Why burnout is the driving force behind the Great Resignation and what hidden factor is at fault.
The phenomenon of the Great Resignation that continues to play out in 2021 can be attributed to various factors. From the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shelter in place, a realignment of personal priorities and values in the wake of global change and crisis, and a reevaluation of our work.
Whether we like it or not, work plays an essential part in our lives and identities. Long gone are the days that work meant a paycheck and a means to sustain our livelihood. In her book, “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” journalist Anne Helen Petersen describes the desire for a purposeful job that you’re passionate about as a “particularly modern and bourgeois phenomenon” and that purpose-driven passion can lead to burnout.
The saying “if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” is a fallacy and drives many an impassioned entrepreneur or employee to burn out. In fact, Forbes reported on a study which concluded that 100% of entrepreneurs experience burnout, and that was before the 2020 pandemic and the ensuing economic, social, and health crises. But how is this possible? Isn’t passion a driver for resilience? Yes, and research has confirmed this as well yet it’s not enough.
In the recent Refinery29 article “Scambition. Is That All there is? Why Burnout is a Broken Promise” the author Whizu Kim highlights that the core problem remains the same: “Workers feel betrayed by their employers.” As our identities become increasingly linked to our work (how soon after learning your name does a stranger ask what you DO for a living?) this “betrayal” reveals a curious phenomenon that I see drives burnout in my clients.
Have you ever noticed that we speak of our jobs much like we speak about our relationships? We fall in love with the mission of a new company, the leadership, a boss. Then we experience a honeymoon period where we feel rejuvenated and motivated by the work. At some point, we become disillusioned by the reality versus the courtship (interview) and either settle, challenge, adjust or leave for a new company.
Feeling a sense of purpose and passion is an important part of our wellbeing, yet as many realized in 2020 and 2021, it’s not enough to sustain us. And this is where the hidden driver for burnout emerges.
Much like at the beginning of an exciting relationship, the spark of passion can drive us to fall in love with our jobs and achieve incredible work. However, that passion can fizzle and lead to burnout if it’s not sustained by five key areas that most people are not attuned to, let alone recognize as important.
Whether you are a professional buckling under lofty deliverables or a leader sandwiched between your team’s burnout complaints and corporate pressures, the good news is that whatever your workplace stressors, there are solutions and strategies you can implement right away that can help.
Below are my top three strategies for handling these common situations.
1. Emotionally Fluent Leadership
“Why won’t they listen?” The common finding over the last several years, escalating during the pandemic, has been that employees are overworked and stressed out. When I work with clients one on one, I commonly hear that they’re frustrated, tired, resentful, and cynical that anything will change at their work. Despite laying out their concerns and offering solutions, they don’t feel heard. Take the example of David,* a director of a Research and Development department that’s concerned about burnout in his staff. His requests to leadership for hiring additional scientists are repeatedly met with head nods and verbal agreement, but no concrete action or authorization even after a couple of months. As a hiring manager, he values his existing high performers and knows the time it takes to find candidates that are equally as qualified. And the project workload keeps increasing.
As time goes on, David feels his credibility is being questioned from both sides. On the one side, his employees’ consistent requests for more help are met without action. In parallel, he notices frustration from leadership that doesn’t understand why productivity is decreasing and project timelines are getting delayed. As the weeks and months pass, the mounting pressure leads him to feel more drained, even after a great vacation. On the weeknights, he feels too tired to connect fully with his family or friends and finds it difficult to disconnect from the worries of work. When a recruiter comes along with an enticing new position David finds himself at a crossroads: does he stay at the company he once loved, or does he take the leap and hope for greener pastures at a different company? With my clients, we use a powerful framework to make these important life decisions, but ultimately, David is torn. Starting afresh felt daunting, especially after so many years of faithful service. “If only they’d listen to me!” he’d say, resentfully.
The reality is, when we work in an emotionally fluent workplace, we don’t need to resign to be heard. Our requests for help lead to conversations and actions. To mitigate burnout, leaders and teams need to be Emotionally Fluent. Often the implemented burnout solutions are the same: more virtual or in-person happy hours, more zoom meetings, or the encouragement to take more time off. Fundamentally though, leaders need to practice a key component of Emotional Fluency: Active listening.
Employees are keenly aware of what they need, and they can’t and shouldn’t have to repeat themselves over and over or resign to be heard. In an emotionally fluent workplace, we’re able to express our concerns and frustrations in a way that is heard by peers and leaders who are listening with compassion. More than empathy, compassion sees the pain and shows a willingness to take action (if necessary) to alleviate that suffering. Click HERE to learn more about our approach to Emotional Fluency.
Mary, a dynamic and high-performing professional felt betrayed. When she was hired to lead a tech company’s flagship project, she felt vibrant, inspired, and excited to be a part of a team that was making a difference. She put in long hours, never complaining, finding the work fulfilling. The project launched and soon she was managing larger teams and a higher project workload. She never complained, but as time went on, she felt looked over as an outside hire was brought in to lead another team she’d been vying for. When the pandemic hit and her work moved to remote, she worked even harder, putting in longer hours to make sure everything was on track, responding to emails and Slack messages well into the evening. But in early 2021, she noticed that her energy was slumping, and she no longer felt that thrill and drive. As remote work continued, the workload never seemed to decrease and she noticed that accolades and recognition didn’t replenish her like they once did. The passion had dried up and if it weren’t for the great pay, she would definitely be looking for another job.
