During the pandemic, workplace burnout became the topic du jour at the suddenly proverbial water cooler. For many, working at home turned out to be even more stressful than working in offices, and in the years since, amid shifting return-to-office mandates and soaring living costs, the phenomenon shows no signs of abating. Business authors are no exception: they’ve been hard at work trying to understand and provide solutions to burnout, and this season brings the fruits of their labors.
Burnout happens “when you’re completely out of resources, running on fumes,” says Emily Ballesteros, a management coach and the author of The Cure for Burnout (Dial, Feb. 2024). She’s among the authors—psychologists, behavioral scientists, researchers, and veterans of burnout themselves—who pose the question: What exactly is this soul-draining syndrome, and how do we stop it before it sets in?
The origins of the burn
In The Busy Brain Cure (Hanover Square, Jan. 2024), neurologist Romie Mushtaq cites a Covid-era study of more than 17,000 adults showing that at least 80% felt burned out. But the common explanations for widespread burnout, she argues, are misguided.
“The myth of burnout is that it’s about people hating their jobs,” Mushtaq says. “That’s not it at all.” Instead, her research shows that the “digital demands of our lives don’t allow us personal time, time for rest.” These demands multiplied during the pandemic and, for many, haven’t let up.
According to Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown who has written several books about work and technology for popular audiences, the current wave of burnout is actually the second, after the initial onset of the syndrome during Covid.
“The first-wave response we saw was ‘quiet quitting’—people saying, ‘This is enough,’ ” Newport explains. “The second wave is now about reclaiming the term productivity—wanting it to be something more humane.”
Newport tackles how to do that in his forthcoming book Slow Productivity (Portfolio, Mar. 2024), in which he argues for a version of work that focuses on quality output, rather than the frenzied busy-ness that’s really only “a proxy for doing useful things.”
For leadership coach Christina Congleton, the origins of burnout lie in the broader economy, and in the particular culture of younger, digital-first generations. Her forthcoming book Getting Over Ourselves (Wiley, Dec.) is a guide to navigating burnout and other psychological stresses aimed at this group.
“Millennials are a cultural case study,” Congleton says. “We’re starting to recognize things about the systems we’re in, starting to feel as if the game is rigged. Inequality is rising, childcare is astronomically expensive, a dual-income household is hard-pressed to afford a home.” And meanwhile, she adds, “we’re expected to work long hours and always be on our smartphones.”
Good boss, bad boss
But what can leaders do to stave off the syndrome in their employees? A lot, says Ballesteros, who has a personal story that prompted her work. While putting in long hours in corporate training and commuting two to three hours a day, she experienced what she calls “burnout by volume” and ended up having a breakdown in a Walgreens. In The Cure for Burnout, she exhorts higher-ups to lead by example, ensuring that they model “a culture of balance.”
Mushtaq says leaders have the power to change a work environment for the better. “Leadership and wellness are not two different subjects,” she adds. “Leaders have to learn to create a culture of psychological safety and wellness.” That culture, she explains, can take many forms, but fundamentally it hinges on the idea that employees are human beings with lives of their own outside of work.
The Friction Project (St. Martin’s, Jan. 2024) by Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao is aimed at leaders and lays out steps they can take to keep their employees from getting bogged down in unnecessarily complicated or repetitive work.
“The best leaders see themselves as trustees of others’ time,” says Sutton, an organizational psychologist and professor at Stanford. Putting value on employees’ time, he says, can help diminish stress and enable staff to concentrate on the work they find energizing.
“The very first place an organization can start is figuring out how to get rid of stupid stuff,” adds Rao, a professor of organizational behavior also at Stanford. “Ask, what can I prune away that distracts, or bores, or infuriates people?” In its review of the book, PW said, “Readers tired of sitting through unnecessary meetings will want to check this out.”
Solutions personal and systemic
Several authors propose individual remedies to burnout. In Burnout Immunity (Harper Business, Apr. 2024), Kandi Weins, a scholar and administrator at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a framework for readers hoping to reignite their passion at work. She dubs it “ARMOR”: awareness, regulation, meaningful connections, outlook, recover, reconnect, reimagine.
Similarly, in Languishing (Crown, Feb. 2024), sociologist Corey Keyes discusses his coinage and its concept: “languishing” is the mental fog of procrastination and lack of interest that stems from and exacerbates burnout. (The term came to popular attention in 2021 when Adam Grant name-checked Keyes in the New York Times.) Crown senior editor Leah Trouwborst says she felt an “immediate sense of relief” when she learned about Keyes’s work. “Someone had put a feeling I’d had for so long into words.” Keyes recommends mental “vitamins,” such as learning something new, that readers can use to trade languishing for “flourishing”—not merely surviving at work, but thriving.
Other authors, however, stress that burnout has systemic roots and can’t always be addressed though individual action. Carrie Sun’s memoir Private Equity (Penguin Press, Feb. 2024) recounts her struggle to maintain her health while serving as an assistant to the billionaire founder of a hedge fund. On her very first day at the job, she recalls, she told a friend, “I love my job! I was born to do this! I had no time to pee!”
With the benefit of hindsight, Sun says, “That’s a recipe for failure.” She sees her struggle as emblematic of the issues faced by the American workforce as a whole: in the contemporary model of work, burnout isn’t a side effect—it’s the whole point. “Companies deliberately recruit young, hungry, moldable workers with dangled promises of promotions and money,” Sun notes. “That treadmill is the problem.”
Malissa Clark, author of Never Not Working (Harvard Business Review, Feb. 2024), comes to the subject of burnout as an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia. This 30,000-foot view gives her a clear understanding of the systems at play, says HBR senior editor Scott Berinato. Many of the subjects Clark studies in her book are workaholics—literally, members of Workaholics Anonymous. But workaholism, Berinato says, has less to do with the number of hours a person works than with the impact of work on the person’s life.
“It’s more the inability to disconnect, the ability of work to disrupt social and physical activities,” Berinato says. Large organizations, Clark’s book argues, are often designed to encourage constant connectivity, which sets off a vicious cycle of overwork.
Between omnipresent emails, overbearing bosses, and the pressure to keep one’s Teams status perpetually green, it’s possible burnout will remain a widespread problem until corporate cultures change. As Congleton notes, “Burnout may be a perfectly sane and reasonable response to systems that don’t work well for human beings.”
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product strategist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the memoir Never Simple.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misspelled Christina Congleton's first name.
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