Bernie Wong | Senior Associate, Mind Share Partners
“It’s a challenge when you are a young, black journalist.” Imade Nibokun is an award-winning writer, journalist and founder of an online movement called “Depressed While Black.” In a previous role, Imade recalls seeing news pieces every day about the black community and police brutality.
“All I saw on the cover of my own publication were black people with mugshots. It was traumatizing… How do you fight the system when you are working for the system?”
As the toll of these stories grew, Imade sought the consult of her managers and shared how she was really struggling when readers would say negative things about her work. They told Imade that she would just be letting the readers win if she gave up. Despite the fact that Imade was already seeing a therapist, she felt disempowered with little support from her team within an emotionally taxing environment. Imade ultimately left the company.
With increasing awareness about mental health at work and the World Health Organization’s recent classification of burnout as a growing occupational syndrome, companies have begun to invest in resources like mental health benefits, “mental health days,” meditation rooms and mindfulness apps to support employees in challenging environments like Imade. While resources like therapy and time off are imperative as basic necessities for employee well-being, experts say they are fundamentally ineffective to combating burnout.
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The Cause of Employee Burnout Is The Workplace, Not Employees
The WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is clearly tied to factors at work, but what actually causes burnout? And where does the onus lie in its successful management?
Imade was faced with emotionally triggering content on a daily basis. She felt unsupported by her leadership and ultimately a sense of powerlessness due to the inability to change the “system.” A 2017 meta-analysis looking across 25 studies on burnout found that these very factors—emotional exhaustion, low workplace support, and low job control—played the strongest role in causing burnout. These are followed by factors like workplace justice, job demands, high workload, low reward, and job insecurity—all related to the work and the workplace itself. The WHO cites similar workplace causes to burnout.
Research on industries notorious for burnout reflect similar findings. For physicians, the factors most strongly tied to burnout include inefficient work processes, long and overnight work hours and its impact on work-life conflict. For mental health providers like social workers, organizational factors like climate and transformational leadership style played the biggest role. And take recent press about surrounding the mental health of content moderators. These employees are tasked with vetting content across a variety of media platforms. In doing so, they are exposed to the extremes of racism, bullying, violence and sexual assault for multiple hours a day, several days a week, which has ultimately resulted in reports by both current and former employees of PTSD-related symptoms, self-harm, and even suicide.
The burnout epidemic is further complicated for historically marginalized and underrepresented communities that often face additional workplace challenges. 37% of LGBTQ+ and 90% of transgender individuals report recent harassment at work, and 76% of ethnic minority employees report at least one unwanted race-based behavior at work. Not only that, but when these communities seek treatment, many face language barriers and can even be less likely to receive guideline-consistent care.
Anything Besides Company Culture Change To Prevent Employee Burnout Is Only Helping Them Cope
In an effort to curb the impact of burnout and support employee mental health, companies have begun investing in mental health benefits, time off and a variety of other resources like meditation rooms, mindfulness apps, yoga classes, and other perks. However, burnout experts disagree with this approach.
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Christina Maslach, Ph.D., one of today’s pioneering researchers on burnout, wrote in a 2001 study: “Most discussions of burnout interventions focus primarily on individual-centered solutions, such as removing the worker from the job, or individual strategies for the worker… This is particularly paradoxical given that the research has found that situational and organizational factors play a bigger role in burnout than individual ones.” And in a recent article in Harvard Business Review, she states definitively: “the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual.”
This isn’t to say that supporting mental health at the individual level doesn’t have its benefits. Up to 80% of individuals can live symptom-free with the right treatment, and mental health days and time off can lower stress and improve productivity upon return. Individualized approaches to mental health can teach employees effective strategies manage stress, burnout, and mental health conditions both in and outside of work. However, without fundamentally evaluating and solving for organizational climate, culture and the nature of work itself, we are simply teaching employees how to cope through work rather than truly supporting their mental health.
Due to a lack of effective solutions that take a comprehensive approach to burnout, we see its impact through the $17 billion (PDF) and 217 days lost in the U.S. every year from absenteeism and presenteeism caused by largely unsupported mental health conditions. Due to a lack of effective solutions, younger generations are increasingly leaving companies altogether for their mental health. In our 2019 report, 50% of Millennials and 75% of Gen-Z employees had left past roles due to mental health reasons, compared to 34% of all respondents.
Mind Share Partners recently shared a panel with Maslach, where she effectively summarized the issue: “They say, ‘If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen...’ But why is the kitchen so hot in the first place?”
How Do We Combat Employee Burnout, Really?
Burnout isn’t a result of the individual’s inability to cope—it’s about workplace culture. Admittedly, many of the factors causing burnout, such as work hours, compensation and workload, are challenging to solve at a systemic let alone organizationally. Still, a few companies like Gravity Payments have taken pioneering steps, such as establishing a $70,000 company minimum wage.
That said, there are still many other factors that are within a managers’ sphere of influence that can begin to combat burnout outside of salary and benefits. These can look like flexible working options, norms around email responsiveness outside business hours, and even modeling vulnerability themselves to ensure the conversation around burnout and other mental health challenges is normalized.
At a company-level, an open culture of support for mental health must be communicated top-down. Buffer cofounder and CEO Joel Gascoigne did just this by sharing his own story of burnout and encouraging a culture of authenticity. He coupled this with a virtual employee resource group on Slack to drive peer-to-peer support from the ground up. And business leaders like Kayak cofounder Paul English has shared openly about how his experience with bipolar helped his business success, reframing the narrative around mental health at work.
Burnout and workplace mental health challenges have been issues long covered under the guise of sick days, sabbaticals, career transitions and the everyday “I’m good, how are you?” Only recently have companies begun dedicating time and resources to the issue. Unfortunately, efforts thus far have been misdirected in an attempt to solve for the individual rather than culture. Companies and leaders themselves must do better.
Companies who invest in workplace mental health yield a 4x return on investment and can increase productivity, improve retention, and support diversity & inclusion. Learn more.
Bernie is a Senior Associate at Mind Share Partners. He focuses primarily on organization programming, marketing, and design. Prior to Mind Share Partners, Bernie was an Associate at HopeLab, a human-centered design consulting nonprofit, where he developed evidence-based products and solutions to support mental health and wellbeing.
Bernie has also worked in freelance visual design, in education at Stanford as a Head Teaching Assistant, and in editorial work and academic research. Bernie also sits on the board of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) Foundation, a grassroots philanthropic organization that provides funds and leverages resources to empower Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ students, organizations, and communities.
Bernie holds a Master of Health Science in Mental Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a B.A. in Psychology and Sociology from UC Berkeley.