Passion and purpose are important ingredients to fulfillment. But only focusing on those elements is like lighting a match and expecting it to burn as long as a bonfire. The flame will inevitably burn out. We need other fuel to sustain passion. Compensation is important and so is autonomy, but one of the most common causes of burnout I see with clients is the absence of healthy boundaries.
Earlier I referenced that sometimes we speak of our jobs in the same way we speak about our relationships. We look for the dazzling partner to complete or complement us, and when the honeymoon fades and that doesn’t happen, we fall out of love with the object of our affection. What went wrong? We fell in love with the mission, but the relationship might have been toxic. As with our personal life, the key to sustaining the flame in a relationship is healthy boundaries. At work, that means we need to establish structures and strategies to ensure that one element of our life doesn’t dominate at the expense of our health, our relationships, and our wellbeing.
With the advent of remote work, where the boundaries of work and home are blurred, this means we need to be more vigilant about creating space so we can rest and replenish. What do healthy work boundaries look like? Here are some examples.
· If you work from home, set aside a separate area as a workspace, ideally in a separate room, but even a dedicated desk with headphones will do.
· Close your laptop or computer and physically step away from work every day.
· Take physical breaks!
For those who experienced homeschooling or remote learning during the pandemic, you may have noticed that approximately every 50 minutes, children get antsy and need to take a break. As adults, we may have more discipline and push through the discomfort, but the reality is, we feel that need to move too! Practice getting up and moving away from your phone and laptop at one-hour intervals. You’ll notice the difference in your energy levels and ironically your productivity levels at the end of the day!
We’re not fully free if we have the ability to check in on work at any time. Mentally we’re still “at work” if we don’t have boundaries around when we stop checking email or Slack/work notifications in the early morning and evening. Employers have an important role to play in setting expectations around core working hours. Leaders need to lead by example and practice scheduling emails or messages to arrive in the inbox during business hours. Late night or early morning communication needs to be the exception, not the norm.
There is an inherent power imbalance in our workplaces, and employers must realize that they have a role to play in setting healthy boundaries with staff. As the means to an employee’s livelihood, leaders have a responsibility to create a safe environment so that employees can speak up without fear of consequences. That includes feeling comfortable sharing when they want to take on a challenging project AND sharing when their workload is too intense. It also includes leaders feeling comfortable having an open conversation about workload without feeling taken advantage of too. These conversations can only happen in an environment of trust, psychological safety, and emotional fluency. *We’ll dive deeper into what this looks like during a free webinar on October 26th. Scroll to the end of this article to reserve your seat!
3. Stress Support
Kelly is a CEO who is invigorated by work. Their company is expanding and every day has its own set of challenges and successes. Days are punctuated with early morning leadership team huddles and brainstorming meetings that blur into dinner and drinks. Kelly’s dedicated to the mission and never hesitates to take a business call while on a Hawaiian family vacation. Yet lately, something feels off. Even with significant financial success and accolades, they can’t seem to shake a pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction. In early 2021, Kelly noticed feelings of increased impatience with delays, coupled with less energy to address the rising business challenges. When I met Kelly, the apathy was seeping into their personal life. What was happening?
Work doesn’t replace BEING
Particularly when our jobs have significant responsibilities, as is the case with doctors, business, and community leaders of all kinds, we’re naturally focused on results and our work. We may notice that even when we're spending time with people we care about, we stay focused on the activity or the event instead of being PRESENT with our family and friends. This is one of the five key areas that prevent burnout and at LARASAH we call this Stress Support.
Stress Support includes the activities we do to replenish after a stressful day. They activate the parasympathetic nervous system and pull us out of fight or flight mode. The ones that work best for us are unique. Some of us need more connection, and some of us need to practice our stress support in solitude. As employers, we need to encourage staff to have time to end their workday and continue the rest of their lives so they can connect with their family, friends, community, and THEMSELVES.
In our Integrated Leadership Coaching program, we talk about the fact that people don’t’ do what we tell them to do, they do what they see us do. If you’re a leader, you’re always leading by example, either intentionally or by default. What do you do outside of work for fun? What activities do you do only for joy and not for a result? Do you have any friends outside of your industry? I know these can be tough questions, especially when we lead busy lives. The aim is not to add more to your to-do list, but to provide you with a prompt to connect with yourself and ask: What do YOU need or desire?
Try this practical exercise: The next time a meeting gets canceled, notice your reflexes. Do you rush back to the last task you were working on? Do you attack the next item on your to-do list? These are honorable responses, yet for a change, instead of following your reflexes, pause and ask yourself: “What do I need right now?” It might surprise you what comes to light. It could be that you need a glass of water, to move your body, check in with a colleague, friend, or loved one. Or maybe it is to work on that assignment you’ve been having a hard time fitting in. Receive the PAUSE as an opportunity.
What tip from above are you ready to start implementing? In which area would you like to dive deeper? The support doesn't stop here. I will be hosting a FREE Live Event on October 26th where we will dive deeper into these tips and go into detail about boundaries, how to set them at work, and how to have a difficult conversation with your boss!
I hope you’ll join us for this interactive presentation and Q&A. I guarantee you will walk away with actionable tips and strategies for preventing burnout practically and sustainably.
Click HERE to register for: Reducing Burnout & Stress in the Workplace: Live Q&A with Lara Park Menning
Lara Park Menning, CEO & Founder of LARASAH
P.S. Are you one of those individuals still adjusting to returning to the office? Check out our previous article 'Return to the Office: Dread or Alive?'
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
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