Many of us have been feeling emotionally drained, detached, or unmotivated at work, but we are not alone. A 2021 survey of 1,500 American workers by the employment website Indeed, revealed that 52% of workers feel burned out. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this modern workplace malaise into sharp relief: 67% of workers believe that the pandemic has worsened their burnout. Although workers of all ages and industries are affected, both women and younger people are particularly vulnerable to burnout. One study by the Auckland University of Technology found that workers under the age of 30 are 206% more likely to be burned out than other workers. Another study by YPulse in 2021 showed that 24% of millennial workers in Western Europe quit their jobs due to mental health concerns and 20% due to a lack of work/life balance. 72% of young Europeans say they’ve experienced work-related burnout. In fact, burnout can be qualified as a silent epidemic that threatens the physical, mental and spiritual health of millions of workers around the globe. In 2019, the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by chronic workplace stress that “has not been successfully managed”. More recently, in June 2022, the International Labour Organisation adopted a safe and healthy work environment as one of its five fundamental principles, which means that governments worldwide must now commit to promoting healthy and safe working environments for all.
So, how can one recognise the signs of burnout, what causes it, what can be done about it, and who is responsible for preventing it?
A common indication of burnout is feeling emotionally depleted, unmotivated, apathetic or cynical, especially when you previously felt very connected to your work. Feeling a reduced sense of professional efficacy, despite the amount of time and energy you invest in your job, is also a recurring theme in burnout. Be attentive to changes in sleeping patterns, such as insomnia, and symptoms cropping up or intensifying, such as tension headaches, as this is our body’s way of sending us an early warning sign that something is not right.
For those of us struggling with burnout, much of the advice online tends to centre on individual stress management strategies, as if burnout was an individual problem that can be fixed by practising mindfulness, exercising, or engaging in therapy. Although the wellness industry promotes individual solutions, burnout is an epidemic with structural causes within the neoliberal workplace. There are a myriad of causes of burnout, but all can be traced to unhealthy workplace norms, cultures, and working conditions.
Precarious work conditions, such as temporary work contracts and gig work that keep us in a constant state of financial insecurity and anxiety, are a leading cause. It is difficult to maintain good mental and physical health when we know our contract is due to expire, or that our contract may or may not be renewed. Unrealistic productivity expectations and a lack of autonomy/micro-management drains worker motivation and undermines one’s sense of agency and purpose at work. A less obvious cause of burnout resides in conflict between one’s personal values and the actual values of one’s workplace. Often, we find ourselves working for organisations that don’t live up to their mission statements, leading to feelings of chronic disillusionment and disappointment, as well as a sense that one is out of place or betraying one’s values. With the rise of remote working accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of us are spending our working days, alone, at home, in front of our screens the entire day… and into the night. Remote work makes it more difficult to disconnect from our jobs, and the lack of a physical workplace community can lead to feelings of chronic loneliness and a lack of connection to colleagues, both of which can feed burnout. Finally, it goes without saying that feeling unsupported or being bullied at work leads to acute feelings of isolation, distress and feelings of powerlessness, all of which in turn promote burnout. Favouritism or harassment kills both co-worker solidarity and psychological safety.
What action can we take?
Collective problems require collective solutions. And therein lies the difficulty of addressing burnout. While burnout has reached epidemic proportions, it is experienced individually, and often results in feelings of guilt and shame, as if we somehow failed as individuals, when in fact our workplace failed to promote a healthy and fair working environment. It is not uncommon for burned out workers to take sick leave or a leave of absence to recover from burnout. Except they return to work and fall right back into the same unhealthy workplace-induced patterns – and you guessed it, experience burnout again, often more severely. So while individual reflection and recovery will be vital, consider the following strategies for combating burnout:
1) If one exists in your industry, join a union. Unions can fight for better working conditions and life-work balance for all workers in your company or sector. It can be easier to achieve long-term policy and culture change working as part of a group. Local chapters of political parties may also campaign on burnout and other workplace justice issues. Start viewing burnout as a public health issue, akin to occupational health and safety, as opposed to an individualised stress management problem.
2) If your financial situation permits, start job-searching and, when possible, jump ship to another company, or even another job field, that takes life-work balance, and hence their employees’ health, seriously.
4) Set your own limits and communicate your needs. If the overall culture at your workplace is very demanding, make it clear that you will, for example, respond to work emails only during the workday, not in the evenings and on weekends. However, beware the trap of equating working from home with greater quality of life. Indeed´s 2021 survey found that virtual workers are working more hours from home than they were in the office, and feel that virtual working has worsened burnout and further blurred the line between work and non-work time.
5) If you are feeling marginalised, under-represented or lonely at work, employee affinity groups, whether formal or informal, can be a source of support and mentorship. We all need allies and supportive colleagues and management to thrive at work, as well as workplace cultures that actively promote equality and fairness for women, ethnic/racial minority workers, LGBTQ+, and disabled workers. If none exist where you work, you could consider setting up your own!
6) Finally, value yourself. We are worthy of respect and dignity in the workplace. Burnout robs us of this, but it is not inevitable; we deserve to feel safe and well at work. The more you value yourself, the less likely you are to accept working in an environment that tolerates or promotes burnout via its culture, practices and expectations.
Who is responsible for prevention?
We are not to blame for burnout. The responsibility for burnout lies with employers and governments to properly support their workers, model healthy behaviours, and enact and enforce policies that promote autonomy, well-being, and fairness within the workplace. This includes permanent work contracts with full social security benefits that provide financial security and peace of mind to workers. Rethinking current workplace norms, such as the five-day work week, can also transform workplace culture. Saint Paul University in Canada, for example, is currently trialling a four-day work week, with no change to pay, time off or pensions. In contrast to some other trials of the four-day work week that typically compress a 38-hour week into four days (such as those currently being undertaken in the UK), staff at Saint Paul University are currently working a 28-hour week. Emerging policies around menopause awareness and accommodation in the workplace, are also leading the way in preventing burnout particularly among women. Channel 4 in the UK was one of the first companies to adopt a company-wide menopause policy in 2019 that includes flexible working arrangements; paid leave for women experiencing menopausal symptoms; a cool, private and quiet space at work; a dedicated menopause champion and access to a range of resources and support. Another innovator is the global organisation Mozilla Foundation (with offices in Berlin, Paris, Toronto, San Francisco and Portland), which in 2021 instituted a company-wide paid “wellness week” for all employees during which the entire company shuts down.
While burnout can sink us into despondency and despair, it can also prove to be a great turning point in our lives. Saying no, prioritising our health, calling into question workplace norms, and fighting alongside others against precarious working conditions can all contribute to changing unhealthy workplace cultures and national laws that are failing workers.
Kathryn Lum is a lecturer, researcher, gender/LGBT equality trainer and writer currently based in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Kathryn is active as a feminist activist both locally and internationally, works to combat period poverty through the organisation Sobre Nós, and is the coordinator of a community action project that uses interactive workshops to promote LBGTQ inclusion on university campuses.