About This Episode
Today’s guest on Brilliant Thoughts, a SUCCESS magazine podcast, is Jennifer Moss, international speaker, journalist, and author of The Burnout Epidemic. She shares her insights about this chronic stress that millions of people across the US and the world seem to be suffering from, the repercussions it has on our daily lives, and how we can combat it.
What is Burnout?
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared “burnout” as a workplace phenomenon back in 2019, and recognizes it as a syndrome induced by chronic and unmanageable stress at work. In a study by WHO and ILO (International Labour Organization), they found that overwork is responsible for 750,000 deaths every year.
“It is catastrophic,” Jennifer says. “We need to take this term ‘burnout’ more seriously, but we kind of shrug it off.”
The mindset that “I can burn out, I love my job. When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” is not true, and is–quite literally–killing thousands of people worldwide.
A build-up of tiny triggers and microaggressions in the workplace that ends up becoming something too big to handle—that is burnout. Working too much, chronic stress, and constantly feeling underappreciated, undervalued, or jaded in little ways in the workplace build up to an unmanageable burnout that is hard to come back from. A bad case of burnout can lead to mental, psychological illness and even physical pain.
There are people who feel nauseated on Sunday night because they have to go to work Monday morning. Others experience physical manifestations of burnout as restless sleeping patterns, frequent headaches, loss of appetite, several gastrointestinal symptoms and illnesses, etc.
The signs of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, feeling distant from your job, and feeling like you're not good at what you’re doing anymore.
It is an occupational hazard
Modern leaders and entrepreneurs remind their staff to prioritize wellness and well-being, but often they are the worst at following their own advice, mantras, and rules. And sadly, a lot of employees working for big corporations, who have less control over their workload and work hours, are still suffering under company cultures that lead to burnout.
The first thing to understand is, burnout is a company culture problem. There is a lot of stigma towards people who dare to raise their hands and say, “I am burnt out and I need help.”
We saw this during the pandemic when healthcare workers were hit the hardest. They work long hours and are there on the frontlines, but when they start talking about taking time for themselves, they are labeled selfish.
“...there is an expectation that ‘You are doing work for the good of people. Your stakeholders are patients. It is a life or death situation,” Jennifer says. “We need to normalize these conversations [about burnout] and help people feel safe to put their hands up and say, ‘I think I am feeling symptoms of chronic stress and potentially burnout.’”
Leaders are starting to recognize its effects too. When the pandemic hit, the burnout that had been around for years prior to COVID and the stress of facing our mortality on a global and prolonged scale, contributed to the phenomenon they call “The Great Resignation.” Leaders are now taking notice because it isn’t just an “entitlement” issue of wanting work-life balance and raising mental health awareness; it has also become a bottom-line issue.
“Seeing more of that human-centered leadership would be nice, but when it becomes a bottom line issue, and we’re seeing this massive attrition—47 million US workers left the workforce in one calendar year—that wakes people up,” Jennifer shares. “I hear a lot of Uber drivers say they went into driving an Uber because they were burned out — the burnout epidemic gave rise to people going into the gig economy.”
Jennifer also adds, “They [leaders] need to realize that when 40-50% of their workforce turns over, we can’t keep telling people to ‘suck it up.’” Things have to change in the workplace.
Zoom burnout and the social media effect
One of the causes of burnout is inefficient time management. Meeting fatigue has been around for a long time, and it has been a huge time-suck even before the pandemic. And according to the latest Microsoft Trends Report for 2022, team meetings have increased by 252% just in the last year.
“Time theft is a big one… We don’t need to be collaborating that much,” Jennifer shares. “We need to think about how much time we’re wasting on inefficient tasks.”
In fact, a study by Dr. Jeremy Bailenson in 2021 at Stanford Media Lab dived deep into Zoom burnout or “Zoom Fatigue.” In that study, they found four big signs of burnout from video conferencing, and Jennifer shared two that stood out for her.
According to Dr. Bailenson, humans are constantly self-comparing. It happens a lot on social media, but the Zoom boom during the pandemic has caused a new phenomenon. When we are staring at ourselves on the screen too frequently, we begin to nitpick. In fact, statistics show that, alongside the Zoom boom, Botox sales went up 90%.
“It is an interesting kind of trickle-down economic impact from us staring at ourselves,” Jennifer shares.
