Fatima Syed: I’m tired all the time. I’m doing much less than I normally do. I’m not commuting, I’m not entertaining. I’m just sitting in front of my computer trying to work, but I’m accomplishing way less. I don’t know where the time goes. It takes me so much longer to write a simple email. I feel like I’m working all the time. I don’t know what the date is. I don’t even remember what I did yesterday. I love my job, but I also hate my job.
Does any of this sound familiar? You, like me, like so many, many of us are probably suffering workplace burnout. Burnout is more than a mental health issue. It’s a form of deep exhaustion. It’s an issue of being overloaded and having no break from that overload. During the pandemic, it’s become our base temperature. It’s our perpetual state of mind. It’s our lives, and it’s causing us to quit our jobs. Welcome to the Great Resignation.
A new study by RBC found that the number of people who left their jobs in June tripled compared to the same month in 2020. RBC expects 125,000 people to retire in the second half of the year as baby boomers just opt out of the daily grind. Managers are worried and trying to keep people by offering all kinds of mental health and wellness benefits. But nothing’s working because we’re still not addressing the root causes of burnout. What we need is a new kind of corporate workplace that doesn’t make us feel this way. So how do we do that?
I’m Fatima Syed sitting in for Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Karen Ho is a senior reporter who covers sustainability for Business Insider based in New York. If you’re on Twitter, you may know her as Doom-Scrolling Lady. Hey, Karen, thanks for being here.
Karen Ho: Thanks so much for having me.
Fatima Syed: So I want to talk about burnout, but not any kind of burnout. I want to talk about workplace burnout because I’ve been seeing a lot of jarring statistics about it, and there’s some scary phrases like ‘The Great Resignation’ being thrown around as well. And I wonder if I could start by just asking you, what is workplace burnout and why is it such a concerning thing right now?
Karen Ho: So workplace burnout is a really specific feeling of exhaustion, helplessness, and lack of direction, about their progress in the workplace, about their contributions to their team, or also to their overall organization. And it’s also the feeling specifically that there is nothing within their control to fix the situation and that there isn’t an end to this feeling of high level stress and exhaustion. It’s beyond the characteristic of not having enough hours in the day or a really high workload. It’s this perpetual feeling of literally running out of gas in the tank and that no amount of sleep, even like time off or vacation time, will be enough to rectify the situation.
Fatima Syed: And it’s different from mental health, right? I feel like a lot of people equate the two things, but the World Health Organization characterizes it very differently from mental health and wellness. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Karen Ho: I think it’s very important the distinction because it’s the distinction between a much larger systemic problem in regards to things like expectations for productivity or lack of discussion regarding real systemic issues such as racial discrimination or gender pay gaps. And so mental health is taking care of things like treating depression and anxiety. What are the circumstances that allow people to make sure that they are feeling appreciated and that their contributions are recognized? And there are people who are experiencing burnout who have done all the normal things, they’re trying exercise, that are seeing a therapist, taking medication, and trying to get enough sleep aren’t enough. Burnout is something indicative of a larger problem beyond individual actions and responsibility.
Fatima Syed: It seems like there’s a lot of, like I said, major concerning statistics coming out from both the US and Canada and around the world. I was looking at a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US which showed that more than 3.6 million people quit their jobs in May this year, and a report by Monster.com found that 95% of workers are considering leaving their jobs in Canada. RBC found that the number of people who left their jobs in June tripled compared to the same month in 2020. What’s causing this? I mean, burnout seems to be like a normal part of workplace for as long as I remember. But why is it so severe that people are now actively seeking to leave work?
Karen Ho: I think, based on the amount of people who have died and also experience what we term as Long COVID, which is long term side effects and symptoms of COVID 19 as a result of being affected by the virus, the infectious disease. There has been a large scale reexamination of how are spending a vast majority of our time, even professions in which people were willing to suffer, quite frankly, a lot like whether be in food service, in the airline industry, or even in high stress positions in, say, finance or law or health care. The original mission of why these people got into these careers and joined these organizations has been put into serious re examination. And so people are saying, if it’s not the money, if it’s not the prestige, if it’s not, you know, the bragging rights for this position, why am I here?
