This is the final part on our three-part series on workplace burnout (one of the causes of vital exhaustion), moral injury and exploitation. In the first two parts we focused on how societal demands and expectations create the perfect circumstances for burnout to reach epidemic levels. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. We considered how some of your greatest strengths and also your beliefs and attitudes may very well make you more vulnerable to both burnout and being taken advantage of in work.
Now it’s time to consider whether there are effective ways to address and prevent burnout, without sacrificing productivity and efficiency.
The counterintuitive ways to improve productivity
We mentioned in part two that many people believe increased productivity and efficiency are a product of continuous time spent working without adequate breaks. Conversely, science seems to tell us almost the opposite. Efficiency drops if we skip breaks. Creativity and innovation need movement, as well as having space and vulnerability to reflect and learn from mistakes. Concentration and focus are enhanced by meditation and mindfulness. While healthy social interaction and support are necessary for a sense of belonging and trust, resiliency and morale, and even for the hive-mind to help troubleshoot and problem solve.
The stigma of burnout
Not only that, but we believe admitting to burnout and realising you need help is tantamount to admitting defeat, a sign of weakness, and means you’re a failure as a person and an employee. The amount of courage and vulnerability it takes to even admit burnout to yourself is too much for many people in its early stages. Certainly, opening up to other people about it may be practically unthinkable. So we bury it deep and suffocate ourselves instead.
10 fundamental human needs as they relate to work and health
Meanwhile, retention relies on staff health. And that depends on people having their needs met. So things like:
- high-quality nutrition,
- giving and receiving attention,
- a sense of autonomy and control,
- a sense of belonging,
- a sense of status within your community,
- a sense of competence and achievement,
- and meaning and purpose.
Are you being taken advantage of at work?
The problem with models of success based on exploitation in work
Our exploitative culture makes us believe that we must work harder and for longer hours to be successful. And that success looks like promotions, better pay, higher status and a sense of achievement. Maybe for some people, this is what success looks like. But for others, it isn’t.
The problem is that the more people buy into this model of success, and the more they believe that it can only be achieved by longer hours in work, sacrificing your personal life and losing your work-life harmony, the more pressure we’ll all feel to conform.
Meanwhile, these are the perfect conditions to create burnout. But because this unattainable model is so deeply ingrained into our collective psyche, very few of us will admit that we’re suffering from burnout even to ourselves, let alone to anyone else. By the time we are ready to admit it and seek help, we’ve already sacrificed our health.
Let's talk about exploitation and work-based harm
The true cost of burnout is your health
Long before we even consider we could be suffering from burnout, we’re suffering from headaches, brain fog, digestive problems, weight issues, exhaustion, irritability, anger, resentfulness, anxiety, depression, numbness and we’re scatterbrained because our memory has also been affected. We’re feeling run down and we’re picking up every cold and flu that’s going around. We may start feeling callous and bemoan the disappearance of our compassion. We’re procrastinating and our workload is mounting ever higher. We experience detachment not just from other people, but from our own emotions and experiences.
Before we’ll admit we’re burnt out or our doctor considers it, we might have been started on a cocktail of medications. Everything from pain killers for migraines and tension headaches, Losec for indigestion, Movicol for constipation, Imodium for diarrhoea, Prozac or Celexa for depression, a second antidepressant when the first stopped working, a sleep-aid for insomnia and a blood pressure tablet because your blood pressure has unsurprisingly gone through the roof. None of these address the root cause. They all just suppress symptoms. Maybe they keep you working for a while. They certainly keep the delusion going that the problem is with you; that you’re defective so you need to be medicated.
Are you a robot?
But what if the truth is that you’re exploited? And what if part of the reason you can’t get the right help is that our society believes that we’re all robots and it doesn’t matter whether or not your basic needs are being addressed? Should you feel ashamed for not being a robot? I think not!
For those who see the problem, where's the solution?
Something that struck me while I was chatting to people about their burnout experiences and researching how burnout is treated, was that there’s very little support for people who are going through burnout. Even when you recognise that you’ve got burnout and even when you want to get help, there just isn’t a lot of help out there.
