The Link Between Bad Management and Employee Burnout

Posted on Monday, November 8, 2021 by Graham Quinn

Employee burnout is on the rise. Work-related stress and mental illness ‘costs British businesses an estimated £26 billion per annum’ and accounts for over half of all work absences. Recent research found that a more than half (57 per cent) of all employees feel worn out by work, rising to two-thirds (67 per cent) for working parents.

Unsurprisingly, study after study shows that stress and burnout are major drivers of staff turnover, accidents, injuries, and substance abuse. Worldwide, 615 million suffer from depression and anxiety and, according to a recent WHO study, this costs the global workforce an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.

Since the World Health Organization added burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, employers have begun to take the problem more seriously. However, employee burnout since experts suggest we are attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

The foremost expert on burnout, Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology at Berkeley University says “Categorizing burnout as a disease was an attempt by the WHO to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies”

Numerous recent studies on the phenomenon support this view. For example, a survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup (2020) found the top five reasons for burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work
  2. Unmanageable workload
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of or unclear communication from managers
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

This suggests that rather than focusing on ‘workplace wellness offerings’ such as on-site gyms, yoga classes and healthy snacks, employers should investigate the link between burnout and bad management.  

Many workplace issues leading to employee stress stem from a loss of the worker’s perspective by management. When workloads and deadlines are issued with lack of empathy or understanding of task, overwhelmed employees have to choose between giving up or to work at a pace that pushes us them beyond what is good for their mental and physical health, which is damaging over time. 

Faced with poor productivity, businesses usually begin by scrutinising or focus strategies on  employees. However, lack of clarity in management communication not only adds to employee burnout but also has a damaging effect on productivity, which leaders reluctant to investigate the effectiveness of management should bear in mind.  

By viewing the bigger picture of how your teams and managers work together you may discover neither employees nor management are at fault.  A recent survey by Gartner reveals that more than two-thirds of people need to check with more than one boss in order to do their jobs. This shows how the organisational structure of a business can be a recipe for a stressful working environment.


Where to begin?

By conducting regular workarounds, CEOs and senior leaders can observe managerial styles in action. If this practice is normalised, employees are more likely to open up about how management affects their motivation.


What to look for

Good managers instil a sense of confidence and trust in their employees. They set clear and attainable goals, communicating them in a way that enables employees to see how their work affects customers and the business. This type of management style results in workers who feel purposeful and valued, and are more likely to raise issues when things aren’t going well. A supportive workplace environment generates problem solving and innovation and results in lower absenteeism, lower staff turnover and higher profits. While most workplaces may be far from this ideal, dealing with the causes of employee stress one by one will help your business move closer to attaining it.


Management styles resulting in employee stress, with advice on how to deal with them.

Condensed from analysis of the most up-to-date burnout research by McKinsey and Gallup, the following strategies will enable you to effectively evaluate and deal with sources of employee stress in your business so that future burnout can be prevented.

Switching initiatives too frequently

Although it’s expected for managers to keep an eye on the market and strategies that competitors are using, communicating knee-jerk reaction initiatives to employees often results in switching initiatives too frequently.

While managers want to show they have ideas and can instigate change, frequently implementing and abandoning initiatives over time results in stressed and demotivated employees.

From an employee perspective, new initiatives mean extra work to facilitate the change. While they may start out committed to supporting management ideas, if these projects are abandoned by leaders halfway through, employee motivation understandably wanes, as they expect the extra effort to be worthless.



  • Create an anonymous ‘no-blame’ space for workers to express how frequent switching and abandoning of initiatives affects their motivation
  • Follow this with manager / employee discussions to agree on a limit to the number of changes to current practise within a given time
  • Before instigating new initiatives, explain the reasons for the changes are clearly communicated to employees
  • Inform workers on the goals for new initiatives and how long they will run for before progress is evaluated
  • Allow workers to take part in the evaluation process


Ensure goals are achievable and employees understand their value

BHAGs, or ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’ were popularised by Jim Collin’s influential business text ‘Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.’ As a result, many companies have BHAGs, meant to motivate and energise employees by communicating a company’s big picture plan. However, BHAGs created by leadership may seem unrealistic to workers or too much expectation placed on achieving the goal without communicating the steps teams will go through to help the company reach them.



  • Managers should set out and communicate achievable milestones for employees
  • Clearly convey the purpose of initiatives linked to BHAGs to increase engagement
  • Create an official channel for feedback so workers can air their questions beforehand
  • Including employees in the creation of company BHAGs will encourage your workforce to embrace them


Encourage managers to develop a ‘servant leadership’ approach

Put simply, ‘servant leadership’ is when managers look for opportunities to make their team members’ working lives easier.



  • Encourage managers to be curious about employee well-being and ask questions
  • Help team members solve issues related to the workplace


Avoid unfair treatment through using unconditional positive regard

‘Unconditional Positive Regard’ is a useful strategy in any professional role which involves an aspect of teaching or coaching. It involves withholding personal judgement, and empathising with the learner’s situation to offer unconditional support. Studies show that teams receiving unconditional positive comments from their coaches increased in confidence and were more resilient and persistent in their approach to challenges.



  • Encourage managers to praise rather than only giving feedback in the form of criticising
  • Praise reinforces beneficial behaviours much more effectively than negative comments
  • By listening without judgement problems are more likely to be voiced early on enabling solutions to be found which reduces employee stress and builds resilience and confidence


Communicating how employees contribute fosters motivation

It’s important that each employee understands the connection between the daily work they do and the bigger picture. When employees understand how they contribute to the overall success of the organization, they also appreciate others’ efforts more, which helps create a team mindset.


Ensure employees have clarity over their roles

A recent survey by Predictive Index found that 58% of employees cited a ‘failure to communicate clear expectations’ as their main cause of stress. Team members need to receive consistent messages from all layers of the organization, therefore details of all roles need to be thoroughly communicated. Providing clarity over workers roles and setting clear expectations is the basis for a highly functional structure and a productive workforce.



  • Get consensus and agreement amongst all relevant managers on the objectives of roles and how the roles relate to the success of your organization



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