The timing of this article *might* be related to my own burnout – my family had Covid around the New Year, and with the kids just back to school and my husband’s recovery moving slowly, it’s been an incredibly taxing few weeks. Of course, I am grateful my kids had very few symptoms and recovered well – and I know that while my husband is having a hard time feeling like himself, we are so fortunate none of us had any critical symptoms. Gratitude can coexist with stress, exhaustion, and anxiety, though – and the last few weeks have been a mix of it all.
However, I’m not writing this solely as a cathartic expression of my own struggles. This topic was already on my mind after having a conversation at the end of last year with a business leader who confided in me about his own burnout. We had an open discussion around how the stress of leading a company through the challenges of the last two years has begun boiling over into his own mental health.
This leader is responsible for setting standards that impact an entire company’s health and well-being. He’s bearing the weight of supporting his team’s mental health while also trying to preserve his own. He’s finding himself facing some complex emotions about significant differences in belief systems, including his own, and how to continue to keep peace among not only the employees of the company but with the customers they serve.
Burnout Impacts Everyone, From Leadership to The Frontline
Then you think about those on the frontlines. We read a lot in headlines about the doctors and nurses experiencing unimaginable stress in persisting through immense risk to their own safety and wellbeing to care for the masses. Teachers and childcare providers who, already underpaid, have now been shouldered with the responsibility of navigating angry parents, disrupted children, and a choice between putting themselves at risk or losing their livelihood.
But, as we know, healthcare and education aren’t our only frontline workers. Those providing services share many of the same burdens, often without the same levels of recognition. They must continue to show up for work, even if they fear for their or their families’ lives. They may find themselves in situations with customers where they feel unsafe or confronted by opposing beliefs. They may be in the impossible position of having children who are unable to attend school or childcare without a support system to offer help.
As I was thinking about writing this, I took to social media to see what others were saying.
On Twitter, Shep Hyken (@Hyken) said, “It is important for every employee who has any contact with a customer to realize that at any given time, they represent the company. They are the brand, the image – they are everything about the company.” This is a lot of pressure given the circumstances of the last two years.
Ron Ruggiero (@RonRuggiero105) says, “This is NOT a pandemic of the unvaccinated. It’s a pandemic of the working class. Had to: work with no PPE, laid off or hours cut, can’t work from the safety of home, get sick without paid sick time, burnout, called “heroes” without being treated like one, yelled at, and then deaths.” Reading these words, I feel so much compassion for what those in the service industries have faced while I’ve remained in my home office.
Women Are at Increased Risk of Burnout
We must also acknowledge the momentous impact Covid has had on women, especially working mothers. According to McKinsey & Company: “The pandemic had a near-immediate effect on women’s employment. One in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men. While all women have been impacted, three major groups have experienced some of the largest challenges: working mothers, women in senior management positions, and Black women. This disparity came across as particularly stark with parents of kids under ten: the rate at which women in this group were considering leaving was ten percentage points higher than for men. And women in heterosexual dual-career couples who have children also reported larger increases in their time spent on household responsibilities since the pandemic began.”
I can tell you as a working mom myself, the juggling act has often felt nearly impossible – and I am fortunate to be working from home, employed by a very supportive company, and have help.
Even pre-pandemic, the World Health Organization had classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” characterized by three factors:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
- and reduced professional efficacy.
At the time of this article, it was stated that “The WHO plans to develop “evidence-based” guidelines for mental well-being in the workplace. Its member nations are set to implement the revisions to the International Classification of Diseases by 2022.” I don’t envy that task with the impact the weight of the pandemic has had.
How Do We Address the Burnout Bubble?
So, what do we do? A loaded question, for sure. And there’s both an individual and organizational responsibility here. As individuals, we have to prioritize and advocate for our needs and what will protect our mental health. While this looks different for everyone, commonly helpful practices like therapy, meditation, and exercise are certainly worth evaluating.
But an individual, particularly one who has the professional weight of an essential worker and/or a lack of support system, cannot be singularly responsible for alleviating burnout. There is a responsibility among employers to get a better handle on the reality, severity, and criticality of this issue. And you can’t afford not to – we are at a point where companies across roles, across industries, and across geographies are struggling to hire and retain talent – to the point in some scenarios that businesses are forced to reduce operating hours and even close. This is telling us it is time to look at the topic of burnout and mental health differently.
Arianna Huffington (@ariannahuff) says, “The Great Resignation is really a Great Re-evaluation. What people are resigning from is a culture of burnout and a broken definition of success. In quitting their jobs, people are affirming their longing for a different way of working and living.”
I continued my search to see what recommendations I could find for how to give this issue the attention it deserves and take real steps to change our current reality (rather than simply paying it lip service). Here’s some of what I found:
- Numerous comments expressing the benefit of a simple start with a genuine willingness to address burnout and transparent communication with your employees about the topic, their current mental state, and what they need from you
- A move away from the “productivity-at-all-cost” mentality to one that honors the need for downtime. Some comments on social pointed out that asking employees to prioritize more time off yet only allowing two weeks of vacation is not only laughable but resentment-inducing. It’s time to consider allowing more personal time – while unlimited time off may not be possible for workers in frontline roles, sorting out what higher degrees of rest is possible is essential
- Don’t insult your workforce’s intelligence. As F. Jordan Carnice (@thebullgrog_) says, “Still puzzled that most companies’ responses to employee anxiety, burnout, and fatigue is another webinar on anxiety, burnout, and fatigue.”
- Determine how you’ll measure burnout and whether the actions you take to improve it are working. STAT (@statnews) shared an opinion column on Twitter by Jan Muir, PhD, RN that suggest “Hospitals must track nurse burnout the same way they keep tabs on infections, errors, and falls, and give nurses higher pay and greater agency to make them feel seen, valued, and invested in.” Considering how we track this issue to ensure it gets the attention it deserves and the improvement it needs is a worthy goal for those outside of nursing, too.
- Consider the concept of “cultivating endurance.” I can’t take credit for this term, which I love. This article from Entrepreneur discusses the idea of “cultivating endurance,” and emphasizes the impact on productivity when you balance intent output with periods of regeneration. Read the full piece for five steps to take.
- Prioritize Inspiration and Empowerment. In this article, author Celia Willis talks about the idea of coming back from burnout by breaking out of a constant state of reflecting on the past two years and focusing on reigniting the energy of her team. She shares her tactical steps to address burnout, which are worth the read.
While I don’t have all of the answers and can’t any offer quick fix for breaking out of burnout, I do know this topic demands more of our attention. I would like to see the burnout bubble slowly deflate rather than burst, and that will require some real effort. If you have any advice you’d like to share on how you’re battling burnout yourself or addressing this issue within your organization, I’d love to hear from you!