Systemic Burnout and Overwork


My work brings me into contact with a lot of senior managers, and over the past three months I’ve been working with a number of them across different organisations. There is a common and constant conversation about senior managers feeling exhausted, and expressing concern for their team members’ energy levels too. 

It seems that we are in a state of systemic burnout and overwork. It is encouraging to hear senior managers recognise that the source is systemic rather than the individual. In my language, that makes it an adaptive challenge rather than a technical one.

Click here for an in depth look at diagnosing technical vs adaptive challenges (approximately 18 minute viewing time).

This systemic burnout has roots not only in individual beliefs about how we work but also in the team, division, and organisational culture (which in turn is a reflection of societal culture). 

Some ideas about making progress on the burnout issue that have emerged from recent workshops include:

1. Reflecting on the managers’ practices  

Many managers reflected that although they tell their team members that long work hours are not expected from them, the senior managers do not model that, themselves.  These managers work very long hours and are very tired.  Recognising this, the senior managers have collectively agreed to reduce their hours, add a bit of self-care, and work to prioritise activities.   

2. Letting some things go 

Most managers are enthusiastic and committed to the work and purpose of the organisation and so their first inclination is to ‘say yes’ to new initiatives. Depending upon the organisational culture, it may also be a career-limiting move to ‘say no’. These competing values make the ability to ‘say no’ adaptive work for the individual, team and organisation. 

When do we ‘say no’? What can we let go of from the past? I have previously shared a blog about one of the team processes I have grown very fond of from Liberating Structures – the eco-cycle.

We don’t have the resources to deal with all the demands of the past, present, and future. We must revisit our work and evaluate what needs to be  ‘let go’ so we can focus our attention and energy on new projects for the future. We cannot hold it all. We cannot do it all!  

3. Engaging every team member in evolving the organisational culture 

The other extensive discussion with senior managers is recognition that corporate cultures also need love and care now. Culture is the ultimate adaptive challenge and requires a process of engagement to influence it. Our Groundswell process enables this, and it has been gratifying to see participants coming to life again through the conversation, knowing how they want and need to experience working together

The process moves everyone from watching as a spectator to being a player in the game, consciously influencing the way we work (the culture). The emerging stories articulate a desire for ‘work-life balance’ and personal and organisational wellbeing. 

4. Open and honest conversations (psychological safety)

A side observation from these processes has been concern from senior managers that their people may not say what they think if senior managers are a part of the conversation. My counter is that if that is the case, then we really do have some work to do. I facilitate the process so that mixing occurs, and so does honesty and openness. The feedback has been tremendous, and even a one-day conversation has set teams on a new and energised path.

Feedback from the workshops

“I’ve already received some fantastically positive comments from my staff about yesterday’s session and their excitement about how we will move forward. Thanks so much for your engagement and energy throughout the session, and for the session design itself. It really resonated with me and my staff”
– Team Leader

This has been one of the most enjoyable, thorough, well-designed and relevant sessions I have been a part of in my 12 years at UniSA 
– Team Member

Does your team need re-energising for change?

Imagine how a one-day workshop designed to have fun and work out how you really want to work together into the future could re-energise your team. 

Contact me if you’d like to chat and co-create an engaging workshop to Energise Change for you and your team.