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Adam Grant


Preventing Burnout: How to Utilize the Demand-Control-Support Model

Burnout can be prevented and reduced—even in high-pressure jobs

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2022 - 12:01

Even before the pandemic, burnout was labeled as an epidemic. It’s the persistent work-related stress that’s exhausting and impairing. In the U.S., more than half of employees feel burned out at least some of the time, and it can lead to what has recently been termed “quiet quitting”—reduced engagement that manifests in apathy and disconnection.

Evidence shows that burnout can result in mistakes on the job, fuel thoughts of quitting, and can be contagious in organizations. Burnout is also linked to depression, memory loss, sleep problems, weakened immune systems, and cardiovascular disease. Estimates suggest that it costs more than $100 billion in annual healthcare spending in the U.S. alone.

Burnout isn’t a problem in your head; it’s a problem in your circumstances. Stress may be inevitable, but burnout can be prevented and reduced—even in high-pressure jobs. It requires structural and cultural change, and my favorite model is demand-control-support:
Demand: Make structural changes or redistribute tasks that lighten the load on the person doing the job.
Control: When you can’t eliminate demands, you can at least give people the autonomy and skills they need to handle them.
Support: Create cultures that make it easy to request and receive help.

Action steps

During an episode of my WorkLife podcast, “Burnout is everyone’s problem,” I explored how leaders and employees have applied demand-control-support to fight burnout.

Identify the most depleting elements of a role and look for ways to reduce them. Consider whether some tasks can be automated. If overtime work and expectations around availability and email are causing burnout, address them at the organizational or team level. Using project management software and task boards is one way to reduce email output, and management can encourage “office hours” so employees can discuss matters that might otherwise require a lot of back-and-forth messaging.

This might involve inviting people to participate in setting their own goals, choosing the best methods to achieve them, or determining what kind of training would better equip them to deal with difficult tasks. In some organizations, a measure of control can be provided by allowing for flexible hours or hybrid work.

Providing the type and amount of support needed—and then encouraging employees to take advantage of it—requires cultural change. When leaders open up about their challenges and ask for assistance, it normalizes struggle and shows that seeking support is a source of strength, not a sign of weakness. In addition, creating designated roles for support, such as nurse preceptors in hospitals whose responsibility is to help other nurses, can make people more comfortable reaching out.

How leaders use it

At the Cleveland Clinic, task forces were created to help identify sources of stressful work demands and ways to reduce them. As a result, the ways the clinic managed electronic health records were changed to allow doctors and other care providers to spend more time with patients and less time to input information.

As a high school teacher in Philadelphia, Conrey Callahan was burning out; her school was broke, and about half of her students dropped out before graduation. While working about 100 hours a week, she started a local chapter of a mentoring program for high-achieving, low-income students—and then volunteered as a mentor. It sounds counterintuitive, but working with highly motivated students restored her sense of control, and the renewed sense of efficacy inspired her to stay on the job for several more years.

Workers on offshore oil rigs have decreased errors and promoted the safety and well-being of their co-workers by embracing a new culture of support. Instead of continuing to reward displays of masculine strength, daring, and technical prowess, they are now encouraged to ask for and offer help; admit mistakes and discover what caused them (be it anxiety, stress, or lack of experience); and publicly acknowledge and appreciate one another.

First published Sept. 27, 2022, on Knowledge@Wharton.


About The Author

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Adam Grant

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton and a bestselling author and TED podcast host.