Why Has Burnout Become So Common?
Burnout has never been more rampant, and it is no surprise, as we will explore in this article.
One recent study suggested that 76% of U.S. workers report feelings of burnout.
The COVID-19 only aggravated the situation, as many tried to work from home while juggling family responsibilities, lack of structure, and multiple distractions.
But burnout is nothing new. Please read my article from last week that talks about the history of burnout to see it has been around quite a while, pre-COVID.
Americans spend 1/3 of their life at work, about 7.7 hours, according to this survey. A UK reports show that office workers spend up to 75% of that time sitting down. Excessive sitting has been dubbed as “the new smoking.” Work stress combined with excessive sitting may be the perfect recipe for burnout or other serious health problems.
While certain personality types and professions are at higher risk, the facts are that the work environment and work conditions play the biggest role. So when we look towards burnout solutions, it is not as much a problem with the individual creating a healthy workplace environment and working conditions while providing adequate support for workers. Let’s look at five solutions employers can implement to get a handle on burnout once and for:
1/ Banish Unhealthy Workaholic Cultures
The USA is the only country among developed countries that doesn’t require employers to provide any paid time off for caregiving or illness, and doesn’t have any paid holidays nor paid vacation time legally required by law.
Work ethic is the backbone of America and deeply engrained in the culture. Combine that with our obsession with success and financial wealth, and it is easy to see why Americans are workaholics, taking as little as ten days off per year, if at all. Some can’t even afford that, as only full-time workers may receive paid benefits, whereas temp workers, consultants, and many part-timers receive zero days. This is compared to other industrialized countries where 25–30 days of paid vacation days are the norm, in addition to paid leave and holidays. It is no surprise that, internationally, America is called the“no-vacation nation.” What is the price for this?
Not getting paid during leaves combined with the stigma of taking time off for fear of putting one’s career in jeopardy has resulted in depressed, unhappy, anxious, unhealthy workers. This, in turn, leads to low productivity, a higher rate of illness, and more costs for the employers in the long term over just giving people more time off regularly to rest. In short, people are exhausted.
Some Ideas to Implement:
- More paid PTO and flexible work policies from the top down so that management models time off and allows people work from home if they prefer to
- Give employees and full-time contractors regular paid wellness days in addition to PTO
- Implement a no-weekend-work policy or no after-hours emails. In France, it is even illegal.
- Have a no eating at one’s desk policy in the office
- Consider a four-day workweek, as many countries worldwide are
- Bring in consultants to educate employees about the importance of breaks, rest, vacation, work-life balance, healthy nutrition and exercise, and more
- Encourage employees openly to rest, leave on time, and take breaks
- Educate leaders about the dangers of burnout
I had the pleasure a couple of months ago of interviewing Davida Ginter, founder of EnKindle Global and author of Burning Out Won’t Get You There, for my podcast, and one thing she said stuck with me: “It is important for us as a team, as an organization, to recognize that work is not more important than humans or than our basic needs.”
2/ Complete Overhaul of Corporate Wellness Programs
Despite a sharp increase in the money individuals personally spend on health-related products and a general decline in smoking, since 2014, American life expectancy has been on the decline. Some alarming causes of death listed that are much higher than in other developed nations are obesity, homicides, suicide, opioid overdoses, poverty, and unequal access to healthcare.
Although statistics report that approximately half of all companies in the U.S. have wellness policies, they are far from comprehensive, if I dare say, even efficient at all.
- Write the company core values with employee health, well-being, and professional development in mind as a top priority
- Assign Head of HR the official responsibility to oversee that this value is upheld or, depending on company size, hire a Chief Wellness Officer
- Allocate generous annual budgets towards bringing in experts to train, coach, and educate employees in various areas of employee health, well-being, and professional development
- Give each full-time employee and 40-hour contractor bonus funds to employee health, well-being, and professional development
- Create Company-Wide Surveys and Focus Groups to Gather Feedback to Better Design the Programs People Need
- Better health benefits overall, including properly classifying 40-hour contractors as employees and allocating health benefits to them as well
- More mental health support is available to all, not only for leadership
- Better benefits for caregiving
How companies choose to implement their wellness programs is up to them, but one thing is certain: right now, we are failing. The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey shows mental health is a major concern.
3/ Better Pay for Everyone (Not only the Executives and Shareholders)
Big or small, companies should invest in their people. With CEO salaries sometimes being as high as 300 times their average employee's salary, it seems our values are skewed. CEOs, executives, and shareholders carry the risk, so it is normal for them to reap the most benefits, but to what extent? If a company says they care about their employees, their actions should match.
