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Show Notes

From this episode:

You cannot activate the great stress reducer without externally considering. Because that is what ‘making a real difference’ does. Endorphins, not adrenaline. To be externally considering is the corollary of having purposeful work. If I continually think about how my bosses with evaluate me, consider me for promotion and pay raises, it is exhausting.

In this episode:

This episode is helping us think about burnout and what a Regenerative Paradigm says. We look at burnout as organization design and personal development. We speak to three capacities that are threatened by burnout and how to development them to deal with overwhelm. And why how work is structured works to undermine these capacities or to develop them.

Read the article we’re critiquing on this episode: Harvard Business Review – Beyond Burned Out by Jennifer Moss. Feb. 20, 2021


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Zac: Welcome back to Business Second Opinion Podcast. We’re always excited to bring you another episode.

But first…We want to welcome this month’s sponsor. Seed-Communities which uses a regenerative paradigm to develop human beings and businesses by bringing an approach designed, from the ground up, on how living systems work and change. Most education and change management is based on the transference of the metaphors of how machines operate or rats function in cages. This approach leaves most of the unrealized potential of systems on the table, shortchanging people and life itself.  As a member of Seed Communities I can tell you the difference is profound for the development of myself as a leader and how I grow my own business. When I found Seed Communities it was like I finally found a way to think about things without all the drawbacks.

We hope you will check out this great Regenerative Education philosophy at

Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.

I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take. 

Hey Carol

Carol: Hi Zac, 

Zac: For this episode, we got an article for a second opinion from a listener, John Paul Maxfield, Co-owner and Founder of a wonderful company called Waste Farmer’s.

He wants a second opinion on the idea of burnout.  He sent an article from Harvard Business Review: Beyond Burned Out by Jennifer Moss, Feb 20, 2021.  The article itself examines the idea of employee burnout during COVID isolation. I think this seems like a good companion to our last podcast on employee engagement. Both these articles are written as though the issue is organizational therapy and needs to be corrected with a sort of therapeutic model.   John Paul, for his part, was curious about the concept, concerned about the solutions offered particularly in this article, and wants to know our opinion.

Carol: Well, burnout is an ongoing challenge in all work systems. And COVID isolation has made it worse. So a timely topic. What is your overview of what the article suggests.

Zac: The author proposes that in many cases burnout is viewed as an employee specific problem when in fact it’s an organizational one – which demands an organizational solution. 

To start the author offers six main causes of burnout that she found through research done at University of California at Berkeley:

  1. Unsustainable workload- delegation, work design, 
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

Carol: And what does Moss suggest for solutions? And what is your take on that suggestion?

Zac: Right so let me speak to the solutions first here. 

Solutions – she’s got 6 here:

  1. Sense of Purpose- in her research 25% of people who felt a strong sense of purpose didn’t feel any symptoms of burnout.
  2. Manageable Workload- which looks like cutting back meetings.
  3. Discuss Mental Health at Work- this solution is about creating psychological safety at work by setting up employee resource pages and programs at work to help people manage through more time off, peer counseling and more manager to employee check ins.
  4. Being an Empathetic Manager – which, according to a researcher from Harvard Medical School, has 3 dimensions – acknowledging and overcoming your privilege and bias (which we’ve covered on a previous episode), active listening, and then taking action.
  5. Support from Family and Friends
  6. Crises Prep – which means establishing a burnout prevention strategy now before the next crisis hits.

These solutions, while all well meaning, are starting from the wrong ground: burnout is a problem and we need to solve it by arresting it before it starts.

This reminds me of my time in healthcare. There was always some abstract, boogeyman issue of the month that we needed to be fighting. One month it would be bullying, the next month it would be handwashing, the next month it would be burnout. Each issue had its own set of programs, procedures, and policies. That would be the focus for the month, and then some other crisis would happen and we’d be onto the next issue. But really, nothing ever really got solved and these programs always left people feeling more burnt out because none of this was actually related to work – but it added more work to their plate.

