The panoply of upheavals that 2020 brought, from existential and economic to social and environmental, was a rollercoaster of storm clouds and silver-linings.. The shift to remote work that stirred chaos and left many feeling isolated simultaneously created flexibility in how, when and where people worked, giving them space back to care for themselves and their loved ones. The decrease in smog and traffic that brought back wildlife and blue skies contrasted raging wildfires and orange haze. The openness and vulnerability between people catalyzed by shared existential threat existed against a backdrop of heightened social tension and police brutality.
Just when many leaders are starting to feel out of the woods, a “great burnout” appears to be on the horizon. The unpredictable and unprecedented challenges and changes of the last two years contribute to vast levels of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy—three key dimensions of burnout. And with that burnout, we have seen worsened employee health, increasing absenteeism, and greater interpersonal conflicts in the workplace.
The pandemic created a context in which many people experienced increases in all three facets of burnout, with grave effects on people and organizations alike. In the United States alone, effects of workplace stress account for about 8%—or up to $190 billion—of our national spending on healthcare, according to a 2015 analysis. A more recent study estimates this number might be closer to $300 billion, when combining health costs and lost revenue due to absenteeism and poor performance.
To meaningfully address the issue, organizations need to take a hard look at how the workplace contributes to employee burnout and be part of that solution. Neuroscience research offers a new opportunity to understand and mitigate burnout by identifying solutions that target each part of the problem. The three dimensions of burnout can be countered with three neurologically based capacities: emotion regulation, empathy and metacognition.
1. Emotion regulation can combat emotional exhaustion. Positive relationships, connectedness and trust in the workplace are underlined by complex brain mechanisms that use naturally occurring hormones like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These hormones can counter the adverse effects of the cortisol, which is produced by chronic exposure to stress and the associated emotional exhaustion component of burnout.
Research suggests that emotion regulation strategies can be either explicit (conscious processes that are effortful and deliberative, driven by the prefrontal cortex) or incidental (largely unconscious, driven by subcortical brain regions like the amygdala). Acceptance, reappraisal, disengagement and labeling are all approaches that can help us process our emotional experiences by strengthening the connectivity between our amygdala and our prefrontal cortex, reducing the likelihood of emotional hijacking—when our emotional processes take over our normal rational processing.
2. Empathy may be the cure to cynicism. Feeling negative, cynical and disengaged all indicate reduced levels of empathy. By contrast, when people perceive their environments as safe and receive support from others, their oxytocin levels increase, thereby lowering stress. Feelings of empathy toward others are related to increased levels of oxytocin and activation in brain regions corresponding to social emotions. And it goes both ways: receiving empathy also decreases stress and cynicism. Increasing oxytocin through creating empathetic and supportive relationships is an effective way to combat depersonalization and cynicism in the workplace.
3. Metacognition can counteract inefficacy. Metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” describes the capacity to understand and regulate your own thought patterns. It involves monitoring our mental processes during decision-making and adjusting behavior to reach desirable outcomes. Metacognitive skills are related to self-efficacy and learning outcomes.
Our brains are highly motivated by rewards, including social rewards, such as praise from a manager or receiving a promotion at work. Rewards increase dopamine levels, which not only predicts immediate work motivation, but also willingness to allocate time and effort into future activities. Another important role of dopamine in our brains is self-motivated—or conscious—learning; it can improve self-awareness of the accuracy of judgments. This capacity for self-evaluation and awareness may be the key to combat the feelings of inefficacy involved in employee burnout.
Equipping people with better skills to handle stress at work is just the first step. Talent management during the post-Covid era deals with special challenges created by the changing work environment, business pressures, and pandemic-related anxiety and worry. In adjusting to the “new normal,” leaders must reject the notion that a burned-out employee population is an acceptable norm. By building social and emotional skills that increase connectedness, self-efficacy and emotion-regulation capacities, we can optimize performance and well-being, enabling people and organizations alike to address the root causes of burnout directly.