6 minute read

How to solve the burnout problem

Burnout is an increasing global problem, with 85% of respondents in new research saying it is damaging their sense of wellbeing. But it’s more than an individual problem. To tackle the burnout epidemic organisations need to step up to solve the problem, argues author and workplace wellbeing expert Jennifer Moss. Siân Harrington pulls out some lessons from her latest book

How to solve the burnout problem

It’s time to rethink burnout. The workplace phenomenon, defined by the World Health Organization as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, is more than just an employee problem. It's an organisational problem that requires an organisational solution, says award-winning journalist and author Jennifer Moss.

Burnout was an increasing problem before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the crisis has exacerbated it. Research by careers site Indeed earlier this year found more than half of respondents feeling burned out, with 67% saying the feeling had worsened over the course of the pandemic. Moss’s own research, conducted through Harvard Business Review and featuring quantitative and qualitative responses from 46 countries, finds 89% saying their work life was getting worse, 85% that their wellbeing had declined, 56% that job demands had increased, 67% saying they didn’t feel they could discuss mental health at work and only 2% rating their wellbeing as excellent.

The research found that non-parent employees during the pandemic were keen to support working parents, offering to work extra hours as they did not have children. However, the result is that now people living alone and millennials are the most burned outgroups across generations.

Wellbeing has effected different groups in the pandemic

Even people who have been flourishing through the pandemic still collectively feel that it's hard for them to feel joy, says Moss. It’s not surprising, she adds, that when we’re working 30% more each day to hit our pre-COVID goals, the numbers of meetings have increased 24% and the average workday is now 48 minutes longer. “We’re seeing this massive shift between already overworking to significantly overworking. We are just en masse burning out” says Moss.

However, she adds, the emphasis on self-care – that it is up to the individual to deal with their burnout through wellbeing interventions – ignores the systemic and institutional factors that lead to burnout. “Self-care is not the cure for burnout. We need to think about how we can attack the problem much further upstream than we do right now. When you look at the macro causes of burnout again we don't solve it with meditation apps or more yoga or options for lunch onsite. Those are perks.”

Moss identifies six root causes of burnout:

Overwork has long been a problem but this year it increased. In the US people were working an extra three hours a day while in France, Spain and the UK they were working two more hours a day. As well as meetings and job demand Moss points to the trap of people who love their work overworking for example, answering emails late into the night or working that bit earlier or later. When we love what we do it is hard to turn ourselves off, she says.

Perceived lack of control
The feeling of being micromanaged or feeling a lack of agency in relation to when and how we work, how we hit our goals and being constantly measured and monitored increases the chance of burnout

Insufficient rewards for effort
Equity in terms of pay, promotion and rewarding the right people equally is critical in preventing burnout. Often recognition and feedback, letting people know their voice has been heard, is missing from corporate reward strategies.

Loneliness (poor relationships)
There was an increase in loneliness pre-pandemic with a YouGov survey finding one in five millennials saying they had zero friends. A big part of that is that we are replacing our relationships with technology, versus augmenting our relationships with technology, says Moss. However, her latest analysis finds 74% of people saying they are the loneliest they've ever felt in their life. The impact of loneliness on wellbeing is dramatic, with Dr Vivek Murphy finding the impact on mortality of being lonely is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Lack of fairness
Systemic discrimination plays a role in burnout. Moss’s research found unpaid female labour went from 4.2 hours pre-pandemic to 15 to 20 hours during the pandemic. Meanwhile 42% of US employees experienced racism and 75% of LGBTQ+ employees experienced prejudice at work.

Values and skills mismatch
Overqualified employees are less likely to experience positive psychological wellbeing. In cases of overqualification employees expect to use their skills and credentials in a role, but in reality end up in work that does not require these, leaving them feeling deprived and unsatisfied. The pandemic has seen many people taking on jobs that do not match their skills. Moss points to teachers as an example of where, in the past 18 months, many felt their students weren’t getting the benefit of their skills, so they felt they weren't as effective in their jobs as before.

To tackle these root causes Moss says organisations, leaders and workers in their teams can all play a part through adopting prevention strategies.