Carol:   It seems they get it wrong on several counts. First the idea that the source of burnout lies in how they are dealing with COVID organizationally. Second, on what is needed to manage stress anytime we experience it. 

Zac: The author reports all this, as if isolation is a new situation we are in. Although the source has not really changed from 2019.  But it does not seem that COVID isolations and screen time are the big reason offered here. The source of thinking here seems to come from an arrest disorder paradigm. There’s a crisis, things are going haywire, and we need to put solutions in place to stop the problems immediately.

Carol, How do you describe what they get wrong? Or maybe are just not thinking well about this.

Carol:  They don’t have a well-formed understanding of how people work as human beings. How they work intrinsically or interactively inside a system.  They therefore work on the wrong things in the wrong way. And the sad part is their offerings will make little or no difference as they have for decades. Nothing new offered.

Zac: It feels a lot like band aid solutions here for sure. And really no accountability for the mess the organizations themselves have created for generations from how they designed work –  at least since the industrial revolution. We have covered this a lot, but maybe it’s time to make it clear how it’s related to burnout. Where do we start?

Carol: There are organizational work design gaps as well as human processing capability gaps. We need to point to both. Let’s start with organizational ones.

Zac: The authors only kinda, tangentially speak to how work design plays a role. By the way, our listeners can check out our episodes on work design- 111, 113, 114. Plus you can check out Carol’s book The Regenerative Business for an overview of a regenerative philosophy of work design. But Carol, get us started here…

Carol: I think there are three foundation changes that are needed starting with how does connecting people to purpose help. It is the only solution that offers any connection potential to organizational impact. 

Zac: And the crazy part is they offer one paragraph in the whole article on this topic and they use it to say their sample size and focus was too limited so they could not really make suggestions. I think we can probably do better than that.

Carol: If I had to guess, I would say they don’t know what purpose really means and how you tap into it. Most people assume it means the person feels they have a purpose because of their skills and talents, therefore value to the organization. You can see that assumption in the excuse paragraph they offer.

Zac: Right, so they focus first on knowledge-workers which, by the way, often means they hold specialized knowledge needed by the organization or society. Doctors, programmers, care givers, etc.  They don’t even say in the article, which knowledge workers—so we’re just extrapolating here. Regardless, the knowledge workers researched reported that they felt less stress which likely points to feeling less likely to be laid off or fired. What’s really true is of course they feel purpose – they are more directly connected to folks who experience their work, directly able to see their impact. What is a better way to think of purpose Carol, do you think?

Carol: Purpose to me is also the value I contribute to the buyers and users of the organization’s value to their lives. Business customers, hospital and education users.  It is not purpose when we just hold those inside, but when it is contributed to users. We feel purpose then because we can see how others count on us. Especially when it is self-chosen work, not assigned or delegated. The contribution factor is what shifts our attention and lowers the stress and burnout.

Zac: We spoke  before about the nature of work design where everyone creates their own personal development and contribution plan, they organize to deliver on. All the while, they track their own contribution to the effects they are having. Contribution is not even studied here – merely association with direct work. It’s like the scope of everything that matters here ends at the walls of the company.

Carol: True. That is the first of three foundations. I can feel like my work, my contribution matters as part of a team serving others like users.  Rarely is a worker that connected to their effect on users. It is usually that their output is scored according to some organization targets. They were likely not feeling as much stress before COVID, but they also felt lower meaning all research shows for most careers and jobs. This is not new. 70% of people are unhappy in their jobs. They have added to the stress at home because they were faced with life and death daily on the news. 

Zac, how does this correlate with stress and burnout for you, pre and post COVID. Where does purpose arise and how does it affect your stress and burnout levels?

Zac: I think the point of what we are getting at here is that burnout is a thing for sure. And stress is real, and COVID has introduced whole new ways of working for a massive number of companies and industries – including my own – games and film. But a key part of how I source the will to continue to grow a small business everyday is by remembering to care deeply for our customers and the experiences they are trying to bring to life for their customers. What brings me the most joy is helping to enable their creative growth through our work. Seeing a game start to go from our performances to final polish is magic. Whew I’m getting goosebumps just saying that.