Sticking a bandaid on a global problem only hides the main symptoms
What if we could get to the root causes?
A lot of the research on burnout and approaches to burnout management focuses on helping people to reduce their stress levels. Of course, stress management is a vital part of the approach to burnout and having several ways to cope with high levels in your arsenal will stand you in good stead. But what can be done about the root causes of your chronically elevated stress?
How can you stop being taken advantage of at work?
Where’s the advice on reducing unsustainable workloads on the basis that they’re ridiculous and no normal, hardworking human being who’s not prepared to cut corners and who has a family will be able to manage them longterm without a very high risk of sacrificing their health, intimate relationships and happiness?
Why are things like nutrition, movement and sleep given just a brief mention in standard approaches to burnout?
What are some ways to cope with burnout resulting from unfair work exploitation?
We know that when burned out, many people will turn to caffeine, sugary foods, refined carbohydrates, comfort foods, takeaway meals and junk food. And we know that it’s because they’re exhausted, worn down, stressed-out, deserve a reward (and feel underappreciated and undervalued at work) and feel they don’t have the time, bandwidth or energy to cook proper food, because they’ve set their own health as a much lower priority than getting their work done. Not just that, but one of the coping strategies for burnout and other stressors is to dive deep into addictions, including food, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, porn, gambling, gaming and other things. But where are the specific solutions to address these?
Simple dietary steps to better nutrition
How about, instead of taking the convenience food route, you eat real, unprocessed foods made from scratch? I know you’re busy and time is short. But how about batch cooking and dump freezer cooking to save yourself a lot of time? You can also find a lot of chopped frozen vegetables, riced cauliflower, frozen wild fish and frozen berries in many shops that can speed up food preparation.
Effective ways to get moving
Science also shows that one of the most effective ways to reduce stress, while fostering creativity, problem-solving and innovation is to get outside for a walk in nature. So why isn’t that prioritised?
Have you heard of walking meetings? You can actually combine your exercise, getting outdoors and work together, making the best use of your time. The incredible secret about walking meetings is that movement enhances our ability to think, so walking meetings can be more efficient as well as enjoyable and a great way to improve your health. Here’s how to do them.
Finding your community
We also know that isolation, loneliness and despair are killers and that community support, leveraging social contagion, nurturing just a few close friends and a sense of belonging are some of the most powerful ways to get back on track. Meanwhile, all the evidence is pointing to modern life as becoming more isolating than at any point in our history, despite the popularity of digital social networks. And modern work practices are amplifying loneliness, not just because of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but because it may be more cost-effective to have people work from home and to make their work connections internationally online. But how often does specific advice on how to become involved in or build community crop up in research on burnout? Not often!
Why not brainstorm the communities and groups you are currently or have been involved in in the past? Don’t forget to include your family and friends. How can you reestablish some connections with them? Or are there any groups within work that provide social supports? Can you get involved with them?
Why burnout is a dirty word
Why is almost nobody ready to talk about the work exploitation of employees?
With almost all of the focus on burnout aimed towards individuals managing their own stress and on corporations facilitating employees’ stress-management without taking ownership of the fact they’re leaving employees’ basic needs unmet, is it any wonder burnout is a dirty word?
Or burnout is seen as a badge of honour because it proves how much harder you’re striving than everyone else?
The underlying causes of burnout are being hidden under a sticky plaster. The best thing is probably to rip the bandage off before gangrene sets in because hiding it means that right now nobody can see how much damage is really being done.
Tackling burnout will take real courage
Starting to have honest conversations about burnout does involve vulnerability, not just from the perspective of people suffering from it, or even just from employers, but also from doctors, therapists, family and friends. In fact, all of us will need to get a whole lot more comfortable with this conversation.
Are you feeling brave enough to kick it off?
Tell me about whether any of this resonates in the comments below. I know that burnout is a hidden epidemic. Almost nobody is discussing how they’re feeling with their work colleagues. And that makes everyone believe they’re suffering alone. I know you’re not alone. And I know you don’t want this exhausting future for yourself or your kids. When other people see that they’re not alone it will really help them. How much courage does it take to come out of the burnout closet?