Self-care won’t cure burnout at work (review of The Burnout Epidemic by Jennifer Moss)

Your team’s exhausted and burning out.

Because you’re a leader who cares, you’re ready to pick up the tab for lunch hour yoga classes, a mindfulness and resilience workshop and a meditation app. You’re also planning to invite everyone to skip work next Friday and spend the day at your place for a catered barbecue, pool party and an epic game of ultimate frisbee.

Hold that thought, and not just because forced fun is a slow death for introverts and co-workers should never see each other in swimwear.

Your self-care intentions are good but it won’t fix what ails your team.

“Burnout can’t be stretched out of people in yoga classes or sweated out of them at the gym,” says Jennifer Moss, journalist and author of The Burnout Epidemic.

“Burnout doesn’t care if they breathe better or deeper. And it most certainly isn’t prevented by suggesting that maybe if they just listened to the sound of rainfall for 30 seconds instead of 15. This is the psychology of leaders in denial.”

Burnout is a sign that something’s seriously wrong with your organization’s culture. Look for one or more of these six roots causes of burnout: imposed or self-inflicted chronic overwork, micromanaging with little to no autonomy, no meaningful rewards or recognition for a job well done, strained relationships with coworkers and supervisors, a real or perceived lack of fairness and a values mismatch between employees and employer.

“Burnout is a complex constellation of poor workplace practices and policies, antiquated institutional legacies, roles and personalities at higher risk, and systemic, societal issues that have been left unchanged, plaguing us for far too long,” says Moss. A focus on self-care solutions makes burnout a “me” rather than “we” problem and absolves leaders from taking responsibility to clean up poor organizational hygiene.

The real cure for burnout comes from tackling those six root causes. And how do you figure out which of these problems haunt your team? Ask them. Let them answer anonymously. Act on what you’re told  and then report back on what you’re doing to clean up your organizational hygiene.  

“Yes, we need to help our people develop the skills that support their mental health and happiness,” says Moss. “But, to battle burnout, we’re talking a different game. Though employees are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, it is our responsibility to provide the conditions that support, and not detract, from their happiness. Burnout occurs when those conditions fail.”

Pay particular attention to younger employees who are at the highest risk of burnout, says Moss. They tend to have less autonomy at work, lower seniority, greater financial pressures and deeper feelings of loneliness.

Address the root causes of burnout and you’ll earn your team’s trust and respect. They’ll know that you genuinely care. Your concern for their well-being won’t come across as lip service or a public relations exercise meant to impress the outside world and score best places to work awards and accolades.

And once you’ve cleaned up your organizational hygiene, that’s when you can revisit your well-intentioned self-care classes, workshops and apps.  Just continue holding off on that stress-inducing backyard pool party.  A Randstad USA survey found that 90 per cent of workers would rather get a bonus or extra vacation day than attend a company holiday party. A party where everyone’s wearing beachwear likely gets you to 100 per cent.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and calls Hamilton home.