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Self-Care is Not the Solution for Burnout
Mental Health

Self-Care is Not the Solution for Burnout

Psychologist Justin D. Henderson makes the case that we need to address the systemic and cultural dimensions of burnout.
By Justin D. Henderson
14th Mar 2022

It was the autumn season and the large counselling centre that I worked for was teeming with prospective clients seeking help. As the clinical director, my job was to ensure we were adequately addressing both providers’ and clients’ needs. This was a tall order to fulfil: counsellors’ caseloads were full, our waitlist had swollen to well over a hundred, and team morale was at an all-time low.

The executive director of the center convened a meeting to address the growing demand for services and to discuss various options. Members of the center expressed their overwhelm and disappointment that they can’t seem to meet the demands of their caseloads, felt their weekly schedules swollen with action items, expressed discontent over the lack of schedule flexibility, and generally felt disconnected from the altruistic values that got them into the helping profession.

Like many team leaders, the director’s knee-jerk reaction was to tell everyone to employ self-care to make it through this rough period. The providers and staff reacted as expected. You could feel what little energy people had left simply deflate like a month-old birthday balloon that finally gave its last breath. One coworker hid the few tears that started spilling onto her cheeks. Another rolled their eyes in irritation. It was evident to me that this type of leadership in moments of intense stress was harmful and I wanted to learn more about alternatives.

In the years since that overwhelming autumn, I have been a part of countless discussions of burnout and self-care in workplaces. All of these conversations have had a predictable framework that placed the problem (burnout) and the solution (self-care) as being something that is within the individual person’s purview to address.

But is burnout simply the result of insufficient self-care?

My years of experience as a mental health provider, academic, and healthcare administrator have shown me that burnout is much more complex than worker behaviours. We have to widen our perspective to truly understand the contributory factors of burnout. Only then can we attempt to prevent burnout or address it when it’s consuming us.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a hot topic nowadays (pun intended). Many articles, news bits, and books have been written on the subject in recent years. It seems that many people have the language to describe the symptoms associated with workplace overwhelm and stress. This is important because once we build a common language around something, then it enters into the consciousness of our culture.

In the 1970’s in the United States, psychologists like professor Christina Maslach and professor Herbert Freudenberger began to independently identify some of the occupational psychological hazards endured by people working in human services and caregiving professions. While it would be many years until this phenomenon was called burnout by name, there was a growing interest in this kind of workplace stress that extended beyond just day-to-day hassles.

Today, burnout is often described as a state of distressing emotions, stress, physical exhaustion, cynicism, psychological overwhelm, and a decline in professional efficacy that a person exhibits in the presence of workplace stressors.

According to Dr. Maslach, burnout has three critical dimensions, each containing various symptoms and negative experiences:

  1. Exhaustion Dimension: wearing out, loss of energy, depletion, debilitation, and fatigue
  2. Cynicism Dimension: negative attitudes toward clients, irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal from professional obligations
  3. Inefficiency Dimension: reduced productivity, low morale, and inability to cope

Since those early studies of workplace burnout in the 1970’s, there has been an explosion of research on burnout. The results have been definitive — burnout has become far too normative in many workplaces.

In 2019, Harvard released a report urging governments, organisations, and stakeholders to address the alarming rates of burnout in physicians. This report was issued before the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, reports have alerted the public to just how overwhelmed healthcare workers have been during the pandemic.

The misguided attention on individuals who burnout

While there have been important explorations into the experiences of burnout including individual’s symptoms and experiences, it has often led to solutions that also solely focus on said individuals. This creates the impression that burnout originates within individual people.

If we think that burnout happens because of weaknesses or vulnerabilities of an individual worker, then we are less likely to assess work environments and work cultures that cultivate burnout as a logical outcome to poor working environments, hostile work cultures for those with marginalized identities, unreasonable work expectations, ineffective leadership, and problematic work values. We are less likely to investigate the ways workplace policies and economic resources may contribute toward burnout environments.

This is similar to how we can put effort and energy to put out isolated forest fires but if we are not addressing the climate crisis that is increasing both the frequency and intensity of said fires, then we are not addressing the problem directly.

