March 07, 2022

How to prevent burnout in the future of work, with Jennifer Moss

Jennifer Moss is a journalist, author, speaker, and strategist driving the conversation towards healthier workplace cultures. Her new book, The Burnout Epidemic, illustrates the incredible impact of burnout using data and research to outline the dire consequences of neglecting employee well-being. Jennifer shared her own story of hitting the burnout wall in a recent webinar we hosted: “How to prevent burnout in the new future of work.” She co-founded Plasticity Labs in 2012 and was dealing with the high-stress environment of running a startup company.

“I was saying yes to everything because I was connected to the mission. I set no boundaries with myself. I was so passionate, I didn’t care about how much I was working, that I wasn’t seeing friends anymore, but I was doing most things at 60% and nothing at 100%. I had a moment where I hit the wall. I left the company that I had started, I had to abandon the work that I cared most about. I spent 6 months figuring out what my next step was going to be- ironically, as a happiness expert, burning out was really hard. That led me to advocate for how systems burn us out. That brought me to the research of the book, evangelizing the awareness of how we burn out.” 

The research shows that people tend to show little dips and recoveries when it comes to burnout – you’ll feel a wave of low energy and disinterest in your work followed by a good day, or even a good week where things are easy and in a flow. But when these little waves of burnout go unaddressed, you can hit the wall. And that’s when you’re looking at 18-24 months of recovery. 

“This is a paradigm-shifting, disrupting moment in the world of work. What are we going to do with it? Everything is open. We just have to choose which door we want to go through.” 

Jennifer Moss

This moment of total disruption is fertile ground for real change. The shift in power dynamics opens the possibility of transformation. Now is the time to reimagine these systems that have historically left us sacrificing our humanity for the sake of performance and productivity. As we continue to progress toward a new normal, how do we want to define that next chapter for ourselves? 

The cost of burnout 

  •  One trillion dollars a year is lost in productivity due to burnout. 
  • Canada and the US spend $190 billion annually in burnout-associated healthcare costs.
  • 120,000 people will die from burnout-related health issues annually in the US alone (American Institute of Stress).
  • 41% of the global workforce is looking to leave in the next three months because of burnout.

Burnout has changed a lot in the pandemic. Pre-2020 many employees fought for flexible work at home policies and believed that would increase autonomy and agency and, therefore, overall employee happiness. Then overnight, nearly two years ago, most sectors had to figure out how to work remotely. But in 2022, many desire the opportunity to reconnect. “They’re feeling atrophied, out of touch, disconnected and isolated from their colleagues and their workplaces,” says Jennifer.

“Burnout is about your organization, not your people.”

“Leaders have a responsibility to their people to prevent burnout. Pay attention to the things your people are passionate about and what incentivizes them. You’re gathering data all the time if you’re actively listening. Listen for when they’re saying, “It’s always like this… this is stressing me out… I didn’t sleep last night…’. What can you do to support your people’s real stressors?”

More time off doesn’t lessen the workload. Rest and time off is a great intention if we can make workloads sustainable, but when the workload doesn’t change, people feel punished when they come back to the same deadlines. The future of work calls for less false urgency, says Jennifer: “Urgent is subjective! We need more communication and clear definitions of what is urgent and what is not.” If you’re experiencing ever-shifting priorities, you’re at a higher risk for burnout. Jennifer offers up this two-week audit of where you spend your time and what sidetracks your day:

Spend two weeks tracking: 

  1. What do you work on each day? How often did an urgent need pop-up that bumped a different priority off your plate? 
  2. When do your original priorities get tended to? (Weekends, nights?) 
  3. Who are the stakeholders to whom you are responsible? Prioritize them.
  4. Where could technical skills or other resources help in carrying the load?
  5. Where are you taking on stress given to you by other people? 

At the end of your two-week audit, sit down with your leaders and align on the priorities. It’s a fact-based conversation, not an emotional one, and you’re proactively communicating before you’re already burned out. Jennifer: “There are a lot of inefficiencies that happen because employees and leaders aren’t aligned on priorities. Maybe you don’t have resources in the moment, but you can advocate for a plan with the data that you’ve collected.”

“We can’t solve burnout with self care alone.” 

Only about 30% of the global workforce enjoy their jobs. Jennifer says: “Workers want to gain new skills, novelty and shifts are important to us. If we can’t grow, we tend to burn out. Preventing burnout is so that you can grow in your career.” There are paradoxes here. We need to figure out how you can strengthen your reserves and use them when they’re needed rather than living in a state of surge capacity all the time. That’s where we are at right now. We’ve had to lean on the reserves for too long- thinking about stretch goals might feel intimidating, but without them, that’s a worst-case scenario. 

Jennifer Moss’s post-burnout mantra: You can have anything, but not everything. 

We’re experiencing a paradigm shift in the world of work. We have the opportunity to define where we’re heading. To do so responsibly, leaders need to spend time identifying core values and maybe even a little time with their mortality. Jennifer says, “I think in terms of deathbed regrets. What are you willing to sacrifice for work?” What matters most? What do you want to be as a human being, in general?”

If we’re going to fight burnout, we have to start by respecting employees’ humanity, that we all have a finite amount of time on earth, and we spend much of it working. To prevent burnout, we could start by centering the humans doing the work, and remembering that we’re all only given one precious life. 

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