Winning the War for Talent in the age of The Great Resignation Part 2

Summary. This series of articles sets out the case for why organizations that embrace the Objectives & Key Results goal-setting framework (OKRs) need not see the Great Resignation as a threat. But instead, why they have good reason to see it as a golden opportunity to win the War for Talent.

Part one focused on the emergence of the Great Resignation and how, for CEOs, it eclipsed the pandemic as the external threat most likely to disrupt business strategy.

Part two explores the link between burnout and the Great Resignation.


In 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized burnout as an occupational hazard by including the condition in the International Classification of Diseases.

It was a clear sign that the time had come for employers to take burnout seriously. The writing on the wall was underlined two years later when numerous surveys confirmed the link between burnout and the Great Resignation – like the Limeade Great Resignation survey that revealed burnout accounted for a whopping 40% of all resignations, by far the single biggest segment – or the much-cited Gallup survey that revealed the highest attrition rates corresponded with employees who described themselves as “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”.

As if these figures weren’t alarming enough, the burnout epidemic appears to be even more rampant within specific industries. For example, researchers working for the largest U.S. teacher’s union, the National Education Association, report that “over half of teachers want to quit from burnout”. Burnout rates among healthcare workers appear to be even higher - according to one study it's closer to 67%. 

These were the kind of statistics that moved strategists at the World Economic Forum to describe burnout as a “21st-century disease”. As for the consequences of this disease, researchers from the same institution estimate that the disengagement, absenteeism, and staff turnover precipitated by burnout costs the global economy 322 billion dollars per annum - a loss equivalent to wiping out the combined profits of the ten most profitable companies in the U.S. 

As for the cost to the individual, the anxiety, depression, and in some cases, the substance abuse that can accompany burnout mean that it’s not an exaggeration to say that our very physical and mental well-being is at stake.

Why hump days are no longer enough

According to the WHO, the disengagement identified by the Gallup poll, or “mental distance from one’s job” as their experts put it, is one of the three main symptoms of burnout, along with “exhaustion” and “reduced professional efficacy”.  

The WHO’s definition essentially amounts to a long-awaited, some would say long-overdue endorsement of the clinical diagnosis first set out by Professor of Psychology Christina Maslach in 1981. 

Despite the delay, by finally endorsing the clinical status of burnout, the WHO has played a decisive part in rendering the old consensus on addressing the problem inadequate. 

It's no longer enough for employers to look no further than anodyne measures like an extra week of holiday, work from home Wednesdays, providing chill-out spaces, foosball tables, and promoting pursuits like meditation and yoga.

Fast becoming equally outmoded are attempts to subtly shift the burden of responsibility to the employees themselves – in contrast to years gone by when doing so appears to have been acceptable, judging by articles like Beating Burnout, first published by the Harvard Business Review in 2016. 

“You can also take steps to avoid burnout on your own,” insisted the author of that piece. Apparently, it’s as simple as “prioritizing self-care”, “avoiding stressors”, and cultivating “rich interpersonal interactions” – the three key elements of “a roadmap for prevention”.


Don't forget to keep your back straight


The new consensus on burnout

Thanks to the WHO, and now the link with the Great Resignation, there has been a sea change in how burnout is perceived. 

“You can’t yoga your way out of burnout”, writes Paula Davis for Forbes, reflecting today’s rejection of any attempt to shift the burden of responsibility for dealing with burnout onto employees - or as Professor Maslach puts it, “it’s not about fixing people, it’s about fixing the job”.

Berkeley Professor of Psychology Christina Maslach

As for the problem with “the job”, Maslach traces it back to the business imperative to always be looking for ways of “doing more with less.” She argues that despite this maxim being so foundational and implicit that it's “at the heart of corporate culture”, it is nevertheless faulty because it doesn't serve to establish the conditions for people doing their best work.

Not satisfied with helping to shape our understanding of burnout and its root causes, Maslach’s final contribution has been to influence the debate about dealing with the problem. Her longstanding call for employers to give “employees more control” and “the discretion to figure out how to do their jobs better” has helped to give rise to today's consensus on the idea that more autonomy in the workplace can go a long way towards remedying the burnout epidemic.

But this marks the limit of Maslach’s influence. There’s no question that commentators are broadly in agreement with, if not even inspired by Maslach’s call for more autonomy in the workplace. The issue is, crucially, those with the power to bring it about, namely employers, don’t seem to be nearly as enthusiastic about doing so.

In part three, I explore the case for giving employees more autonomy as a remedy for the burnout epidemic, but also as a means of bringing about more effective, agile organizations - before reviewing the concerns that hold employers back from mainstreaming autonomy within their organizations. 

Have you experienced burnout during your career?