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Why self-care is not the right cure for workplace burnout during the pandemic

February 17, 2021   by David Gambrill

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Self-care strategies such as meditation, yoga, eating properly, and exercising are not the right tools for preventing workplace burnout during the pandemic, says Jennifer Moss, a journalist, researcher, and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and the Burnout Epidemic.

“Self-care isn’t the cure for burnout,” Moss said during an interview Wednesday on the LinkedIn News Live show, The Burnout Episode: How to Avoid it and How to Fix It.

“I want to be really clear that self-care is an important part of our lives, and we should be walking 20 minutes a day, and we should be practicing good sleep habits and exercise. But it is not the prevention tool for burnout. Burnout is happening way further upstream in the workplace.

“I feel very frustrated with organizations that suggest that we’re supposed to deliver an app to people that will cure their burnout, and that’s part of their well-being strategy. We need to separate well-being strategies from burnout prevention strategies. That means not being tone-deaf when someone is overworked and feeling undervalued; or [when managers hear about] systemic [barriers confronting] women in the labour force; [or when] there is a lack of diversity and inclusion. You can’t solve that by listening to rain for 30 seconds.”

Root Causes of Burnout

Instead of placing the onus on the individual employee to do what it takes to feel better, employers should take steps to address the Top 6 root causes of workplace burnout, Moss suggested. They are:

  1. Unsustainable workloads
  2. Perceived lack of control (employees feel like they are stuck in their roles; or that they have no input into the company’s deadlines, strategic goals, or project timelines)
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supporting community
  5. Lack of fairness (for example, systemic inequities affecting women and racial minorities)
  6. Mismatched values and skills (i.e. overqualified workers who feel lucky to have a job at all during the economic recession linked to the pandemic)

The World Health Organization has defined workplace burnout as a failure to manage the stress caused by the root causes listed above. These root causes have been around for years before COVID-19, but the pandemic made the situation worse, as Moss observed. She conducted a recent study of 1,500 employees in 46 countries around the world: Only 2% reported their well-being as “excellent” right now. In fact, only 20% said their well-being was even “good.”

Eighty-nine percent reported that their well-being was worse since the onset of the pandemic.

“[The pandemic in 2020] exacerbated some really bad, unsolved problems that were occurring in the workforce that hadn’t been addressed, and then just lit a match to what I would say was a workforce in drought,” Moss said. “And it caused a real ripple effect that was quite traumatic, and it’s been pretty painful, actually, and a lot of people are feeling burnt out from it.”

The stress related to working from home during the pandemic has only added to the traditional workplace stressors, Moss said.

“It’s interesting that we look at this time as work-from-home experience, and yet it’s nothing like a true work-from-home experience,” she said. “I used to work from home pre-COVID, pre-lockdown, and I had a quiet house. I didn’t have three kids. I wasn’t managing their education. I wasn’t exhausted in dealing with chronic stress and fatigue and brain fog. So, the experience of working from home can’t really be compared to what we’re experiencing right now.”

Employers who turn a blind eye to these additional stresses caused by the pandemic may be inadvertently contributing to their employees’ perceived lack of control and sense of disengagement, Moss suggested.

“What I saw as a problem in a lot of organizations [during the pandemic in 2020] is that they were continuing to say, ‘It’s business as usual,’ or acting as if it’s business as usual. They were paying lip service to, ‘Yes, there is a pandemic going on, but I still want you to meet those same pre-COVID goals.’ It just made people feel a loss of self-efficacy. Their ability to accomplish goals was lost because they just couldn’t get there with all of this stress.”

Moss said her research also shows increased job demands. For example, people who had mastered their jobs now had to re-learn how to do them from home — sometimes using different technologies than the ones with which they were familiar. As a result, the pandemic added 48 minutes onto the typical working day, Moss said.

What to Do

One of the root causes of burnout is a lack of community, Moss observed. The answer is for workplace managers, peers and colleagues to check in more often with people who are at most risk of burnout.

Managers need to be trained one-on-one in how to detect signs of burnout, and what company resources exist to help those who are feeling unwell.

“How many leaders have actually taken a one-on-one mental health course?” Moss said. “How many people have actually gone to their HR person and said, ‘How do I have a conversation about mental health? Do I know what my resources are?’”

Moss noted that in an interview she did with someone in a hospital setting, one doctor who was trained in mental health issues would don a purple scrub, so everyone on the floor knew who they could approach if they had a mental health issue.

Make a manager “don the proverbial scrub,” Moss advised. “Make them known to all employees and team members, so they know who they can reach out to if they really need support.”


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2 Comments » for Why self-care is not the right cure for workplace burnout during the pandemic
  1. Anonymous says:

    This is the most fantastic article I have read in a very long time, and hits all of the key notes about working from home. Even us single people are having a difficult time with this new work arrangement and have had to adjust significantly. More is expected from us because we don’t have kids, and because we do not have a spouse, which is bias in my mind. I used to be out of the house daily seeing clients, and am now in my own personal call centre hell. 10 hours a day on a laptop is definitely hurting my body, and my mind.

  2. Arden urbano says:

    The doctors calling the shots put a stress on only one component “death” when dealing with employee disengagement and my teen not attending high school. The unmotivation the daily yelling matches and streams of friends. Drugs and alcohol. I’m at my limit and we still have the summer ahead of us. What about that? School is a joke. My blood pressure is way up. And my once good teen is a mess. What about that medical people. Doesn’t count. Only death. None of the fall out from protecting the masses you think you did the right thing and you didn’t. You left education to parents. It’s a joke and it could have e been better. Much better. I’ve had it I want to sell my house and never work again after this. And I’ve never hated my teen until this past year. All this fall out and no help anywhere.

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