And so people are really thinking about what are the crucial priorities. Is it spending more time with my family? Is it remembering, like, what makes me happy? If it’s not where I am spending a lot of my time and my energy, then it’s like, where is it elsewhere? And I think, finally, people are really re examining what is their workplace culture, places that are saying, Oh, we expect people to return full time to the office five days a week, which requires anywhere from an hour of commuting each way. We know from census data that people are often commuting alone in cards in places where there isn’t public transportation access. That is a lot of time and stress and energy for a lot of people when they’ve been working from home. We’ve seen a lot of minorities talk about not having to code switch at work or deal with microaggressions and co workers not learning their names.
So I think all of that is prompting a real serious re-examination, especially as we’re getting closer to the beginning of the start of the school year and companies are starting to announce what their return to office policies are. Also, the market right now is moving very rapidly. There are people moving around. They have, in many cases, relocated to other places in Canada and the US for better work-life balance. And they are not eager to return to their former locations just for the sake of their jobs.
Fatima Syed: Yeah, but I wonder, even though we’re working from home, somehow, it feels like during the pandemic, the work has increased, like there’s just more to do or it just never ends. And I think that’s contributing to our burnout, too. So one of the things I’m interested in learning more about from you is what can companies do? And specifically, what can managers do, whether you’re like a CEO or a middle manager? What can you actually do to lessen the feeling of burnout? I remember reading that Bumble, LinkedIn, and Hootsuite apparently have been giving their staff an entire week off. Shopify has instituted arrest and refuel Friday system globally. Marriott has added three paid take care days off for long weekends for non hotel staffers. Are these effective solutions, do you think? Or are we avoiding the root causes of burnout?
Karen Ho: I think they’re important first steps, especially in the United States. There’s a culture, and increasingly in Canada, there’s a culture of not taking your allotted paid type off. We have the data showing this to be true. And so providing a culture in which people are actively encouraged to take time off and not answer their phones, not answer their emails, I think is very, very important.
There has been this also culture, unfortunately, and the rise in contract work and also the gig economy, where people feel like they have to turn everything that they do into content where they have to maximize their time. And we have entrepreneurs and executives who encourage people, especially in their 20s, to work as much as possible for long term gains at the expense of their physical and mental health. In addition to time off, there needs to be a recognition that there’s still a global pandemic, there intersectional, overlapping ongoing crises regarding the economy, regarding race, regarding things like people’s personal lives, quite frankly. I know people who are going through divorce or they’re struggling to get jobs right out of College or University. And even if you have a job you’re worried about, say, your kids and how they’re performing at school. Like I said, if you are part of a diaspora, you’re really concerned about lack of vaccine access and things like the flooding that has happened in several parts of the world. And so I think acknowledging all of that mental and physical strain is really, really important.
I think leaders who are often white men have to acknowledge this, that these circumstances for their staff have long term implications. And the best things managers and executives and leaders can do is empathize and say, like, I might not be going through it, but I know that this is something that you didn’t want to happen. And what is the best way that we can work on going forward? What do people need? Is it beyond the six counseling sessions from EAP plans, providing process plans so that people feel empowered to take vacation time and that they’re not going to let their coworkers down, reminding people that they haven’t taken their vacation time and that it is important?
Fatima Syed: Well, it’s also more than that, right? It’s like, I know so many people who take vacation time or take days off to cope with this feeling of burnout, but then they still have a list of things to do. And then that just sort of exacerbates the burnout feeling where even though you might not be checking your work email, you still have things that you’ve been neglecting at work. There might be a project that you haven’t had time to do, or there might have been, like a call or coffee that you’ve wanted to have with someone for a long time for something That you’ll do on your day off, because that’s the only time you can find for it. And it’s sort of this vicious cycle of never ending. So I sometimes wonder if managers should be not just facilitating days off, but then also guiding employees and workers on how to actually manage those days off. That it’s okay if you haven’t replied to emails for weeks or something like that.