Healthcare costs continue to rise at alarming rates, yet pay increases don’t match. It doesn’t seem normal that in a rich country, people should feel they can’t afford to visit the doctor when they are ill, bring a loved one to the emergency room, or more, due to outrageous bills, when companies have never been richer.
How does pay tie into burnout? Of course, it does when people are working to survive, not thrive. They are anxious, stressed, and spread thin because of money concerns. They can’t be productive if they are wrenched over medical bills or basic needs or even neglect going to see a doctor in the first place due to expense.
Take the example of Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments, who caused media waves when he raised his employees’ minimim pay to $70,000. While some companies thought he was crazy, it definitely showed where his values were.
4/ Stop Exploiting Contractors, Freelancers, and Immigrant Workers for Lower Pay, Fewer Benefits, and Higher Stress Jobs
I was consulting short-term at a big-name company in Silicon Valley when I happened to meet “Alisha.” We met in the bathroom. I could hear someone crying. She tried to be discrete, but you could clearly hear her sniffling. I gently knocked on the stall. “Are you ok?” I called. “I’m fine,” she replied with a voice that sounded anything but fine. “Should I seek out help?” I insisted. She swung open the stall door and looked alarmed. “No!” she nearly shouted. “I don’t want to get in any trouble here,” I suggested she come with me for a tea and to chat. I promised I wouldn’t report this. She agreed.
That’s how I found out she was a full-time contractor, rotating between two Silicon Valley giants for the past 6 years. This is a typical tactic since contractors have time restrictions. She was from India, wasn’t getting paid well, commuted over two hours daily each way since she couldn’t afford to live nearby, and had a newborn baby at home who her mother-in-law was watching. Without maternity leave, she was forced to return to work. She even had to pay for the birth since the contractor insurance barely covered anything.
Alisha was depressed, exhausted, and burned out. The baby, the commute, a boss who yelled at her, the high cost of living of California, the stress of worrying about her contract not being extended, and the low pay all were taking their toll. She cried almost every day at work in the bathroom. Her work performance was suffering, and she couldn’t concentrate for long. She didn’t want to talk to her manager, who she described as a tyrant. This was burnout. And Alisha wasn’t alone. The company I consulted out was full of contractors like her, and most of them glum, afraid to lose their job, and overworked. Contractors weren’t even allowed to attend office holiday parties (this was a benefit reserved for full-time employers).
Alisha belonged to Silicon Valley’s Shadow Workforce, which has to deal with even worse work conditions and less support, less pay, less of everything than full-time employees. In fact, contract workers outnumber full-time employees in many large companies.
Solution? Companies should shun the practice of giving full-time work to contractors to forgo benefits and fair salaries that the full-time employees enjoy. We live in a world of globalization, so in a fair labor market, talent from everywhere may be considered, but the treatment and working conditions should be equal. Just because they can do something doesn’t mean they should. CEOs need to balance morals with economic sense because this practice affects the well-being of everyone in the office.
5/ Increase Support Specifically for Those Who Need It Most (Before They Even Anticipate It)
In every profession or company, there will be subgroups who are at higher risk for burnout. For example, hospital staff in the emergency room are notorious for feeling the greatest strain. Reporters who have traveled to war zones may be more at risk for PTSD, depression, or burnout. In the corporate world, women report feeling more burned out than men and quit more during the pandemic. So while no one will ask for special treatment, employers can determine who may need additional support based on the data available to them and develop programs to accommodate them before it leads to burnout, for example, support groups and resources.
We are in a crisis. There is no denying this. People, now more than ever, need help. Companies have the means to fix it. Since individuals are spending most of their waking hours at their jobs, are dependant on salary and pay, and are subject to the (stressful or relaxed) work culture of their companies, it only makes sense for companies to take the lead in providing the support and solutions to prevent burnout.
In the meantime, while employees and workers wait for solutions, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a comprehensive list of burnout resources. Recognize the warning signs and symptoms, so you are prepared to take action should you find yourself or someone you care about nearing burnout before it is too late.
Hi! I am Krista Mollion and I run a weekly newsletter series called Take Back Mondays, where I help people love Mondays again. It has been twenty years since I entered the workforce, over which time I have worked both in larger SaaS companies and run a digital boutique agency. I have managed hundreds of people, both in-house and remotely, from multiple nationalities, ages, cultures, and languages. Today I work as a business coach to help people turn their skills and passions into online businesses. If you like this article, please consider subscribing to my personal mailing list here.