A great deal of the public focus on burnout has zeroed in on the skills and deficits of individual workers all the while three decades of research has demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover.

Work environments!

Three decades of research have demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover.

Very early into the research into burnout, it was understood by researchers that both work environment characteristics and individual characteristics were responsible for burnout outcomes. Burnout, then, is an outcome of an interaction between burnout producing environmental factors and individually susceptible workers.

Burnout is the shared responsibility of both the individual, the organisation, and our work culture. We have increasingly become a burnout culture and is is salt on the wounds of so many people who are struggling to suggest that the problem is that they are not doing enough yoga.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a great deal of how burnt out our work cultures were prior to the pandemic and how little systemic care has been done to prevent burnout in people.

Burnout systems, cultures and contexts

If work environment factors are a major reason why people experience burnout, then why aren’t we seeing more work-related interventions? Why instead do we see a plethora of self-help resources and books that centre the topic of burnout on individual people? Why do places of employment host self-care outreach programming but not work environment audits? Why are we told to simply do more cardio, eat healthily, and learn to meditate to manage symptoms of burnout?

I believe there are cultural and strategic reasons for this.

One reason we may see the onus of responsibility for burnout placed on individual workers is because of our overly individualistic culture. Peruse the self-help section of any bookstore and you see a cornucopia of exaggerated self-destiny and magical thinking. There seems to be a real desire for folks to improve themselves. And I love that! But, there is a real danger here.

Too often we may think that work environments are simply spaces we need to adapt to in order to ‘get along’. If we fail to do that, then there must be something we are doing wrong. And here is a fatal problem in this logic — it produces a sense of shame for folks when they feel like they are not handling all the pressures of work and personal life well. But if burnout is normative, then how can that be?

Even if work environments are not deliberately exploitative, the truth is we know that work environments can contribute to burnout outcomes.

Another reason we don’t see work environments scrutinized over burnout is that the United States, in particular, has tended to have a long history of worker exploitation. It is no mystery why a country, whose historical workforce included both slave labor and indentured servitude, would have a hard time taking a sober look at working environments and worker wellbeing. Better to blame the workers for their suffering than to look at the culture of work.

American workers have a long history of being left to manage a host of work environment issues including abject abuse and exploitation. For example, you can read Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath and see unfortunate parallels of abuses of power and problematic work environments that continue today. From this perspective, burnout becomes a method to remove responsibility from exploitative business practices.

Even if work environments are not deliberately exploitative, the truth is we know that work environments can contribute to burnout outcomes. During a presentation on burnout, Dr. Maslach outlined some of the factors that research has found leads to burnout:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Lack of flexibility in schedule
  • Lack of worker autonomy
  • Destructive competition among co-workers
  • Getting shut out of opportunities
  • Loss of shared common meaning and purpose at work
  • Workers feeling they are not meaningful change agents
  • Fear as the primary experience of work
  • Self-sacrifice promoted as the model of work
  • Inefficiencies in the workplace
  • Burnout is simply business as usual

As you can see from this list, many of the items on this list can’t be resolved solely by individual workers. So what good is self-care then?

Is there any value to self-care?

Self-care should certainly be an individual’s priority but not to solely address burnout. When we constrain our self-care practices to avoid something bad from happening, we deprive self-care of its fundamental value in our lives. It turns self-care into an obligation, a purely defensive maneuver, or a method of somehow recovering a lost sense of motivation, morale, and hope for the future.

Instead, self-care practices should be engaged for the purposes of health enhancement and self potentiation. Self-care, if it is to have continuous value in our lives, should be anchored into moving toward what we value. When self-care is framed in this manner, we can see the value of engaging in self-care practices regardless of our work environments.

Self-care, if it is to have continuous value in our lives, should be anchored into moving toward what we value.

What often happens, however, is that individuals will engage in self-care after they begin to experience stress, overwhelm, and burnout. Why? Well, for all the reasons discussed earlier — being told to do self-care to compensate for burnout, to adjust to work environments, etc.

