Burnout is the defining psychological state of our time.
People are burning out.
Perhaps it’s the coronavirus rebounding when we had started to hope in the spring that we’d be back to something like normal in September. Perhaps it’s the unrelenting cascade of wildfires, hurricanes, and drought that has made it impossible to ignore that climate change is here, that it’s not some distant, over-the-horizon event.
On top of all that, there’s a growing mismatch in expectations between executives who want us back into the office as soon as possible and workers who are balking. Robert Half’s August 2021 report revealed that 71% of 2,800 senior managers say they will require employees to be ‘fully in-office once COVID-16 restrictions are lifted’. Only 12% said they would leave it up to employees to decide, and the remainder plans a hybrid approach.
But it’s clear that the stress is mounting. Sarah Lyall, in We Have All Hit a Wall, reports on some studies from late last year:
“Malaise, burnout, depression and stress — all of those are up considerably,” said Todd Katz, executive vice president and head of group benefits at MetLife. The company’s most recent Employee Benefit Trends Study, conducted in December and January, found that workers across the board felt markedly worse than they did last April.
The study was based in part on interviews with 2,651 employees. In total, 34 percent of respondents reported feeling burned out, up from 27 percent last April. Twenty-two percent said they were depressed, up from 17 percent last April, and 37 percent said they felt stressed, up from 34 percent.
“People are saying they’re less productive, less engaged, that they don’t feel as successful,” Mr. Katz said.
“When people are under a long period of chronic, unpredictable stress, they develop behavioral anhedonia,” Dr. Wehrenberg said, meaning the loss of the ability to take pleasure in their activities. “And so they get lethargic, and they show a lack of interest — and obviously that plays a huge role in productivity.”
Nearly 700 people responded to The Times’s questions, and the picture they painted was of a work force at its collective wits’ end. We heard from a clergyperson, a pastry chef, an I.C.U. nurse, a probation officer, a fast-bard worker. Budget analysts, librarians, principals, college students holed up in childhood bedrooms, project managers, interns, real estate agents — their mood was strikingly similar, though their circumstances were different. As one respondent said, no matter how many lists she makes, “I find myself falling back into deep pajamaville.”
After a false dawn in spring, a return to deep pajamaville.
Jill Lepore provides a magisterial recounting of the history of burnout in Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition, starting with the Trojan War and the first use of the term in the modern workplace:
Burnout may be our contemporary condition, but it has very particular historical origins. In the nineteen-seventies, when [psychologist Herbert] Freudenberger first started looking for burnout across occupations, real wages stagnated and union membership declined. Manufacturing jobs disappeared; service jobs grew. Some of these trends have lately begun to reverse, but all the talk about burnout, beginning in the past few decades, did nothing to solve these problems; instead, it turned responsibility for enormous economic and social upheaval and changes in the labor market back onto the individual worker. [Anne Helen] Petersen argues that this burden falls especially heavily on millennials, and she offers support for this claim, but a lesson of the history of burnout is that every generation of Americans who have come of age since the nineteen-seventies have made the same claim, and they were right, too, because overwork keeps getting worse.
Lepore hints that burnout is an inevitable wrinkle in the human condition, but then suggests it may be a modern malady, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Death by overwork is a real thing.
Is there hope? Are there steps we can take to lessen the stress?
Liz Fosslien quantifies how bad it is, and what we can do:
In 2020, 71% of employees experienced burnout at least once. Across Humu’s enterprise customers, 62% of employees have reported feeling overwhelmed by work responsibilities, and 32% have said they are emotionally drained. And research from Qualtrics shows that stress and burnout are the main reasons people are thinking of leaving their jobs in the coming months and year — a time economists have already dubbed “The Great Resignation.”
Work overload is only one cause of burnout. Too often, organizations fail to acknowledge — let alone address — other dimensions. The Maslach Burnout Inventory, the first clinically based measure of burnout, also measures cynicism and feeling ineffective at your job. And our research at Humu shows that lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin.
Organizations that don’t help their people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and progress amid these forces will see burnout persist — or worsen. Here are seven specific steps leaders and managers can take to create a healthier work environment for employees.
[The 71% figure comes from Asana's Anatomy of Work Index.]
Fosslien offers seven steps organizations should take, which boil down to these five (in my recasting):
accept that workers are facing potential burnout (or are in recovery from a recent bout), so do everything to help decompression and minimize anxiety
clarity about work goals is more important than ever, and will help people feel like progress is being made, even if some goals need to be relaxed or sidelined
increase autonomy so that people have control of their work, which reduces stress and anxiety
a sense of belonging is central to countering burnout, so work to help keep connections between team members active and supportive
ask questions and take action, for example 'what one thing can I do to better support you?'.
In essence, we should acknowledge that we are swimming in flood waters, running from the flames, and searching for a watering hole in the desert: burnout is as threatening as the natural disasters on the news.
If burnout is a condition we can catch and recover from, perhaps we should approach it as a contagious disease, like Covid. But instead of social distancing, the protocol should be social closeness, heightening our sense of belonging, and deepening the connections between us.
If the predominant model promotes workers as capital resources, the implication is units that perform without the necessary care at the possibility of other meaningful outcomes. The implication here is an alternative set of leadership values and character traits to reset what work cultures could really be about and to solve what problems.