Carol: So they get no points for identifying the need for purpose, especially as a COVID remediation. This one really needs work design for that, where delegation disappears as a concept. And self-directed relationships with buyers and users are built in. Plus self-management of work to achieve success for the user and buyer. 

Zac: And for that matter, Earth and Communities as other stakeholders. I agree with zero points and maybe a deduction in the overall score for being pretty unhelpful! So Carol before I derail us here, what was the second foundational oversight on their part? We have five solutions left.

Carol: Well,  three of five come from the same error in understanding what happens to people in such situations and how they can manage to transform it. It is from a “do good” paradigm error. Palliative care, or sensitive energy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s more of a medical model. Palliative Care means relieving pain without dealing with the cause of the condition. Are cited in 3, maybe four of their solutions if you count the one about family and friends.

Zac: Ah right the 3 I mentioned before: so in a nutshell –  let them decide which meetings really count, have empathy, and provide stress reduction mental health support. Three surface ideas that are really about amelioration of pain. 

Carol: What is needed can’t be initiated in today’s isolation very effectively. The ideas are to make people feel better. Everyone needs to feel the work we are doing is the right work, in the right way, with the right processes and talented people. The suggestions are related to “This too will pass”. Or at least return to the familiar. And it won’t. It was here before and will stay with these kind of suggestions

Zac: It’s funny we had an almost identical program at the hospital where I worked. Burnout was becoming an issue and so they decided to pull back on the meetings, make sure managers had more time with their directors, and bring in mental health supports. Except all of that took way more time on top of their regular work load. Plus that just made the directors feel even more burnt out because they tripled their meeting schedules. Total mess.

Carol: The long term redesign is what is needed. It is hard to know where to start here. But the core step is to move from external managed work to self-managed connected to real effects. The greatest stress producer is being directed, managed and evaluated by others. The behavior paradigm. But this philosophy is coupled with the idea of internal customers. We do our work for bosses and the next functional depart in the chain. Not people who count on us.

Zac: You cannot activate stress reduction without externally considering. In other words, we have to connect with the effects we have on others and life itself. Because in the end, that is what making a real difference does. It produces endorphins, not adrenaline.  To be externally considering is the corollary of having purposeful work. If I continually think about how my bosses will evaluate me, or consider me for promotion and pay raises, it is exhausting and the perfect material for burnout.

Carol: Again, this was always there but we aren’t being as manipulated or influenced on Zoom. But the unfamiliar itself is stressful. When we react continuously to the unfamiliar, we drain our adrenal gland, we have, well, burnout.

Zac: So what do we do? We can’t continue with more of the solutions offered here by this article.

Carol: I would have most discussions at work, for the duration, be related to how customers, distributors, and users are doing. Have people discuss together how their work may help. It evokes meaning. Indirectly! We can’t fix burnout by reducing stressors only. Have to switch to the output side. 

Zac: I notice in my own company we had one of our monthly reflection calls after a particularly hard month and shoot. Rather than focus on what went wrong – we started from a place of thinking of our customer and our process nested within theirs. It was really eye opening to be able to have a much more uplifting and meaningful dialogue about our and our customer’s growth, than how do we stop screw ups forever. 

But I also have to watch my own ruminating and worrying. That was the second gap you mentioned. Capability. And learn to manage our thinking.

Carol: Absolutely. The most effective burnout reducer. I switched in March 2020 to run public online Morning Meetings on how to use uncertainty to make a difference. To grow yourself. I knew the lockdown and impending  global pandemic was going to make me sick if I did not do something—for others.

Zac: Did it work? 

Carol: It worked for me and all the people who showed up immediately and since then. And that lead to doing the work that is my foundational approach #3. Development of human capacity to be self-managing of one’s state and mind. 

How important has that been to you in the last few  years and what do you do to keep it alive? What value has it had?

