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Many fed-up employees have deep, long-standing problems.

It’s the end of a long workday, and two exhausted employees are walking out the door of their workplace. They trudge out slumped over, eyes listless. Both look awful, but there’s a critical difference between these two folks.

One is burned out—chronically anxious, exhausted, and sick because of their work. The other is fed up—grappling with long-running structural problems with their job.

It’s vital that your organization understand the difference between these two experiences and use appropriate strategies to address each groups’ unique difficulties.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burned-out workers are often struggling on three fronts: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.” In other words, they are tired, checked out, and unproductive. And burnout is pervasive. Mercer, the financial-services consulting firm, has found that more than half of employees feel exhausted at the end of the workday.

How do we help folks suffering from burnout? Building rest and recovery into the flow of work is a critical first step. In many dangerous and intense professions, rest is mandated (think, oil rig workers spending weeks off the rig, or young doctors being required to leave the hospital to go home and sleep.) However, in today’s world of widespread work intensification, every job can benefit from a better balance of work and rest.  Microsoft’s recent research on the neurological effects of back-to-back Zoom meetings makes the benefits of rest clear; take even a small break between meetings, and your brain activity shows improved productivity and reduced stress.

To address burned-out populations, organizations need to assess their existing support systems, including formal benefits and informal leadership behavior. Are PTO and sick days offered in such a way that people actually take them? Are healthy, stress-reducing behaviors like exercise incentivized? Do leaders encourage burned-out employees to rest and recover, or do they lack empathy and keep pushing? Do leaders role model healthy boundaries between work and life, or are they themselves also struggling with burnout? Considering these questions can help all teams better identify and support burned-out workers. 



To help fed-up employees, organizations should deploy all of the above strategies for addressing burnout. But it won’t be enough.

Many fed-up employees have deep, long-standing problems. They may be burdened with too many responsibilities or have a job that is actually several jobs in one. They might belong to a demographic group that has a fundamentally less positive experience in the workplace. For instance, African American and Black workers are more likely to be thinking about quitting their jobs. Their compensation might be completely misaligned with basic financial wellness, as we often see with hourly workers. In every case, these problems are deep, intractable, and transcend the problem of just having too much work on a given day.


To care for fed-up employees, organizations must deploy a completely different set of strategies. I have found that reorganizing work can yield real dividends here. Rethinking compensation structures—both how much and how people get paid—can also create a positive impact on fed-up employees. And finally, rigorously auditing the fairness of basic processes like performance management, and consciously controlling microaggressions, can drive an equitable and inclusive environment to reduce the “fed up” feelings of underrepresented groups.


The strategies for assisting burned-out and fed-up workers may differ, but to determine who falls into which group, organizations should deeply listen to workers. This can include implementing newer strategies, such as digital focus groups, or ethnographic surveys that capture how workers feel about particular components of their work at various points in the day.  They can also utilize workforce analytics to understand talent flows throughout the organization. Do particular groups show higher levels of attrition at particular levels or parts of the business? Sometimes, fed-up employees are “hiding in plain sight” and are waiting to be uncovered by a thoughtful look at workforce data.


Once your organization knows who is burned out and who is fed up, it is the responsibility of leaders to help get both groups back to true well-being, and to create a thriving, more humane workplace. While it’s a common cultural myth that you can either attend to worker well-being or maximize financial returns, in reality, workplaces that prioritize rest, recovery, and support—and provide thoughtful, fairly compensated jobs with equitable and inclusive cultures around them—possess an unbeatable competitive advantage.


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