Mental Health words

The Workplace Disconnect Around Burnout

I’ve talked for years about the workplace, and the risks around ignoring the mental health of employees, and the very real possibility of burn out. I recognized the reality of the workplace, especially in the legal, eDiscovery, and tech industries even before COVID-19 sent us all working from home, and how much worse it may be now. In all that time though, I’ve not managed to describe the situation as well as Jennifer Moss does in this HBR article.

When you analyze the real causes of burnout, it becomes clear that almost everyone has been attacking the problem from the wrong angle. According to Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, burnout has six main causes:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

While these are all organizational issues, we still prescribe self-care as the cure for burnout. We’ve put the burden of solving the problem squarely on the shoulders of individual employees. “Let’s just recommend more yoga, wellness tech, meditation apps, and subsidized gym memberships — that’ll fix it,” we say.

First off, this is 100% accurate. Across the board I’ve been in contact with people working across all kinds of industries, and what they are doing to fight burnout, or help people needing extra help with things outside of the office, and very few are directly dealing with the 6 items above. Some are hitting on one or two, but no one is dealing with all 6.

But, as Jennifer goes on to talk about, one of the biggest has definitely been not just the unsustainable workload that has always existed in tech, for example, but the fact that during the WFH era, for many it’s actually gotten worse. You can read for yourself the quotes and stories, but I think we all know of at least one story of a manager suggesting that we could work evenings or weekends because “it’s not like we are going anywhere”.

No, just no. If you’re a manager, you need to read not just Jennifer’s article, but the entire HBR series on burnout. It has always mattered, but it absolutely matters now. If you’ve been one of the companies applying band-aids like Zoom happy hours that become yet another meeting, instead of dealing with overwork, people might be happy to just have a job now, but eventually, the way you are treating them, will push them out the door when the opportunity presents itself.

Similarly, if you’re not a manager, you may need to find your own voice, and set your own boundaries. Most of us say “yes” to extra work, respond to emails no matter the time of day, and kill ourselves to get work done instead of asking for help because that is the culture. Yes, culture starts at the top, but we all contribute to it every time we brag about working on the weekend, ask to schedule meetings outside the normal office hours, or talk about how late we were up working in the morning. We are normalizing something that cannot be sustained long-term. We are making it clear that the members of our teams who can’t, or won’t, do the same, just don’t belong.

Regardless of where you are in the organization, I mostly want you to recognize how we all contribute to this culture, and how we can normalize something different. But, if you’re in management, you also should recognize what Jennifer says above. Adding some “self-care” options for employees, as if that takes care of all of the risks of burn out, does nothing. It’s the culture. If you aren’t willing to make those kinds of changes, you’re only adding yet another task for employees.

“Take time for self care, do some yoga, here’s a fun event we scheduled for you, but we still expect you to get 50-60 hours worth of work done this week.”

That’s a hell of a message.


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