How Company Culture Can Turn the Tide of the Burnout Tsunami 

March 2, 2023

Read time 6 min

There’s a discrepancy between how we’re pushed to work and the limits of our human brains. Instead of focusing on ourselves as individuals, it’s the organization’s responsibility to promote and normalize rest.

Elina Andstén is the Head of People Operations and the Cofounder of Reaktor’s Amsterdam community of employees. Employee well-being, coaching, and talking about long-term stress and its effect on our brains and bodies is what puts wind to her sails. She firmly believes that to take care of people, you must first take care of yourself: all her dearest pastime activities – yoga, hiking, scuba diving – are largely about shutting up and going inwards.

As Head of People Operations at Reaktor’s Amsterdam community, I’ve seen burnout become a common part of modern-day work life. Outside work, my social circle is full of strong, skilled, and intelligent individuals. How come so many of them have gone through burnout – and why have I myself experienced it too?

We’re at a point where we all either know someone who has burned out or have burned out ourselves. Like some others, I’m calling it an epidemic.

The answer cannot be that so many of us, from my chosen friends to skilled colleagues, are simply weak or that they, themselves, are to blame. People who burn out aren’t weak. They’re, in fact, some of the strongest and most responsible people I know. 

I think they stay strong for too long. 

What’s led us here? What is it that makes us stay so strong for too long? What makes us ignore signs of long-term stress so long that we cannot get out of bed? 

It’s a combination of historical events and the world we live in. It stems from our parents, who taught their millennial children to always be exceptional because stability’s never guaranteed. It’s in our culture, in the stories of hustlers and grinders who “succeeded by just working hard.” 

It’s also the fear of being viewed as lazy or worthless if one’s not keeping busy. It’s years of demonstrating excellence in a high-pressure environment where work responsibilities and boundaries are blurry and digital devices force us to constantly stay available.

A recent study by Microsoft found that a shocking 50% of people are burned out at work.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me their workplace has “a benefit”: you’ll receive a bonus if you don’t use sick days within the quarter. This stopped me in my tracks and baffled me. In 2023, companies are still encouraging employees to work sick and still demonizing rest.

Why isn’t it common knowledge that frequent breaks and balanced life increase productivity, creative thinking, and problem-solving?  Or that more working hours does not mean more work done?

Let’s put this in another way. When do you get your best ideas? When do you experience those ‘aha’ moments? It’s probably something along the lines of: in the shower, during a run, or a walk in the park, just before falling asleep, or when daydreaming. 

New ideas emerge when our brains, or specifically the prefrontal cortex, are at rest and not actively thinking. The more rested and energized we are, the more productive, motivated, and creative we become.

You are pretty much useless at work if you are exhausted. Long-term stress impairs creative thinking and problem-solving – which is at the very core of what most of us get paid for doing. 

The best way I’ve heard this being put is by my coach, Liselotte Betist: Instead of managing stress, we should all manage rest.

5 things I believe every leader should do to build a supportive community:

A great environment means one where employees feel safe to schedule time for rest and where talking about mental health is normalized. This is crucial right now, as millennials themselves everywhere are increasingly taking on leadership roles.

  • Lead by example. 

Take regular breaks, minimize (and compensate for) overtime, and schedule (and loudly advocate) regular vacations and time off. You can’t ask employees to rest if you don’t do so yourself. Employees often unconsciously follow their leaders’ behavior. Examples become unwritten rules and allow guilt to come into play – employees will feel bad for rest if they’re seemingly the only ones in need of it.

  • Create a policy that encourages people to take days off when they are sick. 

Normalize resting and recovering before coming back to work. The first sign of burnout is increased absenteeism and more frequent (physical) sicknesses. Long-term stress lowers our immune system and causes new aches and pains in our bodies. It makes us more tired in general. These aren’t signs of weakness or laziness; they’re biological signs our wonderfully brilliant bodies have created to prompt us to rest and recover.

  • Recognize employees have a life outside of work – and that life can sometimes be turbulent.

A fight with a partner drains energy, a sleepless night with a newborn taxes emotionally, and supporting a struggling friend makes for a distraction. Humans can’t just set their lives aside when at work. We’re all wholesome and unique beings, and recognizing that this will impact our work-selves is paramount. 

At Reaktor, many have come to me to share an emotional life event – and I always encourage our people to do so. It’s been everything from a breakup to a mother admitted to a hospital. The Reaktorians don’t expect me to do anything about it. Still, many have said that having at least one person at work to know about what’s going on has significantly lessened their guilt and anxiety that they may not be performing to the level they usually would. 

In addition to sharing these events with me, I always encourage them to share with their closest team. If not in as much detail, even saying, “I’m dealing with something difficult in my personal life; hence I may seem more tired at work,” can immensely help. 

  • Educate yourself to recognize the signs of long-term stress.

Even in the perfect workplace in a perfect world, burnout is bound to happen sometimes. The best course of action is then to spot the signs before things worsen. And again, this is not on the individual because while you’re on the brink of burnout, you’re also very unlikely to recognize your situation. So whether you’re in HR, leadership, or a colleague, learn to identify the telltale signs of long-term stress and exhaustion in others. It’ll help you in the long run too.

  • Instead of individuals taking on all of the responsibility, it’s on leaders and organizations to take the helm. 

While you’re in the eye of the storm, you become blind to your circumstances. All the stress, anxiety, nerves, and sweat start to seem normal.“Maybe life’s just supposed to be exhausting like this,” you begin to think. This is why individuals can’t be solely left to deal with burnout prevention. The individual simply can’t deal with it! It needs to be a collective task: It takes the effort of the whole crew to sail a boat. You need a captain to steer in the right direction, but every individual still needs to be able to self-reflect to follow.

While individuals can make multiple changes, no one can survive a tsunami on their own. As leaders, we need to focus on lessening the tsunami into a wave on a windy day, and eventually, a wave employees can surf on.

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