Karen Ho: There has to be an understanding that people have limited capacities, right. There shouldn’t be an expectation of people working 10 or 12 hour days. There is an expectation, especially for women and people of colour, to continue to say Yes in the workplace and sacrifice their physical and mental health or leisure time and their free time in order to satisfy these expectations, these unspoken expectations without any sort of certainty regarding recognition or additional pay or performance recognition. There needs to be communication from their managers that it’s okay for them to say, Hey, I have too much on my plate right now. If you want me to do this, then this is what has to be given up. Or this is what’s reasonable for me to complete in this amount of time. I think there has to be, there has to be a reduction in pressure for us to do everything.
Fatima Syed: Yeah. It’s the idea that just because I have, like, over 800 emails in my inbox doesn’t mean that I’m a failure or that I’m not doing good work. It’s sort of helping recalibrate your brain to realize that you don’t have to do everything to do your best work.
Karen Ho: Yeah. And also, like, how can you do it in a way that, like just letting people know. Like I think small acts, just like I tell people all the time I love them and I appreciate them or like that their work is meaningful to me. And I can see how much of an impact that has on other people because it feels like sometimes people are islands. We don’t know the amount of if what we’re doing matters, and I think that can be really, really small and impactful and meaningful. But going back to your original question, what corporations need to do is they need to have a really aggressive re-examination of what their workplace culture means and what does it need to support their people. It has to be a holistic, systemic approach.
So what are the reasons for burnout, which is just this expectation that people are going to answer Slack or email on the weekends, being explicit as much as possible, saying this is the time when it’s appropriate. Or also leading by example, saying, I’m sending this email now after five o’clock, I don’t expect you to. Things like that. I also say very specifically with everyone that I work with, I was like, I want to make sure that we have this process in place so people feel empowered to take time off. Or like, we all know what the expectations are, and so we can adjust accordingly ahead of time, because I think that’s the thing that this moment is really helping people reassess. How often is it feeling necessary to meet in person? You know, I’m going to have a 15 minute commute. I know a lot of people won’t, so I don’t expect other people to go into the office as often as I do.
And then also, to your point, I think there needs to be a re-examination for expectations. I think about fields like food service and how much people on the front lines of food service have dealt with the last year and a half. And it’s really up to the managers and leaders at those organizations to say we do not tolerate abuse and harassment from customers. The customer is not right in this case. You know, like, if it’s not okay, they need to speak out and say, our staff do not deserve this abuse. And if you treat our staff this way, you are banned, and we will not tolerate it from anybody, regardless of who they are. And then, quite frankly, there also has to be a stigma regarding people who perpetuate hustle culture for too long. Like on LinkedIn and TikTok and Twitter and all these platforms. This idea of grinding was advocated as an attitude to emulate. And it has to be really scrutinized for, like, why that is incredibly harmful and not possible for a lot of people. And who does it hurt long term?
Fatima Syed: I personally know I have a friend who left finance during the pandemic. Right. I have another friend who left government during the pandemic. My salon lady has left work. I personally know people who have chosen to leave because of workplace burnout and are now looking for something else or are currently in, they have found something else that is giving them more balance now that we talked about earlier. But at the same time, there’s a dichotomy. Right? The pandemic has wrecked the economy. Kids are having trouble finding jobs out of University and parents are struggling to stay at work and stay motivated at work, and some are deciding to leave as we’re seeing in the numbers. Should companies be concerned? Should society be concerned that this ‘Great Resignation’ is happening, or is there a way for us to embrace it and then move towards what you’re saying? A better workplace culture where burnout isn’t such a strong feature.
