Let’s face it — U.S. workers are burned out.

Research from Aflac on the stress levels of U.S.-based workers found that over 50% of respondents experienced burnout in 2023, and nearly 75% reported having moderate stress levels at work.

But organizational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant, a go-to expert for mindset and organizational habits, says that leaders in the workplace are to blame, not burned-out employees.

Adam Grant onstage during a panel at the 2022 Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Summit (Brian Stukes/Getty Images)

“I think about burnout as a sense of emotional exhaustion that’s both persistent and impairing, meaning it’s not just a blip — it sticks. It also interferes with your ability to function,” Grant told Entrepreneur at BetterUp’s Uplift conference last week. “It’s a structural and cultural problem if you have more than one person burning out. That is a challenge to tackle in your organization that leaders need to be responsible for.”

Related: 5 Ways Leaders Can Fight Burnout Culture

As the issue of burnout continues to plague employees and their employers, Grant, a Wharton professor, said the solution is to focus on what he calls the “demand, control, support” method of leadership that can help employees find meaning and motivation in their work — and tackle burnout in the process.

Grant broke down his strategy for us below using data from Return to Office Insights researched by BetterUp Labs.

Demand

Grant says leaders need to examine what the demands are that are causing burnout in the first place.

“That has to do with overload, that’s having too much work, it’s having work that doesn’t have clear expectations, it’s being expected to be on 24/7,” Grant says. “Those kinds of demands are taxing. We need to figure out if there are pockets of people who are burning out with similar kinds of work — that’s a sign to me that the demands are excessive.”

Reducing demands can mean anything from hiring more staff to delegating responsibilities, but the end goal should always be to make employee demands “more manageable.”

Control

But sometimes demands can’t be eliminated. For example, if you work at a startup and customers are placing orders from all around the world, eliminating hours might not work. Instead, Grant says companies can give employees more control over their day.

“What we can do is to try to give more choice and more freedom around how you manage those demands,” Grant explains. “We want to give people control over what they’re working on, when they do it, who they do it with how they get it done. And those sources of autonomy tend to make demands more manageable is the general finding.”

Grant also said that today’s employees prefer controlling their office hours and want to have a more flexible work environment. Offering this control back to the employees could be effective in mitigating burnout.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about where we work as a form of flexibility. My read of the evidence is that people want discretion over when they work more than where they work,” Grant explained. “So if you give people the flexibility to set their own hours, they are very happy to come to the office, if that’s a tug of war.”

Support

Grant says “support” is about “giving people the tools that they need to cope with demands” in the workplace and making mental health a priority.

“It’s also about building a culture where [employees] feel that they can be candid about their emotional well-being and seek help if they need it,” he said.

But telling employees that you prioritize mental health and actually making them feel comfortable talking about it are two different things, he says.

The most effective way to combat this, he says, is when a leader sets an example and is open about needing to take time off for mental health reasons and fostering an open dialogue amongst employees when they’re struggling.

“I think modeling that makes it clear to people at all levels that this is not just lip service, we’re not just claiming that you can take care of yourself, we’re actually demonstrating through our own behavior that it’s acceptable and encouraged around here,” Grant says. “It’s been frustrating to watch a lot of companies say, alright, we have a burnout problem, we’re going to give you mindfulness training or we’re going to teach you stress management skills as if this is not a psychological problem.”

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