The struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance is as old as work itself. Even before the emergence of the modern office, Roman theories of the four humours were used to explain “lethargy, torpor, weariness, sluggishness and melancholy” in citizens. Throw in all the demands of modern living – Slack for mobile, flexible working and endless Zoom meetings – and it’s no wonder the last decade has seen record numbers of people reporting burnout.
For many, the pandemic exacerbated the problem, doubling their workloads as they scrambled to cover for furloughed and sick colleagues. The result? 47 million people quitting their jobs in 2021, up from 42 million in 2019 which was then considered the tightest labour market on record.
The workplace has never before seen such a crisis. So what’s behind mass burnout, and what can we do to cool things down?
What is burnout and why are we seeing it on a mass scale?
Burnout is chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Symptoms include feeling drained, irritable, sad, and even physical symptoms like headaches and blurry vision. Outwardly, burnout could be mistaken for other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety; the thing that sets it apart is that it’s specific to the workplace. To confirm that someone has burnout, there are three signs to look for: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness at work.
“The problem of unhealthy jobs…they don’t enhance productivity, they don’t necessarily enhance the bottom line. It’s a lose-lose proposition.”Dr. Christina Maslach
Dr. Christina Maslach, one of the leading researchers on job burnout, speaks about the short-term “burnout shop” business model that was used by startups during the emergence of Silicon Valley. The company would wildly overwork the employee who in turn would sacrifice any semblance of work-life balance. Fast forward two years and the startup would have taken off, the workload would ease, and the employee would reap the rewards of their labours in the form of stock options and compensation. But, Maslach says, we’re now seeing the burnout shop model applied without any promise of relief or reward: “It’s now a marathon, and the sprint model is still being used in terms of self-sacrifice.”
What causes it?
Research and studies point to systemic issues being the most influential factor in causing burnout, not individual ones. Psychologist and organisational consultant Dr. Justin D. Henderson points out that “three decades of research has demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover.”
The issue is a matter of alignment. Maslach states that burnout is caused by mismatch between the person and the job, specifically in six areas of the workplace: workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values. Mismatch in some areas is tolerable as long as other areas make up for it. But if one or more areas are suffering, the risk of burnout rises. Maslach maintains that burnout is not related to an employee’s capabilities, and that the fault lies in the environment they’re working in.
“Three decades of research has demonstrated that work environments, not individual workers, have the greatest impact on the possibility of burnout and worker turnover.”Dr. Justin D. Henderson
Why is it bad for individuals and business?
As Jennifer Moss of the Global Happiness Council states, burnout is an epidemic. Asana found that 71% of knowledge workers have experienced burnout in the past year – a worrying statistic given that it can take 3-5 years for your body to recover from burnout. The risks to physical health are severe: burnout can cause obesity, heart attacks, and strokes. The risk to mental health is just as serious, with burnout leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
“Achieving a sustainable planet must go hand in hand with living sustainable lives.”Arianna Huffington
It’s not just employee health that’s at risk, though. Burnout’s cost to business is enormous: MetLife UK estimated that burnt out employees cost £700 million annually in sick days. And the cost to our environment is even worse. Arianna Huffington wrote that “burned out people are going to continue burning up the planet,” arguing that exhaustion and depletion has us thinking short-term, just trying to get through the day. We, as individuals and as a society, are not able to make long-term change or develop sustainable habits from a place of burnout.
What can individuals do to prevent it?
If you start to notice the symptoms of burnout, don’t wait to make a change. If you can reduce your hours or your workload, this is the first thing that doctors recommend. Unfortunately this isn’t a realistic or affordable option for everyone, so the next thing is to communicate with your colleagues and manager about how your team can better manage stress and workloads.
There are other steps burnt out employees can use to practice self-care:
- Maintaining work-life boundaries, such as not answering emails outside of office hours
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating well
- Mindfulness practices
- If things are really getting on top of you, reaching out to a medical professional
But there is only so much that individuals can do. As Dr. Maslach states, self care is not a solution for burnout but rather a harmful myth. It lays the responsibility for fixing the problem at the worn-out feet of the employee rather than at the company itself, which has much greater power in being able to improve things. Moss writes that companies wanting to address burnout should look at “the systems and policies in place that are not so focused on self-care…but more focused on the root causes of burnout.”
“No amount of essential oil baths or stretching exercises are going to fix your toxic work environment or provide compassion-centred leadership skills to your boss.”Dr. Justin D. Henderson
What can businesses do to prevent it?
We need to fit jobs to people, not the other way around. Underneath our job titles, roles and responsibilities, we are all individuals with very human needs and emotions. If your business is giving too much workload with too little reward, or not offering employees autonomy in their roles, it might be time for a rethink.
It’s not just about employee perks like mindfulness apps or yoga discounts, but meaningful change to the culture of the workplace. “Just being able to talk about mental health at work is a better work perk than helping you to meditate when you’re really mentally unwell,” Moss states.
“I keep seeing companies make big declarations like, ‘We gave a week off to our burned out employees.’ There’s so much irony to that. You’ve burned them out, so you’re giving them a week off, but have you [alleviated the] workload so when they go back they’re not dealing with the debt they’ve created?”Jennifer Moss
The good news is that a lot of solutions can be small and inexpensive, and there are plenty of resources to get businesses started:
- Dr. Henderson has created a framework for building compassion-centred workplaces
- Mental Health UK has resources including a Wellbeing Plan and Stress Risk Assessments
- Dr. Maslach has a toolkit to help you measure burnout in your workplace
- Simply reducing burnout stigma can be a great place to start
Beginning the conversation can be enough to get the ball rolling. Nurturing a compassion-centred workplace is something your whole team can contribute to, and small changes can see big results. As Dr. Henderson argues, “it’s time we started creating resilient workplaces, not just resilient workers.”
- Dying for a Paycheck – Jeffrey Pfeffer
- Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation – Anne Helen Peterson
- The Burnout Epidemic – Jennifer Moss
- Why Burnout is an Epidemic and What to Do About It – McKinsey Author Talks
- Self Care is Not the Solution for Burnout – The Beautiful Truth