Wharton Psychologist Adam Grant Says the Best Leaders Do These 3 Things to Avoid Burnout


Every leader should take three simple steps to reduce or prevent burnout in their employees and themselves: lighten demand, provide more control, and create a supportive environment. That advice comes from Wharton psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant, in a “nano-tool” for leaders.

I’ve heard many definitions of “burnout” over the years, but I particularly like Grant’s–he refers to it as “emotional exhaustion.” I think that’s exactly right. Burnout isn’t just defined by working long hours–we all know people who work practically all the time but seem invigorated and happy instead of tired and stressed. It’s the emotions you feel about those long hours, and about the work itself, that create burnout, or don’t.

With that in mind, instead of focusing on things like taking time off from work, or suggesting stress-relieving practices like meditation or exercise, Grant proposes fighting burnout by adjusting the work itself. Here’s his advice.

1. Ease demands however you can.

“Identify the most depleting elements of a role and look for ways to reduce them,” Grant advises. Obviously, work has to get done, and with layoffs and hiring freezes and uncertain economic times, you likely can’t hire more people to lessen the load. So chances are most of your employees–and you–have more work to do than fits comfortably into a normal workday.

But there are some things you can do to mitigate overwork, he notes. Begin by finding out if any of the more tedious parts of a job can be automated. Pay attention to communications and meeting overload–for example, among users of Microsoft 365, employees spend an average of 57 percent of their time communicating in meetings, email, and chat, and only 43 percent of their time actually creating work product such as documents and spreadsheets. It’s not surprising that 68 percent of respondents in a Microsoft-sponsored survey say they don’t get enough uninterrupted time to focus on their work. “If overtime work and expectations around availability and email are causing burnout, address them at the organizational or team level,” Grant writes.

At the Cleveland Clinic, he adds, a task force studied how doctors worked and identified that the most depleting element of their job was inputting patient information into electronic health systems. The clinic changed the process, and the doctors wound up having more time to spend with their patients.

2. Give everyone more control.

The feeling that you have little control over your work and its outcomes can make anyone feel burned out. So give employees as much control over their jobs as you can–and seek maximum control for yourself as well.

One way to do this is to look for opportunities to have team members help determine their own goals, how they will achieve those goals, and what training they might need along the way, Grant writes. Where appropriate, it could also mean giving them control over when and where they work through flexible hours and remote or hybrid work.

The power of greater control to lift people out of burnout is very real, he writes. He tells the story of a badly burned-out high school teacher who was working 100 hours a week and watching about half her students drop out before graduating. Surprisingly, what helped her beat the burnout was more work–she started a mentoring program for high-achieving low-income students and volunteered as a mentor herself. It added to her workload, but it added even more to her sense of control and that her work was serving a purpose.

3. Create a supportive environment.

Letting employees feel that they have the support they need to do their jobs and that colleagues and bosses have their backs can be a powerful way to fight burnout. Creating such an environment–and encouraging employees to ask for the support they need–may require a change to your company or team culture, Grant writes. The quickest way to do that is to set the right example yourself. “When leaders open up about their challenges and ask for assistance,” he says, “it normalizes struggle and shows that seeking support is a source of strength, not a sign of weakness.”

For example, he notes, on offshore oil rigs, some company leaders have started working to create a supportive culture among typically rugged and self-sufficient crew members. “Instead of continuing to reward displays of masculine strength, daring, and technical prowess, they are now encouraged to ask for and offer help; admit mistakes and discover what caused them,” Grant writes. The result is fewer accidents and improved safety for everyone.

In my new book, Career Self-Care: Find Your Happiness, Success, and Fulfillment at Work, I do a deep dive into why burnout is so dangerous and how easing burnout not only promotes mental and emotional health, but also leads to greater career success and better business outcomes. Removing as much drudgery as possible from every job, giving everyone as much control as possible, and creating a supportive work environment are some of the best ways to make that happen.

May 19, 2023