Article By

Amy Bradley
Amy Bradley
Dr Amy Bradley a Professor of Leadership and Management and author of ‘The Human Moment’. In2020, she was named on the prestigious Thinkers50 Radar of global management thinkers. She contributes as adjunct faculty at several leading business schools. She is co-author of ‘Running on Empty: Navigating the Dangers of Burnout at Work’.
Katherine Semler
Katherine Semler
Dr Katherine Semler works with leaders and organizations to help them define and live their purpose. She is a senior partner at global consulting firm, Korn Ferry and adjunct faculty at Ashridge Hult International Business School. She is co-author of ‘Running on Empty: Navigating the Dangers of Burnout at Work’.

Reports of chronic work stress appear in the press almost every day, with people describing themselves working longer hours, facing higher workloads and dealing with more demands at work and at home than they have ever known before. One recent study from Chicago Booth School of Business and others, on remote working found that working hours are 30% higher than before the pandemic, with over half of those additional hours being done outside the normal working day.

Recently, the American Psychological Association reported that 79% of people had experienced work-related stress that month alone. Moreover, research spanning 46 countries during the pandemic suggested that 89% of people feel their work life is getting worse, with 85% of them saying their 89 overall wellbeing has declined. Job resignations in the United States in 2021 were up by 15% on 2019, which was a record year in itself. Gallup’s most recent State of the Global Workplace report suggests 80% of the working population across 155 countries are disengaged, with this lack of engagement costing the global economy $8.1 trillion each year.

50% of the working population now describe themselves as over-extended at work

Furthermore, negative emotions among employees, such as worry, stress, anger and sadness have now reached record levels, with 7 in 10 employees describing themselves as struggling or suffering, rather than thriving, in their lives overall. 50% of the working population now describe themselves as overextended at work, suggesting they may not yet be in burnout but without remedial action, may soon be on their way. xxAt a time when questions of viability and sustainability are becoming critical for companies, it could be argued that the growth and prosperity sought by organizations are dependent on ever-increasing pressure on employees to produce more and more, so the pursuit of unbridled growth must be kept in check by the fact that organizations are only as sustainable as their people.

Overwhelm, exhaustion and burnout are pervasive among leaders and workers alike because of the nature of workplaces today. Burnout can be defined as a mismatch between expectations and reality when it comes to a person and their job. This mismatch may be – driven by workload (e.g. having too many targets and deadlines combined with not enough resources to do the job); control (e.g. being micromanaged or feeling a lack of autonomy or influence); reward (e.g. not feeling valued, appreciated or fairly rewarded for our efforts); community (e.g. feeling isolated from others, or experiencing instances of interpersonal conflict, disrespect or incivility at work); fairness (e.g. experiencing discrimination or favouritism); and values (e.g. continually being asked to do work that appears pointless, or experiencing a disconnect between our own values, motivations and ideals and those espoused and demonstrated within the organization).

In our own research on the topic, we suggest that burnout persists because of an enduring work ethic that either leads us to believe that purpose and total engagement in our work is a measure of self-worth; or through a ‘labour of love’ work ethic, where many people mistakenly look to their work for fulfilment, friendship and even love. In this vein, perhaps one of the reasons burnout continues unabated is the emphasis we place on the role of work in our lives. We mistakenly look to our work as the source of all our fulfilment – “a means not just to a pay cheque but to dignity, character and a sense of purpose.” Burnout persists because we cling to these ideals and fear losing the meaning that work promises. It is only when we reassess the relative importance of work in relation to other aspects of our lives that we can begin to address burnout.

We know from our research that there is a point at which wanting to do a good job becomes bad for your health. Studies have also shown that we can have too much of a good thing when it comes to our relationship with work. For example, identifying with a particular group or team at work can satisfy our innate desire for belonging, bringing us much-needed social connection and support. At the same time, a strong sense of belonging can act as a primer to push us to work harder, take on more responsibilities and help colleagues even if not formally requested to do so. It is our motivational drivers, such as our need to feel valued and our need for social bonds, that become the very things that can lead to overwork, even workaholism. Overcommitted employees have been described as having “difficulty withdrawing from work – continuously striving for high achievement because of an extreme need for approval and esteem from work.”

