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With reports of long hours, chronic stress and burnout rising in sectors of the workforce, it might be time to reformulate the burnout narrative.
While burnout in the workplace has long been a pervasive phenomenon, rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Amid lockdowns, caregiving responsibilities and a public health emergency, global data shows more workers are reporting chronic stress and burnout: According to a March 2021 study of 1,500 US workers per hiring platform. 19 pandemic.
But three years later, there is little evidence that burnout is abating. In the new world of work, large parts of the workforce still say they are burned out. Rates keep rising: In a February 2023 survey of 10,243 workers worldwide by US think tank Future Forum,42% reported burnout, the highest reading since May 2021.
In theory, flexible working arrangements would mean better work-life balance, productivity and well-being for employees.Conversations about burnouthave increased and companies seem more willing to offer employeesAdvantageslike gym memberships and home office expenses, which intuitively should help mitigate stressors that lead to burnout.
But despite these factors, reports of burnout continue to grow and the phenomenon can no longer be associated solely with the pandemic. Its prevalence suggests it's here to stay for the long haul, even as companies make workplace adjustments. With this in mind, experts say employers and employees may need to focus on managing burnout rather than trying to eliminate it entirely.
A longstanding problem
Burnout was a growing problem even before the pandemic. That's according to a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 American workers67% experienced burnoutat work. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included it in their International Classification of Diseases and defined it as “professional phenomenon', rather than a medical condition.
Whileextreme work cultureand grueling hours have passedglorifiedIn some cases, the conversation about burnout has largely shifted to acknowledging its seriousness. Data has been part of this attitude trend: a May 2021 study by the WHO and the International Labor Organization produced an estimateThree quarters of a million people die every yearischemic heart disease and stroke due to long working hours.
Many workers are still struggling to catch up on their personal and professional well-being to this day - Sean Gallagher
"Even before COVID-19, we saw that burnout had evolved from being an occupational hazard in some high-status, high-stress jobs to something more of a public health issue," explains Alex Soojung-Kim Pang of California. , author of Rest: Why You Do More When You Work Less.
The main causes of burnout include heavy and long-lasting workload, constant overwork andToxic plants. Pang says such practices have been common in the workplace for decades. "Many companies have felt justified in demanding long hours from their employees and doing the maximum work for them in order to improve the bottom line."
Traditionally, companies have left the responsibility for managing burnout to employees. "They see it more as a worker's responsibility: it's something that happens to you," says Pang. “It is generally treated in the same category as health and fitness and not as a phenomenon permitted by the employer as a result of specific working conditions. Burnout is an organizational problem that is left to the individual.”
why is it going up
When the pandemic hit, already existing work problems like dealing with daily stress and career anxiety were greatly exacerbated by the constant uncertainty of the health crisis.
Sean Gallagher, director of the Center for the New Workforce at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, says it has a "spike effect" for workers. In global surveys, Australian employees are often among themost burned in the world.
“Workers not only experienced mental health issues stemming from isolation and not knowing if they had work the next day, but they also had to balance caring responsibilities with a new way of working,” adds Gallagher. "There was a residual burnout effect: many workers are still struggling to regain their personal and professional well-being."
While remote and hybrid working have given employees more autonomy, flexibility can also come at a price. Working days have been lengthened, according to an April 2022 survey by the ADP Research Institute of 32,924 workers worldwideEmployees worked 8.5 hours of unpaid overtime each week, compared to 7.3 hours before the pandemic.
Burnout has only increased amid the pandemic, and many workers are having to fix the problem themselves (Credit: Getty Images)
"Too often, that can mean the work never stops," says Pang. “You can be reached anywhere, 24 hours a day. As with burnout, workers often have a responsibility to resolve issues arising from flexible work, where they often try to balance as much as possible between home and work commitments.”
The new workplace also creates new reasons for overwork. “We found that bad habits of remote work formed in our communication, such as For example, at a meeting, an email would suffice,” says Gallagher. "It leaves workers less time in their workday to concentrate and handle heavy workloads, and forcing them to regularly work beyond contract hours to catch up leaves them exhausted."
Although some employers have recognized the need to care about the welfare of workers, they often fail to provide them with adequate resources. Pang cites the example of big tech companies and the lavish perks on the site. "Perks like dry cleaning and sushi chefs help keep the employee in the office as long as possible, rather than reducing burnout," he says. "In effect, you create a comfortable workspace for people to work themselves to death."
Employers often don't address the underlying issues that cause burnout, Gallagher says, instead offering employees benefits that only mask the symptoms. "Offering meditation or yoga apps to workers from time to time isn't a bad thing, but it's a temporary fix and patch for structural problems: excessive hours, overwork, and uncertainty about flexible work arrangements."
can you finish
Pang and Gallagher say current employment practices mean burnout is inevitable in some cases.
"In fact, there should only be a fraction of jobs where burnout should occur — when repeated risk-taking could save lives," says Pang. "But right now, in far too many workplaces, it comes down to an individual's tolerance for long hours, overwork and fatigue, whether they suffer from it or not."
Alongside the high rates, some experts believe broader economic concerns mean the depletion is likely to persist over the long term. "Away from work, employees also have to deal with tremendous pressure on the cost of living," says Gallagher. “Inflation is worse, layoffs are taking place and workers are afraid of losing their homes. So it wouldn't be surprising if burnout levels continued to worsen." Add to that the current childcare crisis and ongoing instabilityespecially for parents a complicating factor worldwide. A May 2022 Ohio State University report showed this66% of working parents in the US meet burnout criteria.
It is designed to create a comfortable workplace for people who work to death - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
As long as there are workplaces where workers are exposed to chronic stress, overwork and long hours, burnout has become an integral part. However, according to Pang, more and more organizations are beginning to recognize that they bear the responsibility for the burden of burnout. “We are gradually moving away from a world where burnout was entirely individual based, and realizing that organizational solutions are key. It is widely recognized that workplace factors contribute to burnout and that a worker suffering from burnout can have negative consequences for the organization as a whole.”
In some cases, the change could take the form of legislation. For example, new laws in Australia now classifyBurnout as a risk to safety and health at work, which means managers have a legal obligation to identify and manage risks that may cause work-related stress to employeesPeak periods of heavy workload forexcessive working hours. "When work practices lead to burnout, employers now have an important obligation to pull their employees back from the brink," says Gallagher.
However, such action could take time, especially at global level, and there is still no guarantee that it will persuade employers to review their employment practices. Meanwhile, Gallagher says flexible work arrangements can be more formalized for workers and help manage their workload. "Better guidelines can clarify working hours, reduce unpaid overtime and improve work-life balance."
For now, Pang believes the narrative around burnout needs to be reconsidered given its pervasiveness. “The idea that it can be eliminated is as realistic as thinking thatcan solve the work-life balanceonce and for all,” he says. "Instead, we need to determine if the sacrifices that put us at risk of burnout for our jobs and careers are worth making."
Going forward, experts still say the goal should be to eradicate burnout. While unrealistic, it's worth seeking out: it could help reduce the most damaging effects and means fewer workers will be affected. “Mitigation is always better than doing nothing,” says Gallagher.