Karen Ho: So companies should be concerned because every time somebody leaves, there’s a lot, it’s really expensive to replace them. There’s loss of institutional knowledge. It also costs a lot of money to find a new person to replace them. And you’ve lost out on everything that person could contribute to the organization long term. So they should be concerned.
Then there’s also the temporary loss in income tax revenues and spending as a result of people taking that time off to figure out what they’re going to do next. Right? Like there is a government implication as well for people making these moves if they haven’t immediately found a new job. There is economic and financial reasons for people to be concerned at the government and the corporate level. There is a real opportunity right now. The organizations that will be successful are the ones that are figuring out actively and aggressively how to retain people and attract people. How are they providing a workplace culture that is amenable to remote employees, to emphasizing work-life balance in a way that helps people perform at their best without sacrificing their physical and mental wellbeing for the short and long term, and especially when there is a large population participating in ‘The Great Resignation’.
There is immense power at the worker level compared to at the leadership level. And right now we’re seeing that in increased wages for what we call low skill entry level jobs. Right? In food service, in retail, even like jobs like summer camps or like all these kinds of positions. Then there’s also real concern in regards to, especially in places like Canada, where health care is provincially and federally funded. There has to be serious concern regarding burnout in the medical community, because right now there’s a cyclical thing regarding shortages for positions like nurses and emergency room doctors as a result of the pandemic. So that is a serious concern both at the corporate and at the government level.
Then to the positions that you highlighted. I’m curious about what those people will do in terms of figure out what they’re going to do next, whether they’re going to go back to school, whether they’ll pursue training, whether they’ll pursue a new type of career. Like a basic thing for burnout is also, like people who are tired of being underpaid or knowing that there was a pay gap or knowing that leadership didn’t speak out regarding things like race and discrimination, and there’s a level of accountability that needs to dramatically shift. Right. Ironically, I cover sustainability, but it’s really about operations management and the way that things used to be done, dramatically changing as result of the warming climate and the pandemic. And the thing that I think is really important right now in regards to burnout is just fundamentally the reexamination of how governments and corporations have been operating for a long time is not modern, right? It’s fundamentally not modern.
Fatima Syed: And it’s not sustainable, as we’re seeing with people leaving.
Karen Ho: No, like, why are we expecting people to commute all at once at the same time, you know, like to one place, buy lunch, dress up in a certain way, and then all drive home at the same time? Like, and we have been doing that for decades now and the expectation for stuff like that. And so there’s a huge opportunity for really thinking about new ways and being flexible and also saying, what can we do differently so that everybody gets what they’re due? You know, I think there was a huge shock when Iceland announced that they were going to, like, four days a week and allowing people, like, three day weekends and there was no hit to productivity. If companies are not taking that seriously, it’s going to really hurt, and then it’s going to affect their recovery too, over the next year, for sure. And we can already see that in the reporting that’s been going on. And also in terms of the statistics, like you said, in terms of people submitting their letters of resignation.
Fatima Syed: Could ‘The Great Resignation’ lead to the great new, sustainable, balanced workplace?
Karen Ho: Hopefully for more people than not, I really hope so. And quite frankly, it’s really overdue. We cannot underestimate or properly recognize the seriousness. These are adults. Like, people are making this decision and this huge economic upheaval and unemployment and, quite frankly, a lot of casualties. Right. Like, people have seen their parents die, the rent to still due, mortgage payments are still due, car payments are still due. And people are making this decision anyway. That’s enormously serious. And I think it’s really, really important that we have to treat it as seriously as as possible, because that decision is never made lightly, I think. People don’t resign without really good reason.
Fatima Syed: Well, thank you for walking us through that, Karen, and giving us so much to think about.
Karen Ho: Thank you so much for having me.
Fatima Syed: That was Karen Ho, a senior reporter who covers sustainability for Business Insider. And that was The Big Story. You can find more at thebigstorypodcast.ca. If you want to send us a message, you can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Fatima Syed. Thanks for listening.
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