"The Cause of Worker Burnout Isn't the Pandemic... It's Being Chronically Overworked."

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash
Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

Burnout is a thing and it dates back to way before the pandemic hit the world. The Covid-19 pandemic, in fact, served as a catalyst to dismantle “the burnout culture.”

 

 

What many people believed was caused by the lockdown and the work-from-home lifestyle, had actually been a reality for workers for quite a while. That’s because the real cause of worker burnout isn’t the pandemic. The problem is overworking, and workplace cultures that support, expect, and demand it of their personnel.

But what is burnout?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Photo by Kristin Wilson on Unsplash
Photo by Kristin Wilson on Unsplash

In other words, if you’re constantly tired, mentally and physically exhausted, lack motivation, are overworked, stressed, anxious, have insomnia, have little to no work-life balance, and it feels like you have no energy to do things besides work, all of these items are indicators of burnout. Perhaps you’re resorting to substances like drugs and alcohol to feel better; then you might just be experiencing burnout.

 

Burnout isn’t a buzzword, and it is unfortunately on the rise. If you identified with one of the symptoms above it means you might be on the verge of getting burnt out -- or perhaps you are already and don’t yet know it.

 

However, it’s not just you. Indeed, a job aggregator website shared some data about worker burnout:

  • 43% of employees reported experiencing burnout pre-pandemic
  • 52% of employees said the same in 2021.
  • 59% of Millennials are affected by burnout; Gen-Z is right behind them with 58%

 

Am I Burned Out? Really?

Burnout is one of those things many people think will never happen to them. I was certainly one of these people. I’ve been practicing yoga for over six years and meditation over the last four. I thought I’d had a well-structured self-care routine in place and that my wellness practices would hold everything together.

 

But like many other conditions, burnout is sneaky and silent. Some symptoms might manifest early on, but for stubborn people out there like me, we may feel that turning a blind eye is easier than facing the reality. Symptoms manifest physically or mentally, as both are the body’s way to communicate with us that there’s something wrong and that we can no longer ignore the fact that we're experiencing burnout.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash
Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

You can’t ignore the reality of burnout because at some point you simply can’t work properly, you can’t sustain focus or be as productive as you used to be. While burnt out, even trying as hard as you can won’t make it possible for you to be able to think straight. You know when you are burnt out as all of your efforts result in frustrated outcomes.

 

Do not ignore the signs if you feel like you might be in the beginning stages of burnout. First of all, talk to someone you trust -- it could be a close friend, your spouse, or a family member. That said, be mindful that many people don’t know how to handle someone else’s challenging condition, especially when it comes to mental health challenges. However, remember that it’s not their lack of empathy; they simply may not have the capacity or the proper training to do so.

 

I remember when I spoke candidly with a couple of friends about my burnout suspicion, which resulted partially due to overwork and alcohol abuse -- and they said that it was no big deal, and that I should come over to the pub that night and drink my problems away… Wait, what?

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

My friends love me dearly, and they say such things because it’s what they know as supposedly helpful. As I mentioned previously, it’s not a lack of their empathy; it’s a lack of their knowledge as to what would be truly helpful in response to burnout. But if alcohol is often part of the problem - one of the root causes of our burnout - how can we possibly see it as part of the solution?

 

The actual solution however, isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix. What worked for me might work for you, but it may not.

 

Why Work-life Balance Isn’t Enough

Jennifer Moss, the author of the book Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It said, "Self-care is not the silver bullet solution for burnout."

 

Moss believes that giving a week off to employees, implementing corporate wellness programs that provide a yoga class a week, or paying the worker’s gym membership simply isn’t enough.

 

All these things are great to a certain extent. They could be considered band-aid perks. For instance, if someone takes a week off because they’re presenting burnout symptoms due to overwork, the same amount of work is waiting for them when they come back. How can this solution be effective if they return to the overwhelming work volume that got them burnt out in the first place? Does it really make sense?

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash
Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

However, there isn’t a recipe for the perfect work-life balance because this varies from individual to individual, circumstances to circumstances, and so on. The book’s author suggests, in this case, to employ more effective support strategies for currently unmanageable workloads.

 

Mental Health Must Be Taken Seriously

The pandemic itself had caused a lot of anxiety throughout the world in general. The WFH lifestyle is likely to be the new norm for most companies; even for those advocating for hybrid models. Companies are disrupting the old way of working, and because we’re talking about human beings, when we consider people as just “workers” and forget about their humanness, we’re playing with fire.

