In a more typical time, burnout is an exception. In the era of COVID, it almost feels like the norm.
According to Jennifer Moss, organizations should take a hard look in the mirror for fostering cultures of overwork that make things worse. The author, speaker and workplace wellness expert has penned “The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It” to help slam the brakes on this crisis before we all hit the wall.
Moss spoke with Reuters about making it through the pandemic in one piece. Edited excerpts are below.
Q: You did some research about how people feel now. What did you find?
A: During COVID’S second wave, we found that only 2 per cent of people rated their well-being as excellent, and 89 per cent said their work life was getting worse. We expected that people would be exhausted, working more hours in the day and losing efficacy.
But we also found that cynicism was really high: People are starting to feel like they don’t have any control over outcomes. That’s really dangerous.
Q: How do you define burnout specifically?
A: It’s chronic workplace stress left unmanaged. There are six root causes: An unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, a lack of a supportive community, a lack of fairness and mismatched values and skills.
Q: Companies know something serious is going on, so are they doing enough?
A: Leaders are worried about people leaving, so they have been adding some well-being strategies to their portfolio. This has put employees more in the driver’s seat; for instance, we have been seeing many companies delaying a return to the workplace. Self-care strategies can be a good thing, but sometimes they are a Band-Aid solution to a much bigger problem that needs to be managed upstream.
Q: What should companies be doing to prevent burnout?
A: They need to be looking at the root causes of workload. Giving people a day off is okay, but you also need to reduce your expectations of productivity.
If you have a culture of overwork, that is not making people more effective – it’s making them sick. Companies need to give people more agency about how and when they come back to work, pay people what they’re worth, compensate them if they’re working extra hours, and make sure they’re promoting people for the right reasons.
A lack of fairness is a big issue here, because young people feel like there is no path for them.
Q: What can individuals do to make sure they’re not running on empty?
A: Organizations need to have a huge amount of accountability for burnout, but employees can be part of the solution, too. We can do a lot of work to identify whether we’re burning out, like how often we feel exhausted and disengaged and cynical. Then we need to start to think about pulling back, like taking breaks every couple of hours, digitally detoxing, going outside, putting on music.
Set boundaries about answering e-mails and manage your clients’ expectations, so everything doesn’t always seem so urgent.
Q: Leaders get burned out too. How can they manage those feelings?
A: We have never had a collective trauma like this where every single person is going through it. We are all feeling fear and social anxiety, and the same is true for leaders.
Have some self-compassion, show transparency with your team and don’t worry about appearing vulnerable. You’ve got things going on too, and employees can’t be what they can’t see, so model the behavior. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t help the team.
Q: Have you dealt with burnout personally?
A: It’s been really hard. We have to give ourselves the space to not be as effective as we used to be. We’re tired, and nothing about this is normal.
I really did try to follow my own rules and take moments for myself – sitting outside, reading some fiction, walking my dog in nature.
I knew the only way I was going to get through this in a healthy way for my kids, was to do this work. And it helped.
Every day, every single one of us should look back at the past year and pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘I made it.’