Burnout is not a strategy: The Shift from Extractive to Regenerative People Practices

A miner and a farmer walk into a bar in Midtown Manhattan. The white collars stare, mouth agape, wondering what these two are doing so far from home. The thing is, one is the poster child for why burnout has been a byproduct of work in the 21st century, and the other has the secret to fix it. It’s what we like to call, regenerative people practices.

The Problem With Modern Work

The industrial era gave rise to a culture of extraction, where organizations prioritized output above all else. (You can blame Milton Friedman and Frederick Taylor.) This approach still permeates today. In the dizzying race for productivity and profit, many organizations find themselves acting like a mining company; their workforce treated like stockpiles of raw materials to be gradually extracted until they are eventually exhausted. 

We’ve witnessed the aftermath of this approach in the wake of COVID-19. Despite financial recovery and growth for many organizations, there’s a pervasive sense of cultural malaise—a collective feeling of languishing—employee engagement hanging by a thread; burnout, almost an inevitability. 

Companies try to dangle various “perks” to their staff, but there isn’t a foosball table big enough to hide the fact that employee “well-being” is inexorably tied to how much one can produce. It’s not a great corporate culture when vacations are taken to “recharge,” seemingly to come back to be depleted again (shoutout Adam Grant for his). 

It’s a system problem. Unless companies change what they truly value, employees will always feel like they are a resource to be exhausted. 

There Must Be Another Way – The Rise Of Regenerative Work Practices

Yet, there is a beacon of hope amidst the gloom—a paradigm shift towards regenerative people practices.

Inspired by the principles of sustainable farming and human-centered design, regenerative people practices are the collection of workplace environments, operating models, and cultures that leave employees enriched and replenished.

There is a lot of talk about achieving ‘net zero impact’ these days, usually in reference to climate impact or product lifecycles. But where these practices strive to achieve a ‘neutral’ level of impact on resources, regenerative practices push to actually improve the ecosystem you are pulling resources from. 

A smart farmer knows that to get the most out of the land, s/he cannot use all the land. A field must lie fallow. It must regenerate, because if treated right, the land’s bounty can be endless. 

Regenerative people practices operate on a simple yet profound principle: what’s best for your people is what’s best for your business. By investing in the well-being and growth of employees, dividends are yielded that extend far beyond the bottom line, and for a much longer timeline.

It’s where 75% > 100% (and profit targets are still hit).

The transition from extractive to regenerative practices requires a fundamental shift in mindset—a move away from viewing employees as disposable commodities and toward recognizing them as invaluable assets. 

Practically, this shift entails reimagining every aspect of the employee experience—from recruitment and onboarding to performance management and career development. It means fostering a culture of trust, transparency, and empathy, where employees feel seen, heard, and valued—valued for something other than just input/output. And shocker: that’s also where they’ll do their best work.

There are a few principles that can serve as helpful starting points in building regenerative people practices:

1. Unlearning the mental model that ‘maximum growth x indefinitely = business success’.

Sure, we can’t ignore profit in a capitalist society, but all roads don’t have to lead to complete extraction. There is a long game at play. Leaders intuitively know that at some point extraction has diminishing returns. The first step in finding where that inflection point is…is articulating that you know there is one.

2. Focus on the timeless, not the trends. 

Get the essentials right before worrying about the innovations. As Maslow taught us, there is a hierarchy to our human needs. Get the foundations right—livable wages, safe working environments, baseline benefits—before striving to create enlightenment. Unfortunately there is still substantial work to be done on these topics for the majority of companies. In today’s world, it’s easy to get distracted by conversations of radical hybrid work models, flexible schedules, and the like (See: Foosball table, above), when at its very basic, it’s treating people with dignity, decency, and transparency.

3. Build community when strong, leverage it when challenged.

Accept that human behavior and adoption directly influences the success of your strategy. No, your organization is not “a family” – don’t patronize people. But thriving social structures are inherent to healthy human cultures. Organizations should, and would benefit from creating communities of belonging, trust, and empowerment, where people feel like valuable members of a team working towards (and achieving) shared goals. Your organization is filled with internal change agents – nurture them when times are good, then lean on them to help you thrive when change is amidst.

4. Leaders move first

Simon Sinek reminded us that “Leaders Eat Last,” but when it comes to changing organizational culture, leaders need to move first. Your teams are incredibly smart and astute. If they don’t see you embodying the very actions you want them to take, they’re never going to be on board. They need to see that it’s safe and valued to act in a new manner. So be an example, and do it repetitively. This is where most culture transformations die – leaders saying all the right words but not making any notable shifts in their own beliefs or behaviors. So much so that it’s the first thing we look for when auditing a new client, and if we don’t see signs of executive level change we will gladly turn a new prospect away.

Show don’t tell – progress will not be found in a PowerPoint

The cat is out of the bag. White collar work is changing. Employees are demanding more. Some countries are testing 4-day work weeks. Some are trying to adopt Scandinavian ideals. We know that what got us here won’t get us through. (So long, Friedman and Taylor.)

A bold purpose can be aspirational, but if your employees are struggling to get through the day without getting totally exhausted, you’ll never actualize that greater impact. Our work with clients strives to design in the intersection of business needs and human needs when change is coming (see a recent example here helping a national grocery chain adapt to a hybrid work model in the midst of COVID).

We believe for a corporation to have a meaningful impact on any of the greater challenges of our time – new models of work, climate change, societal polarization, mental health – they must have their own house in order. The average American spends ~⅓ of their life at work – if they are constantly battling a sense of depletion and overwhelm, you’d better believe that stress if limiting the system. And that means sustainable growth is compromised altogether. Create the conditions for change at a micro-scale, and you will begin to see actual change over time at a macro-scale.

Together, let us reject the false promise of extractive cultures, and therefore burnout, as a strategy and embrace the transformative power of regenerative people practices. For the future of work—and of humanity—depends on it.

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]

Andy Hagerman is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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