Learning and development (L&D) leaders have two options for eliminating the increase in burnout that has swept the workforce following the COVID-19 pandemic: Creating training for stress management and mental health, or facilitating leadership training on how to manage and reduce burnout. However, there can also be a third option to managing burnout with an approach that focuses on the structure of work itself: a shift to more project-based work.

Project-based work has clear goals, milestones and deliverables with a defined start and end date. When managed effectively, projects can hold the key not just to combatting employee burnout, but also in cultivating an empowered work environment.

Many workplace factors contribute to employee burnout, such as an overwhelming workload, perceived lack of control, lack of rewards and lack of support from leadership. However, project-based work helps mitigate that because it is built around very specific goals and objectives, with team support. These projects have a clear beginning and end, and typically involve a multi-disciplinary team working together with a shared sense of purpose.

Let’s examine the effects of employee burnout and best practices to using project-based work as a solution.

The Cost Of Employee Burnout

As people leaders, it’s imperative that we do not underestimate the dangers of burnout. More than one-half of the respondents (52%) in a recent Indeed survey reported experiencing burnout in 2021. Burnout contributes to high employee turnover, decreased productivity and increased business costs. For example, It’s estimated that the U.S. government spends between $125 billion to $190 billion annually on the physical and psychological effects of burnout.

Conducted in 2021, a survey of 1,000 U.S. office workers who looked for a new job within the last six months found that more than one-half (59%) view a work-life balance as more important now than it was pre-pandemic. Two in five (42%) said that poor a work-life balance is one of their top dealbreakers in a job opportunity.

 Solving Burnout With Project Work

Project-based work can serve not only as a solution to burnout, but as a way to create a favorable environment for L&D. Project-based work provides ample opportunities for teamwork and engagement. That’s especially important in an increasingly dispersed work environment, where many new employees are working remotely and may not see their managers and co-workers face-to-face.

In order to be successful, projects must include checkpoints so team members can review each other’s progress and agree on course corrections. These checkpoints provide managers with the opportunity to track performance and provide meaningful feedback to their employees. Checkpoints can also help uncover gaps in employee skills sets that can be addressed with individualized training.

The team camaraderie and goal-based nature of projects can help squash burnout. According to a Cornell study, employees who receive immediate and frequent rewards for completing small tasks take greater satisfaction in their work than employees whose rewards are delayed. Also, job satisfaction only occurs when other work objectives are achieved and crossed off the employee’s to-do list.

Create a Structured Environment

Effectively managed projects are structured around a clear purpose. Roles and responsibilities are well-defined. And project teams are multi-disciplinary by design. That makes for a highly structured environment and for the creation of meaningful work relationships. In fact, successful project teams illustrate the five characteristics identified by Google’s Project Oxygen Research as essential to effective teams: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

This is an ideal environment for L&D and for countering burnout. Gallup’s State of the Workplace report found that one of the top causes of burnout — role ambiguity — is widespread across the workforce. Only six in 10 employees have a clear idea of what is expected of them at work.

Drive Mentorship and Individualized Learning

Since project work is multi-disciplinary and lends itself to relationship-building, it offers a rich environment for mentoring. The regular checkpoints that come with well-managed projects provide ample opportunities for conversations and may allow junior team members to voice their thoughts and opinions. Mentoring on projects can be organized in various ways: individually, in a group or even peer to peer.

Furthermore, mentorship fostered by project-based work can help strengthen company culture, transmit corporate values, enhance retention, aid in leadership development and boost employee engagement. In fact, a 2019 survey by SurveyMonkey found that 91% of workers who had a mentor were satisfied with their jobs. To take it a step further, mentorship also allows companies to personalize employee training, adding a level of flexibility.

Given these benefits, it’s perhaps not surprising that project-based work is on the rise across businesses today. According to a McKinsey survey, many organizations are migrating toward more cross-functional and team-based work — in part to address increased automation. Organizations are becoming more agile and less hierarchical and are shifting toward a more flexible system in which individuals move among teams and projects.

For many L&D leaders, this is good news. If implemented effectively, the shift to project-based work can offer a highly favorable framework for engaging employees, expanding and enhancing training and eliminating the ongoing threat of employee burnout — an initiative that should be at the top of every leaders’ priority.