Conversations about employee burnout are numerous, but as we’re collectively seeking to relieve the symptoms–exhaustion, depersonalization, lack of enthusiasm–we’re not actually addressing the root causes.
Burnout, we want to believe, can be fixed with a shorter work week, unlimited time off, mandatory time off, sabbaticals, wellness benefits, self-care, or a better work-life balance.
All of these remedies treat burnout as a problem of time: we don’t have enough of it so we need more breaks, more vacations, or less work. But there are deeper, culturally engrained, and largely invisible drivers of burnout that we need to talk about.
Burnout is a problem of artificial urgency.
Urgency is a choice.
Let’s be clear that we’re not talking about first responders here. We know threats and emergencies are urgent. Nor are we saying there shouldn’t be deadlines and high standards.
What we’re seeing, however, is a culture of urgency in organizations where there is no commensurate risk. We’re all moving at a breakneck pace, not because we actually need to be, but because we’ve set unattainable goals, haven’t clearly defined what is “enough” success, and have placed our value in speed, availability, and being needed.
We’ve said before that urgency undermines inclusion. When we rush, we make an outcome the priority over people. We devalue our humanity, which needs time, rest, and space, not only thoughtfulness and deliberation but just to be well.
Burnout is a problem of ceaseless productivity.
Our mindset of prioritizing productivity is a choice. Measuring our worth by what we do/make/sell is a choice.
We can take all the time off we want, and we can even walk away from work for extended periods of time, but as long as we value our production over ourselves, there will always be burnout.
This is why a shorter workweek won’t solve the problem. We’ll be expected to produce just as much in fewer days and we’ll still be measured by our output. We may mean well when we introduce workplace benefits like free food, laundry services, car services, or gym memberships, but these are ways to get us to work more, not live better.
The ideology of productivity is about performing our value and reducing us to our output. Its roots lie in slavery–when we exploited and dehumanized people for their production value. We put a monetary value on their hours, their acres, and their very bodies. It’s not a stretch to say that our culture is in many ways designed for us to burn out–by turning our bodies into capital. We may have changed the laws but we have not yet changed our old values system.
Burnout is a problem of misaligned values.
Even with the “best” working conditions–salary, benefits, time off, etc., we burn out when we’re working out of alignment with our values. That could mean you don’t align with your company’s values, goals, purpose, or mission. You could still be doing great work, but if it’s not in keeping with what you value–whether that’s time, money, vulnerability, collaboration, justice, or climate action–your energy will be drained.
If we look honestly at the causes of employee burnout, we can begin to get curious about what people need. Maybe it’s autonomy over their work. Maybe it’s more collaboration and breaking out of silos. Maybe it’s less time pressure or more clarity about their role and responsibilities.
When we stop chasing the symptoms of burnout, we can begin addressing the root causes embedded in our culture by creating a new culture grounded in humanity and partnership.
We Always Have a Choice
It can be hard, sometimes nearly impossible to see, but in every situation, we have a choice.
In a job that feels unsustainable or misaligned with your values, you can choose the reason you continue to show up. It could be for stability while you search for something else. It could be so you can save and have more options in the near future.
It’s hard to see our own agency when we’re stuck.
Often, what we believe about the consequences of our choices is just that–a belief and not a truth.
Belief: If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.
Belief: If I disagree, I’ll be rejected.
Belief: If I don’t know the answer, I can’t lead.
Belief: I have to do this perfectly.
Belief: This can’t wait.
One of our most limiting beliefs is that we can’t say no. We believe that saying no is a kind of finality, that it will end our ability to make further choices. But no is a choice. After no, we choose what next and how. We choose what to say yes to instead.
Sometimes the no we choose or the no that happens to us is the only way to imagine what else is out there.When we say no we are also saying enough. Enough of my time, enough revenue, enough performance.
This is where we begin to address burnout. By saying we have enough and we are enough.