No one can ignore the toll COVID-19 and issues flowing from it have taken on the American workforce. How many more stories of first responders, physicians, parents all at their wits’ end, facing something they had never experienced before: Burnout.
We’ve all heard the term, but do you know what it is, how to spot it in family, friends and co-workers? Most importantly, what can be done about this life-endangering condition? What can we do if burnout haunts family or friends at work?
In a well-researched, just-released book, The Burnout Epidemic, author Jennifer Moss describes and suggests lifesaving ways of “recognizing and responding to burnout.”
In my legal opinion, it should be considered as required reading for CEOs and upper-management-level employees; it is that valuable.
Jennifer began our interview by noting that, “A great deal of misinformation about this phenomenon tends to minimize just how serious a problem it is.” She describes the ways that management — and employees — are failing to deal with it.
1. Managers don’t see burnout when it’s right in front of them
Consequences: Not recognizing the signs of burnout and prioritizing a response to it in your organization leads to misdiagnosing the problem. One example is labeling employees as underperforming when they are actually chronically stressed. This is causing a huge exodus from employment in numbers not seen before.
2. Employees don’t admit to themselves that something is terribly wrong
Consequences: Workers are falling off the cliff from burnout, leading to long-term unemployment, resulting in a nationwide economic impact. The evening news — where tearful health care professionals admit to being resentful of COVID patients who refuse to be vaccinated — is the perfect example of what burnout does to people. They lose empathy and quit caring.
It is a true psychological disorder, the result of chronic stress, that has a profound impact on brain function. For employees, the following feelings are indicators of burnout:
- A sense of failure and self-doubt.
- Feeling helpless, trapped, defeated.
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world.
- Loss of motivation. “Just going through the motions.”
- An increasingly cynical and negative outlook. Anger.
- Greatly decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.
- Gastrointestinal issues, headaches, anxiety. Extreme fatigue. Insomnia.
3. Managers falsely believe that burnout suddenly appears and can just as suddenly vanish.
Consequences: Many managers don’t know what to look for, or fail to acknowledge burnout when it’s there. They fail to address the mental health among employees with high-stress jobs, believing that the only time someone is in trouble is when they hit a wall, don’t show up for a shift or go home in tears.
It isn’t something that just happens one day. There is a point where it can be dealt with, but if not, a remedy becomes far more difficult. Management needs to prioritize mental health. Co-workers should be aware of and look for these typical outward signs of burnout and encourage those exhibiting them to seek professional help:
- Increased absenteeism.
- Impaired focus. “She often seems to be physically exhausted.”
- Disengagement. “I used to care, but I just don’t anymore.”
- Being overly sensitive to feedback in a way that’s greatly different from their usual positive attitude.
- Keeping away from others. Isolation.
- Headaches, nausea, loss of appetite or weight gain, as food becomes a coping mechanism.
- Decreased productivity. Inability to catch up. More errors.
“Overwork and burnout contributed to more than 745,000 deaths worldwide in just one year,” concluded a World Health Organization study reported in Psychology Today. “People working 55 or more hours per week have an estimated 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who work 35-40 hours a week.”
4. They fail to recognize the risk inherent in their whole field.
For example, lawyers, physicians, financial, insurance and tax advisers, health care — people in caregiver/lifesaving roles are more vulnerable. Certain occupations, such as police, nursing, EMT, firefighters — often due to low staffing — essentially obligate employees to work overtime or take on additional shift work.
Consequences: People who are attracted to these occupations generally have Type-A personalities, high levels of compassion, and tend to be perfectionists. If you are looking for a strong predictor of hitting the wall, it’s members of these groups.
Many lawyers, a field that has extremely high levels of burnout, work in law firms that require 2,000 billable hours or more a year, which represent only a fraction of the actual hours worked. As these firms define job success by billable hours, employees are pushed to overwork, sacrifice their own health for that of a client’s satisfaction, and pleasing senior partners.
The invisible goal is to advance — the billable hours tell their boss that they are performing, while the amount of overwork contributes to burnout.
I asked Jennifer, “How can family and friends help?”
“When you hear, ‘I’m fine,’ read between the lines. If they say things like, ‘I am so tired. It will never change. It will always be like this,” these are warning signs you must not ignore. Get them to a mental health counselor regardless of their protest. You may very well be saving their life.”
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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