Reframing Burnout

Not only because it’s cited as one of the main causes of the Great Resignation, which may permanently reshape how we work, and not only because it’s widespread (can we ever use the metaphor of “epidemic” again?) across workplaces. We have to talk about burnout because we haven’t actually been talking about it this whole time.

A recent article in Refinery 29 made reference to an Atlantic article from 2014 in which physician and professor Richard Gunderman uses the novel Middlemarch to understand burnout in medical students. One of the main characters, a doctor, slowly but steadily abandons his youthful ideals of treating the poor and reforming medicine.

This character is an example of how burnout “at its deepest level is not the result of some train wreck of examinations, long call shifts, or poor clinical evaluations. It is the sum total of hundreds and thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice.”

It’s the word “betrayal” that stops us in our tracks.

Gunderman continues, “When a great ship steams across the ocean, even tiny ripples can accumulate over time, precipitating a dramatic shift in course.”

Burnout isn’t about overwork. Or stress. Or overscheduling. Or overwhelm. It’s the exhaustion and depletion that comes from betraying our values—once, twice, a thousand times.

But there’s another kind of betrayal that causes burnout, which we see frequently across organizations regardless of size or industry.

This betrayal causes devastating burnout, but we rarely talk about it.

It drives us into a cycle of stress-inducing behaviors.

And its antidote is both simple and deceptively hard.


A Betrayal of Connection

Humans are hardwired for meaningful connection, which means that we need to be seen, heard, valued, and included—everywhere, including at work. But at work, it’s not often our full selves that are valued; it’s just our work product, our productivity, our quarterly targets, or our billable hours.

When we can’t find connection with the people we work with, it’s a betrayal of a vital need. We’re cut off from an essential part of our humanity and our capacity to thrive.


Betrayal Lives in Behavior

How do we see burnout in organizations? It’s less about how much work people are doing, and more about how people are doing their work. And how people do their work is a function of the organization’s culture.

Essentially, people are seeking meaningful connections, and when connection is unavailable, they will try other ways to connect—it’s often these coping mechanisms that trap employees in a cycle of burnout.

Here are some examples of ways that you can tell an employee’s need for connection is being betrayed.

Acting out of fear and scarcity. When people have no psychological safety at work, they can’t take risks, tell hard truths, make mistakes, learn, or grow. If they’re constantly worried about losing their job and have no security in their value, they will make decisions that guarantee their safety over helping others, contributing to a team, or benefitting the organization.

Constantly trying to prove their worth. When you’re not sure of your value, you’ll fight to get it however you can. Sometimes that looks like taking on too much work (often other people’s), failing to set healthy boundaries, neglecting rest and self-care—basically doing anything to receive much-needed acknowledgment and validation.

Displaying hypervigilance. In other words, being constantly alert for danger—disapproval, reprimand, punishment, shaming, exclusion. Hypervigilance makes a person incapable of relaxing, enjoying their work, or being imaginative or creative because that would require feeling safe and disarmed. Instead, a hypervigilant employee is always thinking about the worst-case scenario, hoarding power and resources, anxiously micromanaging, and hiding anything unpleasant or challenging.

The number one cause of hypervigilance is unpredictable and inconsistent leadership. It’s a common misconception that the worst kind of boss is tough and demanding. Actually, the most stressful kind of boss is the unpredictable one because no one around them knows what’s safe, what the rules and expectations are, or what’s out of bounds.

An unpredictable leader will destabilize the entire organization, causing confusion about roles, responsibilities, accountability. A boss who says one thing and does another is far worse than a boss who always says “no” or always says “yes.”

Being cut off from their emotions. When work cultures shame or punish displays of emotion, people instinctively start to bury their feelings. Even if it’s just one emotion that isn’t allowed (anger, fear, or disappointment), the consequence is the same for all emotions: turning off one emotion means muting all the others too.

Leaders may think they’re creating happy workplaces when they forbid conflict, but they’re just causing their employees to turn off their excitement and passion, too. In order for anyone’s emotion to be leveraged, all emotions need to be named, experienced, and processed.

Quitting. It goes without saying that if your organization has a high turnover rate, looking into the ways that people are being denied meaningful connections is a good place to start addressing the problem.

Checking out. People leave mentally long before they actually quit. This leads to mediocrity, compounded by the overwork of the people who must make up for those who have checked out.


Less Work Is Not Always the Answer

Of course, time off is helpful. People should rest, rejuvenate, and care for themselves. Sometimes time off is crucial for people to self-regulate or reemerge from overwhelm.

But extra vacation days or reassigning an individual’s projects are not the solutions to burnout that’s caused by failure to connect. In fact, those “do less work” approaches are likely to backfire. When an employee believes that the only way to feel valued and connected is by working harder and harder, taking away their project or sending them home for a week is going to feel cataclysmic to them.

They don’t need “time off”; they need more humane and quality “time on.”


Stopping Burnout Starts with Valuing the Whole Person

At the beginning of any organization’s engagement, we start with four learning blocks: deep listening, cultural competency, understanding identity, and understanding power dynamics.

Essentially, we build equity of voice—everyone gets to share their story. Everyone gets heard and seen, and not just for their work product, but for their histories, identities, differences, and full selves.

So much hinges on welcoming our full humanity. When people know their full value is greater than their work product, they can:

  • Build better relationships. Their perspective becomes: “I offer deep listening to others because now I know being seen and heard feels good.”
  • Hold space for disagreement. They believe: “We all have different stories that shape our worldview.”
  • Handle healthy conflict. They realize: “Disagreement doesn’t mean I am any less valued or whole.”
  • Get curious. They ask: “This problem isn’t personal, so what’s it really about?”.

If burnout is the betrayal of connection, then deep listening and the valuing of the humanity of every employee are the crucial beginnings of the authentic, better, deeper, and more meaningful connections that we all crave.

MJ Mathis and Nick Obando Leadership Coaches and Facilitators at
Leverage to Lead

Kim Ho Head of Human Resources at Leverage to Lead

Aubrey Jones Head of Talent Advisement at Leverage to Lead

Melody S. Gee freelance creative content strategist