 

Mental health at the workplace historically has been a well-known topic rather than merely a millennial buzzword. But just like my friends who recommended me to drink when I was having a problem with alcohol, companies don’t know or don’t want to deal with the elephant in the room.

 

This creates a stigma that the LA Times calls the “unspoken agreement.” Some experts posit that many employers are unwilling to engage with the interior lives of their workers. The code of silence separates the worker from the human, which ultimately increases the chances of burnout, anxiety, stress, depression, etc.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Some companies expect their employees to work longer hours because they do not need to commute to work, or there’s also a growing and constant pressure to stay online or reply to emails quickly.

 

As discussed on our Mindful Work Blog, work-life balance is hard to achieve mainly because having both domains of our life in the same place (at home) is extremely exhausting. Adding the stress of a lingering deadly virus, and the chances of burnout surely escalate.

 

We’ve known that a so-called “personal” issue may impact someone’s ability to be productive at work, and that’s why we should not put our professional and personal life in separate boxes. Fortunately, some companies recognize this, as it’s in their own best interest to take care of their employees as people and to leave the outdated code of silence behind.

 

Joe Grasso, a clinical psychologist at Lyra told the LA Times that burnout affects the company in many ways, including the company culture: “Ultimately it erodes your work culture because you have employees that are probably demotivated,” he said. “They are not able to function well and communicate with their colleagues. They’re consumed by their distress."

 

The pandemic has started to chip away many biases, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. As we cross the threshold of a paradigm shift amidst a pandemic, companies should bear in mind employees’ mental health before welcoming their workers back to the office -- or even those who choose and are able to continue working remotely.

 

Companies preparing for the physical presence of their workers should know that the workplace is no longer about computers, desks, copy machines, coffee machines, and cubicles. We now know that the workplace is about people -- whether you’re working from home or back in the office.

 

We Must Change How We Approach Mental Health

I can’t stress this enough -- mental health should be prioritized at a much higher level than it currently finds itself in most businesses. That requires dramatic changes in the way many business leaders see mental health in the workplace.

 

Mental health and workers’ well-being should be part of a company’s investment. And the time to do it is now.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Even if many businesses continue to ignore the mental health of their employees, several will be pushed to do so as young workers entering the workplace, like Gen Z, are more prone to leave a company if they think it does not align with their values and goals.

 

Young workers are much more concerned about supporting a cause than just a fat paycheck or working for businesses that are solely focused on their own agenda. A research conducted by the World Economic Forum showed that Gen Z desires business leaders and companies focused on the well-being of society and those creating a positive impact in the world.

 

Younger workers are vocal about the reprioritization of both mental health and wellness as critical pillars of a positive employee experience.

 

In other words, if a business doesn’t care about their employees’ most important asset -- their health -- they’re more likely to see a higher turnover among younger workers and workers of the future. And Gen Z is much more assertive in addressing issues than their older counterparts.

 

Create Your Own Recipe

When I was on the verge of burning out, I knew something was wrong. As soon as I realized I had checked all the boxes in the symptoms list, I knew I had to do something. I didn’t know what to do, but I just knew two things: I needed to change and to get help doing so.

 

Change and getting help are hard things for most people, so it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash
Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash

Changing things meant I had to do things differently in my life because the way I was doing them clearly wasn’t working-- so I had to create new habits, ditch negative ones, and identify energy drainers.

 

In a nutshell, first become aware of the problem and then do something about it. After I had identified the root cause of my burnout -- overwork, zero work-life balance, and drinking too much -- my next step was to get help.

 

I called a psychologist friend of mine and they recommended that I start therapy as soon as possible. Therapy isn’t an overnight solution, so I applied some changes in my life like getting sober, limiting work to 5pm most days, eating healthier, and earlier bedtimes. In no time I started to see improvements. I also increased my daily meditation practice from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.

 

Whether you’re suffering from burnout, anxiety, stress, overwork, or any other issue, the first thing you should do is be honest with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re going through some tough times and that you might need to seek help.

 

Do what works best for you and be patient with yourself. Recovery can be a slow process at times.

 

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Camila Santiago is a content writer and strategist specializing in health and corporate wellness, including extensive experience writing SEO-friendly content. She writes, edits and proof-reads content on wellness topics spanning physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and does so for organizations aiming to improve overall employee wellbeing and professional excellence.


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