Burnout Is Back in a Big Way — Here’s Why

 The concept of "burnout" entered the corporate lexicon fifty years ago when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first identified it. Unfortunately, burnout is now making a strong comeback. Recent data from Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence reveals that about half of workers feel exhausted or stressed, and 60% would consider changing jobs for better well-being provisions. This challenges the assumption that current corporate wellness programs are sufficient. 

One of the main reasons for burnout's resurgence is the toxic workplace. It's no coincidence that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most streamed show in the US was "The Office," which satirized the daily grind. Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach emphasizes the importance of addressing stress in the workplace itself, as work is where we spend most of our time and seek connection, contribution, stimulation, and engagement. When work lacks personal recognition or stimulation, it leads to dissatisfaction and ennui.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" in 2019, linking it to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. In other words, poorly managed or excessively demanding work leads to illness and reduced productivity. Workplace culture expert Bruce Daisley argues that the idea of "resilience" places unfair emphasis on individuals to endure challenging experiences in dysfunctional workplaces. Resilience should not be solely relied upon to combat burnout.

Another significant factor contributing to burnout is the impact of long COVID, which affects both employees and employers. Long COVID has had devastating effects on mental and physical health, both at home and in the workplace. The Brookings Institute reports that 16 million working-age Americans have experienced long COVID, while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states that a third of workers worldwide experience strain at work. This has led to a substantial increase in work-related stress, depression, and anxiety globally.

The post-COVID-19 experience has highlighted the disparity between modern workplace well-being initiatives and the actual needs of employees. Despite the projected growth of the corporate wellness market, many associate it with superficial activities like mindfulness and creating aesthetically pleasing work environments, rather than addressing the root causes of poor well-being. It is important for modern workplace well-being to incorporate a deeper psychological emphasis, such as considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ACE score (adverse childhood experiences).

While there are positive initiatives being taken to improve workplace well-being, there is a need to rethink the traditional model of work. Syreeta Brown, Chief People Officer for Virgin Money, highlights the shift in nature of stress post-COVID, where all jobs now feel "always on" and stepping away from work can be seen as mutinous. Virgin Money has implemented a program called "A Life More Virgin," which emphasizes location-agnostic and flexible working hours that align with employees' needs and operational requirements.

In conclusion, addressing burnout and improving workplace well-being requires a broader framework that considers social well-being. Taking care of each other and ourselves in new ways for new times is crucial.   

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