We have a responsibility as individuals to notice and recognize the disconnect as it emerges between our aspirations for work and our lived experience of work itself

To truly tackle burnout, not only do we need to challenge societal norms and expectations concerning work as the source of our purpose in life, but we also need to pay attention to the organizational environments we find ourselves caught up in. While those employers who are concerned about addressing burnout can take steps to improve the conditions of work, we also have a responsibility as individuals to notice and recognize the disconnect as it emerges between our aspirations for work and our lived experience of work itself. We understood from those who have contributed to our research that some people find themselves so dependent on their work as a means of self-worth that they become unable to detach, despite becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their day-to-day experiences of work.

Some of our co-contributors talked about having become so seduced by the material benefits of work, such as salary and status, that they felt unable to get out. Others talked about how the “promise” of reward and the metaphorical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow had kept them striving until the point at which they burnt out and could give no more. From the stories we heard, it is those people who acted with tough compassion who were able to save their souls. Tough compassion means being able to spot and surface our own (and others’) unhealthy behaviours before it is too late. It means facing up to difficult conversations about the detrimental impact of work, and it means living with clearer boundaries between work and non-work in service of our long-term wellbeing. That said, tough compassion can take its toll when attempts at dialogue are dismissed or blocked. However, in the end, the decision to leave an organization is sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves. As Elizabeth Svoboda writes, “Exiting from a harmful situation can be its own form of uncompromising truth-telling.”

All our research co-contributors said they had all been profoundly changed by their experience of burnout, but through the experience, had been able to discover alternative purpose and balance that was more attuned to their needs and to the dangers that lie in excessive work. Many of them referred to knowing their limits better, communicating what they would and would not do, and shaping the work conditions they needed to remain whole. The people we spoke to described practices that had helped them to heal and to remain purposeful, healthy and self-aware in the face of demanding, high-pressure or intensely emotional work. Strikingly, all of these practices were embodied, meaning that our bodies and our physical existence are central features in these approaches.

From the stillness of meditation to the explosiveness of running, or the mindful physicality of painting and photography. If a central feature of burnout is that we lose much or all of our physical and emotional awareness of ourselves, then finding a restorative regular practice offers a powerful means of helping us find our way back to awareness and self-care.

If we are to make the changes required to tackle burnout at its roots, this cannot be achieved by individuals alone. We must also demand different working conditions, with employees and employers co-creating a shared vision of what it means to lead a healthy work life and of how work fits into a life well lived.

“Exiting from a harmful situation can be its own form of uncompromising truth-telling.”

Addressing the root causes of burnout may require wholesale system change, such as challenging the basis upon which we currently measure ‘contribution’ at work. It may require, for example, to move beyond time as the primary measure. As working professionals, many of us have become so anxious about justifying our time to clients, or demonstrating our use and utilization to our employers, we even measure ourselves in terms of monetizable hours. It has been suggested that organizations should move to outcome-based work as a means of unshackling employees from the time–productivity equation.

There may already be moves afoot in this regard, with over 10,000 employees worldwide trialling a four-day work week. But, despite widespread enthusiasm for shortening the standard working week, it remains to be seen whether this simply creates pressure on employees in different ways. If we are to radically reimagine a world without overwhelm, exhaustion and burnout, we would need to see organizations where compassion for self and for others is prioritized, even at the expense of productivity and companies that are as concerned about collective wellbeing as they are about profits. Workplaces that affirm purpose comes from leisure, not just from work would be the norm rather than the exception. If we are to truly tackle burnout, organizations need to be radically reimagined, so that routines and processes do not stifle and control; they become ‘listening’ systems in which people treat one another with unconditional positive regard and co-workers are strongly connected and in tune with each other’s needs. We know from existing research that teams built on principles of reciprocity, for example, have increased cohesion, belonging, relational commitment and mutual trust.

Furthermore, research suggests that in organizations designed around reciprocity – incorporating practices such as hiring for relational skills, using participatory selection processes, focusing on group incentives and rewards, fostering relational meeting practices and using collaborative technologies – reciprocity becomes a virtuous and generative process, enhancing a sense of community and improving performance.

If we are to re-discover our purpose in the face of overwhelm and burnout at work, the answers not only lie at the doors of employers, but also belong to us as individuals. To move towards improving our broken relationships with work, work should play a part, but not the whole part, in bringing purpose to our lives, with us deriving meaning from other domains such as our hobbies, volunteering activities, community work, families, friendships and creative endeavours and this must happen collectively with each of us holding one another to account in ways that honour our health, dignity and our humanity.

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