Why business leaders need a 'wake-up call' to take burnout seriously right now, experts say

Despite what we're often told, burnout is not an individual's lack of self-care.

July 2, 2021, 6:00 AM

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, another health crisis has been lurking.

It affects people of all backgrounds and in some cases can have profound impacts on their health.

Burnout in the American workforce, which surveys indicate was a widespread problem even before the pandemic, is an issue that employers and managers can no longer afford to ignore as many companies contemplate return-to-office strategies and the future of work in general.

"This is a historic time; we've never been through anything like this. Our mental health and our physical health are really being taxed," Darcy Gruttadaro, the director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, told ABC News. "If there was ever a time to raise these issues, it's now."

"If you're experiencing burnout and you're trying to ignore it, that will eventually catch up with you," Gruttadaro warned.

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Burnout is also killing people, new data indicates. Last month, the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization said that working long hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29% increase since 2000. In a statement accompanying the study, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus linked the COVID-19 pandemic to "blurring the boundaries between home and work," which resulted in longer hours for many -- and thus a higher risk of premature death.

And if that isn't enough for business leaders to take action, experts note that burnout is also linked to plummeting productivity, poor retention and other factors that can impact a company's bottom line.

Data shows that pandemic-battered workers are now leaving their jobs at some of the highest rates ever. The share of workers who left their jobs in April was 2.7%, marking the highest "quits rate" since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records, according to data released by the agency earlier this month.

Here is what experts say defines burnout, why it's been exacerbated by the pandemic, and what can be done to address it.

What burnout is and why it's been magnified by the pandemic

While the term has been used colloquially for decades, the World Health Organization used three factors -- energy depletion or exhaustion, distance or cynicism to one's job and reduced professional efficacy -- to define burnout as an occupational phenomenon for the first time in 2019. It is not classified as a medical condition.

"Burnout is when an individual is experiencing high levels of stress -- and usually a person becomes cynical and kind of distant from their job. They just really are not feeling good about their job at all," Gruttadaro said. "And then the third big area is their efficiency or their ability to perform their job really drops."

It does not just have to do with workload, however, but also whether there is a sense of fairness in the workplace and the amount of control workers have over their tasks. While the self-help industry and employers may place the blame on the individual, experts say it usually has more to do with the workplace than a specific employee.

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High levels of stress associated with burnout can manifest in people experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use, heart disease, obesity and a number of other illnesses, according to Gruttadaro.

Reports of depression and anxiety amid the pandemic have spiked significantly, she added, and overdose deaths have also soared -- likely showing that many are turning to substance use in high numbers.

The pandemic has been linked to higher rates of burnout for both essential workers and white-collar office workers, many of whom had the privilege of continuing their jobs remotely.

For essential workers, the pandemic brought a myriad of new and chronic stressors related to trying to stay healthy and safe while working on site or getting to and from work, as well as many new restrictions and changes outside of their control at work.

For those who have been working remotely, many reported working longer hours -- marked by days spent eating lunch at their desks or working through the time they would have spent commuting. As a shift to remote work blurred the boundaries between being on and off the clock, some data indicates work productivity actually ticked up during the health crisis.

New caregiving responsibilities as schools and day cares shuttered throughout the past year also disproportionately impacted mothers, leading to an alarming exodus of women in the workforce -- many of whom cited "burnout" as the reason for leaving or downshifting their careers, one study found.

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"Burnout is essentially saying there's something not healthy, or not fair, in a lot of different places," Christina Maslach, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and a core researcher at the school's Healthy Workplaces Center, told ABC News. Maslach noted a feeling of unfairness -- in pay, treatment and work assignments -- within the workplace is especially linked to burnout.

That sense of unfairness can lead to negative feelings and cynicism toward your work, which often means "that people, in trying to cope with that, are doing the bare minimum rather than their very best," Maslach added.

Maslach pioneered research on burnout, creating the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a research measure that was a key contributor to the WHO's later work on burnout.

While there is a common fallacy that burnout and stress is a personal weakness or flaw, Maslach said it usually has to do with an unhealthy work environment rather than an individual not being able to take care of themself.

"It's rarely something that affects an individual alone; it's not just about workload," she added. "It's about how much control that you have and it's also affected by the extent to which you get recognized and rewarded for doing good things as opposed to 'a good day is a day when nothing bad happens.'"

What can be done to address burnout

Maslach warned that many of the solutions to burnout touted by the self-care industry and beyond deal more with coping rather than prevention, and sustainable solutions would require overhauls that tend to be very job-specific but address the root causes of what makes a workplace stressful and exhausting.

"It's analogous to the canary in the coal mine," Maslach said. "When the canary goes down in the coal mine and is having trouble breathing, and not surviving and not doing well, you don't worry about how to make the canary stronger and tougher; you say what's going wrong in the mine? Why are the fumes getting so toxic that a community can't survive?"

Gruttadaro said that one thing employers can certainly do, however, is recognize that leadership matters with regards to burnout.

"Leadership sets the culture and organization," she said, which is why it is so critical to make sure that "managers and leaders are modeling good behavior and not sending emails very late at night, not sending weekend emails all the time."

Effective communication between managers and workers is also key, Gruttadaro said, such as having check-ins where workers can feel comfortable voicing their concerns to their managers and not just through human resources departments.

Microsoft’s annual 2021 Work Trend Index report warned that business leaders are "out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call." The report found high levels of overwork and exhaustion among employees, but a major disconnect compared to managers. Some 61% of business leaders say they are "thriving" -- 23 percentage points higher than those without decision-making authority.

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At the individual level, Gruttadaro recommended doing what you can control -- such as "setting healthy boundaries" -- and if you're working remotely to try and mimic the hours you would do if you were still going into the office.

When it comes specifically to dealing with stress management, Gruttadaro emphasized that exercise and sleep are essential, as well as engaging with activities that you enjoy.

"There are likely to be higher incidence of burnout at jobs in which people don't have as much control over the activities they do during the day as part of their job," Gruttadaro added. "So the more that employers offer opportunities for people to find meaning and purpose in their work, and really feel like they're making a difference and they have some control and there's a certain level of fairness associated with the way they're treated during the day -- these are all elements of a healthier work environment."

Some companies, including Bumble, LinkedIn, and Hootsuite, have responded to post-pandemic burnout recently by giving all staff an entire week off.

Maslach added that the present time provides the ideal opportunity for organizations to get creative with solutions that aren't just treating the symptoms of burnout but creating a work environment that people actually want to be a part of.

"The changes in the pandemic I think underscored an important bottom line, which is the importance of a healthy workplace," she said. "We have to rethink what makes for healthier environments in which people can do productive, meaningful and valuable kind of work."

"And if anything, the pandemic is pointing out you could do things differently," Maslach said. "Let's get creative, let's rethink this."

"It may not be the 'same old, same old' going back to normal workplaces," she said. "How do we learn from this and figure out better ways of doing what we do?"

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