A new type of burnout is emerging in the workplace, according to a recent study.
We are all well-accustomed to feelings of burnout – whether it’s because we’ve been overworked, or if we are simply feeling disengaged with the work we are doing – resulting in reduced productivity and motivation.
According to the World Health Organisation, burnout typically ‘results from chronic workplace stress and is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’
But now, researchers from the University of Sheffield, Affinity Health and burnout prevention consultancy, Softer Success, are talking about a new form: ‘moral burnout.’
Supposedly more intensive, moral burnout is leaving workers feeling fearful, experiencing stress and going through emotional and physical trauma.
What is moral burnout?
Moral burnout is essentially linked to working in toxic environments.
The study looked at how morally damaging or harmful events that occur in these environments can impact people in the workplace.
It particularly looked at how moral injury – the impact that is caused by performing, witnessing, or failing to prevent an action or event that violates your own moral beliefs and values – can contribute to a more intensive form of burnout.
These morally damaging events include ’a colleague’s transgression or betrayal; unfair redundancy selection; failure to act upon a whistleblowing complaint; and leadership humiliation, manipulation or control’, according to the report.
More examples of moral injury include:
- Discriminatory treatment.
- Staff redundancies while company leaders experience pay rises.
- Leadership that involves humiliation, fear, control and manipulation.
- Poor treatment of employees who have medical emergencies or personal challenges.
These situations damage our conscious and moral compass, especially if we feel betrayed by someone we trust, or if we are left feeling powerless.
This type of moral burnout can lead to cognitive and emotional impairment, such as ‘brain fog, forgetfulness, slower reaction times and general inability to be engaged in present actions’, as a result of traumatic events or toxic environments that violate our ethical code.
Moral burnout is harder to overcome
The findings showed that when the participants in the study experienced moral stress, in most cases, they felt no choice but to resign from their job – this happened regardless of the source, severity or length of this stress.
‘In our study, we found that those who had left employment sought to make up for wrongdoing by either doing voluntary work or had set up their own businesses where they could ensure work was conducted according to their moral values. We call this moral repair,’ explains Professor Karina Nielsen from Sheffield University.
Signs you may be experiencing moral burnout, according to the study:
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed by events that have happened in the workplace.
- Feeling more fatigued.
- Constantly procrastinating.
- Feeling fearful or anxious during the day.
- Unable to switch off from work, unwind or relax.
- Having intrusive thoughts about work or worries.
- Thinking of worst-case scenarios.
- Feeling disinterested and disengaged in work/your day-to-day life.
- Emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.
How to prevent and overcome moral burnout
‘Aside from the general advice for treating burnout symptoms (take time off, learn to say no, set boundaries), there are other ways to prevent and overcome this new type of burnout,’ says burnout specialist Cara de Lange.
‘This new, more intense type of burnout could be behind some of the biggest workplace trends we’re seeing at the moment. Whether it’s The Great Resignation or Quiet Quitting, these phenomena are occurring because people can no longer work the way they have been.
‘Contrary to popular belief, people aren’t actively choosing to disengage from work. It’s more the case that they’re struggling to cope with this “always-on” hustle culture that we as a society have created, coupled with one crisis after the next.
‘For example, a pandemic, a war, global warming, the cost of living crisis and more. This way of working, combined with negative environmental factors, is a recipe for extreme burnout, and it’s simply not sustainable.
‘This study is a further sign that we need to change the way we work by addressing moral injury and burnout structurally.’
Cara offers these tips:
- ‘Get ready for the big changes you are heading towards in business by rewiring your neural pathways. With training, we can rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts and reactions. This can help us adapt to the ongoing uncertainty in the world. It can take time, but the key lies in changing your brain’s automatic response to a scenario. Positive Future Planning – writing out a future script that has a plan on how you navigate the uncertainty can also help. Expressing gratitude, showing and practicing empathy for others, and self-compassion are key ways to change your brain’s neural pathways.
- Set wellbeing goals. Whether it’s a quick five-minute meditation, a walk on your lunch break, a jog after work or making sure you eat a healthy breakfast on weekdays, setting wellbeing goals is a fantastic way to look after both your mental and physical health. Having and sticking to goals can also provide a sense of structure and achievement in difficult times.
- Finish work on time. Taking time off is a common piece of advice to burnt-out individuals, but actually finishing work on time can have an enormous impact on your wellbeing. If you find yourself working late every day, this could be a prevailing cause of burnout.
- Take control of what you can. Often when a moral injury is experienced, there is a feeling that we have no control. So it is important to take back control of what you can. For example, change the way you think about crises. Instead of sitting in fear, question your thoughts.’
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