Zac: I dunno where I would be without the development offered by our school. Being able to watch my mind at work and see how I am getting in my own way has been invaluable. Not to mention it’s given me a way to remember myself in those moments and where to source my thinking, rather than getting myself stuck in the same ditch as everyone else.

Carol: Another thing people can do, even on Zoom, is personal development. Help me feel back in charge of my own State of Being. My clients have started book clubs with my books, workbooks and recorded material because it is about self-development while doing business development.

How do you apply the work in our school to avoid stress and burnout or to transform situations into growthful ones. Anything specific and practical?

Zac: The first thing I would say is start with a developmental infrastructure. We have monthly reflective meetings where we use thinking frameworks to reflect on ourselves, our customers and our work. This has been a small but significant step towards allowing us to remember why we do what we do. A by-product of that is lower stress, less feelings of burnout, among other things.

Carol:   I have a couple of exercises that each individual listening can use or any leader can engage a team with. First, start every call with reflection. Self-reflection. Here is a process.

Question: What have you improved or advanced since the last time in your work for a customer or family? What are you working on now? It can be personal or work. This is a shift away from the often used check-ins; or ignoring the exhausting, confusion and pain. There are two critical development advantages to this reflection. It keeps us in self-managing mode, not judged for outside. Not from an empathetic manager, but our own power of thinking.  It is initiating a culture changing. Second, it gets rid of polarity evaluations of what is working or not working. 

Zac: Right,  and what you are asking is for us to see what you are advancing which is our own reflection on our choices.  And reminds us there are changes we are actively making. 

Carol: This tends to rewire us a bit toward things that are changing. And we are part of the change. Evaluating “good and bad” make us feel static.  A little known bit about how our brain works.

Zac: This sounds like refueling. It produces hope. It is not about now, but gets us used to thinking about progression.

Carol: Then, turn everyone to looking to “what are we needing to work on next?” This question and discussion has a great effect on our brain and spirit. We gain mental energy and clarity when we have a hopeful idea we might try. Saying it out loud anchors it in our experience. And everyone is hearing what we are taking on. Add the question, “what does this do ultimately for some others who count on us?” Back to engaging our external considering coupled with our personal agency.

Zac: That is such a simple idea. But also changes the culture to one that isn’t fundamentally about ego or reactivity. It takes on a more purposeful mode.

Carol: Reflection is the first step to culture change and to stress reduction and ultimately preventing burnout, because it separates us for a moment from the stress. We are watching ourselves, not being in the muck of the experience. And with practice we get better.

Zac: And when we come out of hibernation, we can start seriously on work redesign toward a Regenerative business where people feel in charge of their work and contribution. They can be growing in externally defined teams which creates real purpose. All the while, they are developing their capacity as humans to be self-managing. 

Carol: And there are 55 more exercises in the Morning Meetings under The Regenerative Life Community Facebook group. Two steps. Ask to join. Answer the questions and you are in. If you skip the questions, you never get it. I don’t check on those who just ask to join. So on a phone, you have to scroll down. I have an outrageous number of reports on the value of these 55 exercises for putting people back in charge of their life. Then come see us to learn more ideas in our Change Agent Communities. Join the newsletter to hear of more free events and read my books and articles. 


Carol: We have several new learning communities to do this kind of thinking starting in 2021.   A community of board members—for profit, not for profits and hybrid boards of directors or advisory. A new cohort of Business Teams who engage in Regenerative Strategic Thinking. A way to use Systems Thinking in developing strategy. Plus an on-going community for  educators in all domains. We still have a few seats in the women entrepreneurs community. Email us if you are interested:

Zac: We need your help. Recommend an article or business practice on which you want a second opinion. Thanks for the suggestion this time. You can email us at or find us on Twitter @biz_second_opinion Or, Donate to support productions costs. On Business Second Opinion Webpage. 

Carol:  Your organization can set up a book club for The Regenerative Life, using an extensive workbook and video online Workshops for Free. 50% discounts on bulk buys through my publisher. More at

Zac: This has been Business Second Opinion


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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your business’s ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects.

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