Self-care, then, becomes situated as a solution to a particular kind of pain and suffering rather than seen as a continuous process of honoring our integrated wellbeing.

Certainly when we experience burnout we need to find ways to address our compromised wellbeing. But the larger issue of burnout work culture needs to place a wider responsibility on the systems that produce them. No amount of essential oil baths or stretching exercises are going to fix your toxic work environment or provide compassion-centered leadership skills to your boss.

No, what is needed is a larger systemic change that promotes workplace resilience.

Compassion-centred workplaces

Our work environments must change. As our economy and society have often been insensitive to the natural order — taken her for granted and assumed an infinite supply of materials to consume. Our work has followed this basic assumption as well — that people will continue to give endlessly of themselves for those productivity margins. But just as our ecological environment burns from the lack of appropriate boundaries and respect for mother earth, our workers are scorched under the lack of boundaries of endless bottom lines.

We can change this. We can start by creating compassion-centred workplaces. This framework can guide leaders and work communities to enhance wellbeing, prevent burnout, and address burnout when it emerges.

Enhance Wellbeing

If workplaces are to be successful for the whole community, then workplace norms should emphasise wellbeing. Wellbeing, however, should be understood as a community-oriented goal, not just an individual worker’s outcome goal.

  • Are we promoting wellbeing in this work environment?
  • Do we understand the wellbeing elements of our workers?
  • What values do we as workers share? In what ways do our values differ? How does that affect our workplace?
  • What does a ‘successful’ team look like here?

This becomes a collaborative exploration and endeavor. Leaders and managers should pay close attention to workers’ values, cultures, and how they find meaning in their work.

Burnout Prevention

All too common, workplaces will fail to sufficiently prevent worker burnout from happening in the first place. A compassion-centered approach to burnout emphasizes the need to assess the environment for future threats to burnout in the community. Rather than being merely reactive to workplace concerns, are there ways in which workplace leadership and community members can identify potential threats to burnout prior to it happening?

Some general things that research has shown to prevent burnout in workers include things such as:

  • Clear expectations to workers
  • Identify worker values and autonomy needs
  • Encourage teamwork and team orientation
  • Design ideal work environments
  • Provide strength-oriented feedback

Responding to Burnout

Compassion-centered workplaces also respond effectively to burnout when it happens. Worker burnout can be seen as the canary in the mine — it is the result of an interaction between work environment and worker experiences. This will produce two near-immediate changes.

First, work culture will be able to shift the focus from individuals to systems of operation. Managers and employees start asking questions like, “what is going on in this work environment that is promoting burnout?” “This policy seems to place a great deal more stress on employees with these identities or job descriptions — I wonder how I can address this to prevent burnout in my work community?”

Rather than focusing all our attention on putting out individual fires, we start paying attention to larger factors contributing to these flare-ups.

Second, we can reduce burnout stigma. Because burnout is often characterised as an individual’s lack of resiliency, poor constitution, or mental instability, there can be a great deal of stigma for people when they are experiencing burnout. Burnout stigma has been shown to both exacerbate existing burnout symptoms as well as contribute toward more general negative mental health issues.

Create resilient workplaces, not just resilient workers

From this compassion-centred framework, we are creating resilient workplaces not just resilient workers. Wellbeing becomes a focus of work environments.

The workplace community becomes the starting point of addressing worker wellbeing and burnout prevention. We start paying attention to the workplace ecology which produces rich information on the health of individuals. Rather than focusing all our attention on putting out individual fires, we start paying attention to larger factors contributing to these flare-ups.

Let’s bring back the example from the beginning: had the executive director of the counseling center been attuned to the needs of the community, there would have been much less burnout and employee turnover. Based on the research on burnout, assessing and responding to workplace contributions to burnout is the most effective way to reduce and eliminate burnout in individual workers.

Shifting out of an individualistic interpretation of burnout and self-care will produce a more community-oriented and compassion-centred approach to what has become a growing concern in work environments. The results will more likely produce resilient workplaces and happier workers.

Dr. Justin D. Henderson is a psychologist, educator, and organisational consultant. He’s a Medium Top Writer in Leadership and Business.

This article was originally published on Medium.