Ideal Outcomes

Understanding the Burnout-Disengagement Dynamic

by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

Many workplaces are trending in one of two extreme directions in 2023: employees are either exhausting themselves in attempts to overperform or simply disengaging.

How did we get here? One reason is that the intense pressure on organizations for short-term gains often leads to a focus on profits over people. Organizations may squeeze everything they can out of their employees to generate maximum profits, which can slowly lead to the dehumanization of teams. When that happens, employee burnout and disengagement can permeate the workplace.

What’s missing in the modern workplace that keeps companies from maintaining a healthy bottom line while retaining their humanity? Where are we going wrong, and what can we do to strike a harmonious balance between people and profits?

Burnout vs Disengagement

First, let’s consider the two unfortunate extremes frequently observed in the modern workplace—burnout and disengagement—and how they intersect.


In 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger described how he felt during a stressful time in his job as follows: “Exhausted by excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources in the workplace.” He is credited with coining the term “burnout.”

Nearly 50 years later, millions of employees across the globe experience those same feelings every day. Despite heightened attention to mental health and well-being in the workplace in recent years, burnout continues to be widespread and difficult to mitigate:

  • Burnout increased by more than 40% in 2022 compared to 2019.
  • 43% of office workers say they were burned out in 2022.

Perhaps most concerning are indications of a gap between employee burnout and companies’ awareness of the scope of the problem. More than half of American workers are facing at least moderate levels of burnout, on par with figures recorded at the height of the pandemic. Some 86% of employees with high levels of burnout have experienced anxiety, depression, and sleeping difficulties. Yet, fewer than half of the employers surveyed said burnout is a problem for their organizations.

So, where’s the disconnect? We believe one of the problems is that employers don’t fully grasp how serious their people are about nurturing and protecting their well-being. Consider these statistics:

  • More than 80% of employees would rather have good mental health than a high-paying job.
  • Two-thirds of employees would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness—and 70% of managers would, too.
  • Work stress negatively impacts employees’ home life (71%), well-being (64%), and relationships (62%).

Relying on tactical interventions to address burnout won’t cut it. No number of free lunches, gym memberships, and ping pong tournaments will fix the root of the problem.

This leads us to the related issue of employee disengagement.


While burnout and disengagement are often used interchangeably, they’re different things. Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that follows a period of prolonged stress, while disengagement is a lack of motivation and commitment to one’s job and employer.

Symptoms of burnout include fatigue, decreased productivity, detachment from work, and cynicism. A lack of employee engagement manifests in reduced quality of work, procrastination, and a general lack of enthusiasm for tasks.

The two conditions are interlinked and often co-exist in the workplace. Burnout often leads to disengagement if an overworked employee sees no improvements to their situation on the immediate horizon.

Striking the Right Balance Between People and Profits

What can employers do to achieve a harmonious balance in their workplace that ensures their employees:

  • Remain productive, meet deadlines, show initiative, and deliver on the expectations of their roles, thereby ensuring the company delivers on the expectations of their customers and shareholders
  • But never reach the dangerous tipping point where stress, long hours, and lack of downtime see them quitting or mentally “checking out?”

It’s a delicate balance, but this harmony is within reach. Here are some actionable steps to consider:

  • Adopt a people-first mentality. Accept that no matter what business you’re in, you’re really in the people business. Focus on your employees first, customers second, and profits third.
  • Remember that business success is all about your employees: how they behave when interacting with customers, their energy levels and enthusiasm to take on challenges and achieve great things, and their desire to come up with and share new ideas, regardless of their role.
  • Focus on the culture, values, and behaviors you want to cultivate. Hire people for attitude; train them for aptitude.
  • Establish, communicate, and stay grounded in your purpose and let this and your culture drive you.
  • Lead by example. Avoid being the first in the office and last to leave. Take regular vacations. Don’t send emails or call team members after hours.

Next Steps

No matter their role, employees want to be seen, heard, valued, and recognized. Great people are too valuable to risk losing due to burnout or disengagement. If we remove humanity from our companies, humanity will leave—literally. And, ultimately, so will profits.

Be honest with yourself and consider whether you have lost some of your humanity and need to bring your business back into balance. Becoming more conscious of humanity and focusing as intently on your culture as you do on your financial results will surely deliver a winning outcome.

A great place to start is to assess your company’s current employee engagement levels with an engagement survey. Engagement surveys measure an individual employee’s emotional and intellectual connection and commitment to the company. They target employees’ feelings about their day-to-day work experience, their managers, and their leadership. Download our free Engagement Survey sample here.