Another observation from Dr. Bailenson’s study is the fact that the workforce is under a constant subconscious state of hyper-arousal all day, which causes a buildup of fatigue.
“I found hilarious what [Dr. Bailenson] said,” Jennifer added. “He said, the only time, in real life, when we would be this close up to people [the way we are during video conferences] is if we were fighting them, or mating them.”
It’s the same thing with social media. There have been a lot of studies on the impact of social media on mental health and self-esteem, and in Jennifer’s opinion, this adoption and constantly being on our phones is damaging.
She talked about perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity and compared perceptual curiosity to a “brain itch you want to scratch.”
“We do this with the media,” Jennifer says. “We hear the same thing over and over, but we feel like it is going to eventually solve all our problems and the news cycle will be positive—but that never happens.”
Epistemic curiosity, on the other hand, is “being curious for our own learning and enjoyment."
“Going to museums–which we stopped doing because we are burnt out–and having intellectual conversations with people, talking about books, reading something stimulating,” Jennifer enumerates some of the activities that people love doing for their own learning and satisfaction. When we let our perceptual curiosity take over our lives, we have no time and energy left to satisfy our epistemic curiosity–things that help us better ourselves, and things we enjoy.
That is why it is important to filter our media consumption and change the way we tackle collaboration.
Burnout from relationships
Burnout definitely happens at work, but we see similar symptoms happen in our personal relationships. The WHO definition of burnout as a workplace phenomenon is something that Jennifer and her peers are debating.
“Creating the definition, in one way, was helpful,” Jennifer shares, “because it pushed accountability onto institutions and not just individuals. But there’s something missing now from our vocabulary that can define what it feels [in our personal lives], particularly because work and life are so integrated now.”
Our social contracts at work have changed. Before, it was simply transactional, but now that we are reachable at home, through our phones, all day, the things we are experiencing at home are replicated at work. There’s no bifurcation. And the same expectations that we have in our relationships with the people we care about are similar to what we expect in the workplace.
Therefore, burnout in the workplace looks very similar to burnout in our relationships.
How do we deal with burnout?
Identification and labeling that feeling is a good first step, according to Jennifer. Normalizing conversations about burnout is also important as it helps people get the help they need to overcome chronic stress.
In some countries, like Sweden, burnout is treated as a medical condition, and they have protocols in place to help combat it.
Dealing with burnout is both an institutional and an individual responsibility. Certain protocols and programs need to be in place at the institutional level. But it also needs to be dealt with at an individual level.
During her interview with Dr. Marie Åsberg, a Swedish psychiatrist, Dr. Åsberg provided a beautiful metaphor to how people live their lives.
People try to jam pack their days with activities in the bid to be “productive” and plan out their schedules the same way you would write on paper: from edge-to-edge, without any space for margins. But we need those margins to make edits, take pauses, reevaluate, and adlib as needed.
Because life is full of interruptions to our best laid plans, and if you have no margins, you feel like you have lost control, and everything is derailed. To gain that feeling of control in the midst of uncertainty, we need to let go of some control over every minute of every day and have space to pivot and take care of ourselves.
Jennifer encourages people to take “Frivolous 15,” which is 15 minutes in your day when you can do activities of intentional rest and self-care. If you work remotely, having a separate space at home helps you separate work from “life,” but our minds need to have that space too. Taking a short walk, a “fake commute to work,” or changing your clothes after work are good examples of how to use this separation in our mental space.
Burnout is something we need to take seriously. And it takes a team effort to combat it.
Culture is a big factor, and we need a culture that is more open to discussing burnout as well as providing a safe space for people to seek help when they need it.
“A lot of people can’t work through this on their own,” Jennifer shares. “They need support. Sometimes it is peer support; you know, talking to a good friend. But sometimes, it might need to be a therapist or a professional in psychology."
According to Dr. Åsberg, it takes typically 18 months to two years of frequent and constant stress and burnout, before you hit a wall and it is hard to bounce back. It takes the same amount of time for rehabilitation with CBT and maybe pharmacological responses to really bounce back from burnout.
We need a mindshift, according to Jennifer, to not feel guilty about prioritizing ourselves and getting the rest we need, as it could be the most productive thing we can do for ourselves, our loved ones, and our careers.
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DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.