Prevention strategies

Identify signs of burnout

Exhaustion, demotivation and cynicism are signs of burnout which you may be feeling yourself, while in others we need to recognise that fatigue, withdrawing, increased irritability, increased sick/late days and disengagement are all causes of burnout. Cynicism is a particular red flag, says Moss. “When we get to that stage where we're highly cynical about the future and about our experience at work, that's when we have to question whether we're getting to that point where we're going to hit the wall. And when you hit that wall, it can be an 18 month to two-year recovery.”

Regularly check in with each other

As leaders we often misdiagnose burnout as a performance problem. Co-workers and leaders should make checking in with each other part of the culture and assimilated into the way of working. Moss found weekly check-ins reduced burnout based on addressing inefficiencies and workload, making sure everyone was aligned on goals and on priorities. But she says these check-ins should also include a 15-minute conversation where people can talk about non-work topics. People should choose whether they join or not, but over time the consistency of this weekly talk will get to the point where people believe there is psychological safety to say it how it really is.  Ask what you can do to make the next week a bit easier

Allow people to digitally detox

Sedentary behaviour has increased globally, with many people adding three to four more hours of sitting every day, while in some industries people are sitting for an extra seven hours each day. Before people used to move around the workplace just to get a coffee or chat to someone. Screen-based employees should take regular 10-minute breaks. Moss even suggests people should do a fake commute, starting the day without being connected to devices, showering (apparently research has shown showers were done by 30% during lockdowns) and leaving the house to mimic previous routines and ‘bookend’ work time.

Prevent video conference burnout

Platforms such as Zoom have been helpful for communication, learning and sharing information, but video conferencing should be only one part of your toolbox of communication tools.  Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, identified four consequences of prolonged video chats that he says contribute to the feeling commonly known as “Zoom fatigue.” One interesting one is that excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense. The amount of eye contact we engage in on video chats, as well as the size of faces on screens, is unnatural. When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said. The solution is to consider whether the meeting is necessary- does it need to be a video call, can it be shorter, can cameras be turned off or can another mode of communication be used? Moss suggests walk and talk meetings. 

Help employees to be transparent about their workload

Encourage employees to document their work to prevent overwork. They can analyse their current workload over two weeks before going to their manager with fact-based information. Document how often they are working late, how often they skip lunch, how often they work on urgent versus priority needs – for example an ‘urgent’ email taking them away from priority tasks. Do they need more resources or training to become more efficient and more effective? By doing this managers can see the reality of what employees are working on and ensure they are aligned to the priorities and goals. Says Moss: “What we found when we've put these interventions inside organisations is that it reduces inefficiencies in workload by 22% to 27%.

Friends at work matter: ensure your work model allows for personal relationships to develop

One friend at work, according to a Gallup study of 80,000 employees, resulted in people saying they were 27% more likely to feel heard, and burnout was reduced by 41%. People felt better about their own stress in that they were managing it better if they had healthy productive relationships at work. It’s therefore important that new work models enable face-to-face get-togethers. “I’m a big proponent of having that agency of when and how we work and hybrid is a really healthy solution,” says Moss. “However, if we are working remotely it can work as long as we do find time to meet in person. I tell leadership that the most effective investment they can put into developing healthy productive team relationships is getting people together once a quarter for two or three days.”

Develop an authentic and empathic culture

The average adult says “I’m fine’ 14 times a week but means it only 19% of the time. Leaders need to dig deeper and ask more questions of people if they're talking about having been fatigued or having lots going on in their life. If they say they're fine, ask why do they say that, are they really fine? Ensure they know this is a safe space for those people to say they are not fine. According to Moss, organisations that practise cognitive hope building, efficacy building, resilience, optimism, gratitude, empathy and mindfulness improve scores on key measurements such as NPS and sales revenue.

Solving the burnout problem is a long-term strategy, says Moss. And, she emphasises, a burnout strategy is totally different to a wellbeing strategy.

“Leaders, look at this crisis and think about how you are not going to waste it. We want to intentionally think about what we want to bring into the future of work in this recovery mode. This is a paradigm shifting moment in the workforce. How can we change it for the better? We all have roles to play in our own individual burnout prevention, but we can also make changes within our teams and for our co-workers so that we can have an ecosystem approach to preventing burnout now and in the future of work.”

Jennifer Moss, pictured below, is an award-winning journalist, author and international speaker and author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It

Jennifer Moss The Burnout Epidemic

Published 6 October 2021
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