Burned out but happy: HR’s next challenge

And three tips for how leaders can overcome it.
By: | April 2, 2021 • 6 min read

2020 challenged us to the core. I won’t belabor what we already know—we had a global pandemic and a year of political and social unrest in the United States that tested every part of our being, most notably our mental health. Quite simply, 2020 burned us out.

But a fascinating new report from Glint on workplace wellbeing confirmed something surprising I had been suspecting about 2020: Despite a marked rise in burnout risk, people were actually happier at work. You read that right—happier! How is this possible?

To me, it’s explained by the difference between burnout and happiness.

Vinnie Garufi of Bristol Myers Squibb

Burnout is about what people give to their organizations. Happiness is about what organizations give to their people. 

Let’s start with burnout. For employees working in the corporate space in 2020, while the pandemic drastically disrupted their lives, they continued to give to their organizations. People over-delivered. Productivity was up. Innovation soared. Customer needs were met. Value was delivered, but at a high cost—people ran a much greater risk of burnout. The rise in productivity exceeded people’s healthy capacity, and it wasn’t always rewarded with what people need in order to manage in a crisis—things like connection with others, manager support, help with prioritizing work, and the ability to say “no” to low-value work.

Despite these shortfalls, people still became happier at work. To understand why, I look at what organizations give to their people. 

In 2020, organizations gave people focus, safety, security and—maybe most importantly—meaning. When the world was spinning out of control and we couldn’t make a dent in COVID or political unrest, people could cling to their organization as a place of refuge. Work was a place to feel normal, keep routines, talk about issues and do something meaningful for other people.

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This is not to say organizations were perfect in 2020, or that they can’t do more, but the year highlighted the really important—and ever-growing—role that organizations play for people to exist in a healthy society.

Organizations give security in an uncertain time

Safety and security are now paramount in a productive workplace. We learned that when organizations take an active stance to help their workforce feel safe, emotionally healthy and secure, they are rewarded with engagement and results. By shifting to a remote working model for all but essential employees and increasing support services for wellbeing—like mental health counseling, child and elder-care support, and boosting investments in employees’ digital skills to remain productive—organizations got an engagement boost. For the first time in a while, people looked at their organizations through the lens of gratitude.

Organizations give psychological safety to the underrepresented

When social and racial tensions were flaring in the U.S. and our government struggled to produce an adequate response, I saw CEOs and other organizational leaders work to create a sense of belonging for people who were otherwise feeling alienated or vulnerable. They showed employees that despite the turmoil outside, within the “walls” of their organization people were respected, valued and treated as equals. Organizations acknowledged that racism and extremism exist, and they took a stand against it. Many organizations put their resources behind the effort, including BMS and the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, which each committed $150 million to drive intentional inclusion efforts both inside and outside the company.

Related: Register for HRE’s free, virtual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference.

Organizations are the innovation engine that buoys the economy

Because of organizations, we were able to sustain through the pandemic. Retail and consumer goods companies re-engineered to make the essentials available at our doorsteps. Technology companies kept us connected. Service industries up-ended their business models to ensure our lives could continue. The result of these innovations is that we could sustain in a pandemic and that our economy could continue to thrive. I’m particularly proud that innovations from my industry led to the rapid development of vaccines and other COVID-19 treatments that are now saving countless lives.

So given the positives we discovered in 2020, how do we leverage these insights to solve the big burnout challenge in front of us?

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If you think about organizations as serving a hierarchy of employee needs, we are doing great at the very bottom and very top. At the bottom, organizations are giving safety, security and a means for employees to get their basic needs met through income and benefits. At the top, organizations are giving people meaning and purpose and helping them to multiply their efforts through the strength of the combined workforce.

Where organizations—and we as leaders—need to do better is in the middle of the hierarchy. The middle is about connecting, creating a sense of belonging and helping people feel they can accomplish something. Our people can’t connect if we don’t make it a priority, and they can’t feel accomplished when they have too many things to do.

To address burnout by meeting the needs in the hierarchy’s middle, leaders can take some simple but determined actions:

  • Create connections. A frequently cited precursor for burnout in the Glint global study—as well as others by Harvard Business Review and Mayo Clinic—is the feeling of isolation and disconnection from colleagues. We’ve so engineered our efficiency during the pandemic, we’ve left little room for the personal connections that bind us. Leaders can create these opportunities for connection, especially informal virtual gatherings. Personally, the number one meeting I attend each week is “Fri-yay” with my team, a 30-minute virtual hang-out where we talk about life, laugh, and share recipes and what’s on our playlists. It’s a near-adequate substitute for the informal time we don’t get while we’re working remotely.
  • Help prioritize and say “no.” It’s not enough to tell our people they have “flexibility.” We have to create capacity by showing them what they can say “no” to. This involves relentless prioritization of activities, choosing what drives the most business value and giving permission to say no to the rest.
  • Lean in to support. This means recognizing good work, clarifying responsibilities and giving some autonomy for decision-making. Simple actions can show teams they are trusted and have some control. As an example, among my leadership team, we realized our people were bringing us too many decisions to make for them, a sign that they were not feeling empowered. We adopted a simple phrase to show them they have the latitude to operate—“your opinion is my opinion.” It’s a short statement, but it goes a long way toward giving them some control over their world.

By creating connections, helping people say no and giving them support, leaders create a capacity in people that helps prevent burnout. And when we don’t erode people’s capacity, we can continue to benefit from the best of what organizations give—security, inclusion, and innovation—as we continue to fight this pandemic and search for a brighter, safer tomorrow.

Lastly, I recognize the scenarios and ideas presented here may not fully describe your company or industry. You may have even lost your job if your industry was hit hard. If that’s the case, my hope is that the strength, innovation and problem-solving tenacity of our organizations will help us approach normal sometime soon. Then we can all indulge in some happiness while saving the burnout for another time.

Related: Why still-soaring depression rates mean a new mandate for employers

Vinnie Garufi is an HR executive at Bristol Myers Squibb, currently focused on organizational health and effectiveness after mergers and acquisitions.  Vinnie’s experience spans over 20 years in healthcare and biopharma as a leader in HR, strategy and operations.