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ARTICLE: Beyond Burned Out


Workplace expert Jennifer Moss wrote on that chronic stress was rampant before the pandemic, and has increased to a level that leaders can no longer ignore.

Moss and HBR worked together with YMCA WorkWell to gather and assess survey feedback in the fall of 2020 to learn tactics companies can use to address some of the organizational roots of burnout. Results showed that people are having serious disruptions in their relationship with work, are more exhausted trying to keep their work and personal lives afloat, and have a troubling rise in cynicism, reflecting a lack of trust in the world. Millennials have the highest levels of burnout due to having less autonomy at work, lower seniority, greater financial stressors, and feelings of loneliness.

The pandemic was simply an accelerant of the high levels of burnout already being experienced. During the pandemic, we misdiagnosed the resulting stress as acute rather than chronic. Once it was clear we were in this crisis for the long haul, organizations did very little to help employees over the long term in meaningful ways, abandoning or failing to adapt their initial efforts. Organizations should have slowed down and analyzed what was working and what wasn’t. Instead of pumping the brakes when the virus spread and acute stress began to become chronic, things became worse in these key areas:

  • We didn’t adjust workloads. More pressure to produce, no respect for time boundaries.

  • We didn’t give people control and flexibility. With childcare options limited, the impact of the disruption to women’s and men's ability to work is enormous.

  • We allowed more meetings and unhealthful levels of screen time. Video calls are harder on us physically and mentally than in-person meetings because our brains find it more challenging to process nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and technical glitches, making conversations more stressful.

  • We didn’t recognize the extent of people’s struggles. People work unsustainably day after day, and the vast majority of senior leaders are tired, too — and tired of leading tired people.

Some easy things to combat burnout at the organizational level include:

  • Feeling a sense of purpose. People who feel a strong sense of purpose in their work experience far less to no burnout.

  • Having a manageable workload. Organizations should communicate more about priorities and what can be put on the back burner until time permits (or perhaps forever). One of the most glaring issues is meeting fatigue. To address this, ask: Is this meeting necessary? If yes, then ask:

  1. Does it have to be a video call?

  2. Does it have to be longer than 30 minutes?

  3. Which attendees are absolutely essential?

  4. Can we turn off our cameras and use our photos or avatars instead?

  5. Can we do an audio-only conference call for a much-needed screen break?

  6. Ask at the beginning: How are people feeling? Does anyone have a back-to-back call? If you’re leading the meeting, set a timer so you can let anyone who does have one jump off five to 10 minutes early.

  • Feeling that you can discuss your mental health at work. Employees need to be offered access to mental health support, which could include: a mental health resource page, reduced hours, flexible hours or paid time off, a peer-to-peer outreach program, having managers check in on their direct reports immediately.

  • Having an empathetic manager. The next time people say they’re fine, ask again, “Are you really fine? It’s OK if you’re not. I’m here if you need to talk.”

  • Having a strong sense of connection to family and friends. As soon as it is safe to do so, we need to create hybrid solutions (like offering both work-from-home and in-office options) that allow coworkers to connect and collaborate in person and virtually, and find ways to bring their teams back together in a physical space to connect in real life.



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