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The Never-Ending Cycle of Burnout

Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I lift my arm.

Doctor: Ok, stop lifting your arm. See me again in 90 days to discuss progress.


Burnout as a concept has been around for half a century and describes the physical and emotional exhaustion you feel when working in high-stress environments. It's also likely that you are familiar with burnout and have heard about it many times. You probably already know that people with burnout have less job satisfaction and motivation, often resulting in reduced performance. You're probably aware that burnout leads to increased absenteeism and turnover, which in turn lead to higher recruitment and training costs for organizations. You've probably seen the impact of burnout and how it can contribute to workplace conflicts and decreased team cohesion.


An image of an unlit match with the words, "What we measure is what we optimize and incentivize for. If productivity and results are what matter, even over employee health, stop creating cognitive dissonance for employees with virtuous signaling about values that aren't consistently upheld or are likely to be sacrificed for profit. Your intentions don't matter, your impact does."

So if everyone knows how burnout hurts peoples' well-being and organizations' productivity, if the root causes of burnout are understood, if coping mechanisms exist like leveraging PTO, mental healthcare benefits, and flexible scheduling, then why does it keep happening to people?


Is it possible that we are addressing the symptoms of burnout and helping people recover without addressing the root cause, effectively setting up a never-ending cycle where people phase in and out of burnout?


I've observed two commonly held beliefs that I hypothesize are leading us to this reactive state. One belief is that burnout is caused by an individual's reactions to situations, putting the responsibility on the person to remedy the situation. The other belief is that it is either too difficult or undesirable to significantly change or reject the broader conditions that lead to burnout because of external constraints, the pace of life, capitalism, blah blah, insert your reason here.


As a result, many companies don't address it systemically and put the impetus for (re)action onto managers and individuals. That's not to say that there aren't compassionate and caring folks in leadership at these companies. They invest time and resources to provide coping mechanisms and guidance, but ultimately the risk of burnout is accepted as part of the cost of doing business.

 

At the individual level, employees may be encouraged to participate in stress management programs, resilience and leadership training, and workshops on work-life balance. These initiatives can equip employees with skills and resources needed to recognize and cope with job-related stressors effectively. Again, this assumes that environments where burnout can flourish is an accepted status quo and it's up to each of us to heighten our own awareness of the symptoms and build the muscles to just deal with it.


It's not that companies aren't trying. At the org-level, interventions often focus on improving workplace culture, policies, and practices to create a supportive and conducive environment for employee well-being. The problem is that these are rarely enforced in a data-driven, consistent way and are often undermined by high-level expectations driving performance, productivity, and profit.


In practice, this often looks like providing managers with training and then expecting them to reduce the factors that lead to employee burnout while simultaneously driving outcomes towards incentivized department or org-level goals that are exacerbating burnout. It's ridiculous and a great way to burn out managers.


So, what's to be done? This is something that needs to start at the top and trickle down. That looks like leading with goals, metrics, and expectations that encourage not only business value, but also align with internal company values. Yeah, I know, everyone thinks they're doing that already and that's often the problem.


What we measure is what we optimize and incentivize for, so it's critical to invest time with first principles thinking and align each metric and goal to what really matters to the business. For some companies, that will mean adjusting goals and metrics, resetting expectations and adjusting actions to match messaging.


Other companies may realize that productivity and results are what matter, even over employee health, and they should stop creating cognitive dissonance for employees with virtuous signaling about values that aren't consistently upheld or are likely to be sacrificed for profit. Because the message we give individuals applies to businesses as well: your intentions aren't what matters, your impact is.


For that latter group, it's ok. A company can still be mission-driven and do good work for customers, communities, and shareholders without values-washed messaging. Lots of skilled people will continue to work for these companies, because they believe in what the company is doing broadly or because of other motivating reasons. The key difference is that they'll have a clearer idea of what they're getting into and will be better equipped to show up with the appropriate coping mechanisms to care for their physical, mental, and emotional health while delivering the business outcomes these companies are looking for.


Values-washing, without genuine and consistent commitment, is insidious. It's rarely intentional, but it still deceives people, undermines trust, dilutes genuine action, and perpetuates cynicism and burnout. Ultimately, it commodifies principles, turning something meaningful into a recruitment or marketing tool. If that sounds gross to you, take a deep look at what you're incentivizing as a leader and then take action.


If you're a worker in an environment that's conducive to burnout and are looking for coping mechanisms, we'll talk about those tactics next week.



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