well-being objective: Recover, reinforce, and reignite, which do a balancing act between protecting against ill-being, boosting well-being, and resetting when necessary to create a solution that makes a real impact. 

Recover: Sometimes things go wrong, despite our best efforts. When ill-being is high, it must be addressed holistically. Treating symptoms of stress is essential but futile if we don’t also work on fixing the underlying causes. We may resist doing what is necessary to address high levels of illbeing at work. It is tempting to abdicate responsibility (it’s everyone’s responsibility) or wait until things blow over (they won’t). Take ownership of ill-being. No one is helpless, especially if we work together to get back to baseline. 

Reinforce: An essential step to creating and maintaining well-being at work is actively laying the foundations. Reinforce does just that by focusing on behaviors and skills that can mitigate the effects of stress and push toward a thriving, flourishing and sustainable high performance. Well-being at work is grounded in the habits and hassles we encounter every day. Don’t wait until things are bad; engage in preventative maintenance. Don’t rush ahead without building a solid foundation for growth. 

Reignite: Reignite focuses on behaviors that will promote well-being. Once you have a stable foundation, you can build on it. Performance and well-being can have a positive relationship, spiraling upwards and outwards. The key is to push and stretch in the right moments and to do it sustainably. Tapping into the right kinds of motivation is the key to sustainable high performance and well-being at work. At the micro-level, this will look different for different people, but at a macro-level, the forces to harness are the ones that open us up to new possibilities: exploration, connection and learning. 

Tailoring your approach to prioritize fixing problems correctly is what can open the door to promoting well-being. But it doesn’t stop there. Organizations should create and maintain healthy habits and cultural norms to support well-being every day while giving employees the right tools to deal with challenges outside of work.